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Using a laser cutter with sheet metal is a great method for producing high-quality parts whether it is a prototype or a full-scale production run. One of the major benefits of laser cutting is the precision, accuracy, and repeatability, and we are able to provide dimensional accuracy of ±0.13mm, and a laser kerf (the amount from which the cut width deviates) of between 0mm and 0.2mm depending on the thickness. Furthermore, we have a whole range of various cutting stations powered by CO2 and fiber lasers which ensures that parts are carefully matched to the best laser cutter.

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Sheet metal fabrication from just $50 same-day, 365-day guarantee, and cut to a precision of ±0.13mm

Sheet metal fabrication has many applications across a wide range of industries, due to its high strength and its ability to be formed through pressing. Ponoko offers sheet metal fabrication services that offer instant online quotes and premium quality with no minimum order quantity. Submit your design today and have the laser cut piece delivered to your doorstep, ready to bend, form, or weld. Alternatively, contact us with your bending/forming requirements for a manual quote.

Formed sheet metal is used in all of the aerospace, automotive, robotics, and electronics industries. It is used to build anything from modern furniture to high reliability satellite parts. You can fabricate your precision tools, machine parts, product enclosures and faceplates from any of the wide variety of metals we have available.

Ponoko's metal sheets are available in a range of thicknesses to suit your design needs. Through Ponoko, you can focus more on perfecting your product design, and leave the cutting to our robots!

Custom parts delivered same day.

Custom sheet metal fabricated parts delivered same day (or money back).

What is sheet metal fabrication?

The term 'sheet metal fabrication' refers to the numerous manufacturing methods used with sheet metals including laser cutting, bending, welding, and forming.

Metal is an extremely versatile material thanks to its ability to be melted down, reformed, manipulated, high strength, high temperature conductivity, electrical conductivity, and its alloying capabilities. Once extracted from ore, metal can be directly formed into different shapes at a foundry including ingots, cylinders, and sheets. Of these, sheet metal is one of the more versatile forms as it is easy to transport, can be directly machined by tools, is suitable for numerous different manufacturing techniques, and is easier to handle.

Examples of manufacturing techniques that sheet metal can undergo include stamping, molding, laser cutting, plasma cutting, milling, drilling, cutting, shearing, and bending. Furthermore, constructive techniques, such as welding, can then be used to turn flat sheets of metal into complex 3D shapes, and this sees sheet metals used for all kinds of industries including automotive, aerospace, medical, and consumer electronics.

Ponoko is a laser cutting company that can work with sheet metals to fabricate custom 2D parts. While we do not offer welding or other forming services, we do offer metal bending, burnishing, and polishing to provide market-ready sheet metal parts. Furthermore, we can manufacture and deliver these parts same-day for customers in the Oakland Bay Area, and next day for customers in the Mainland US.


What metals can be sheet fabricated?

Just about all metals can undergo sheet metal fabrication techniques, and this includes laser cutting.

As almost all metals can be melted, pressed, and drawn, they can also be turned into thin sheets for further manufacturing processes. However, there are some unusual exceptions that prevent some metals from being handled in specific ways with one common example being soft metals and shearing. Shearing is the process of cutting a sheet of metal using a shearing force (two flat square edges passing against each other like scissors), and this works well for hard metals. However, sheared soft metals create a razor sharp edge which can cause significant injury to nearby operators.

In the case of laser cutting, highly reflective metals (such as copper), can cause issues for two reasons. The first is that reflective metals are less able to absorb the laser energy, and therefore struggle to create a clean cut. The second is that reflective metals can reflect laser energy back into the sensitive optical components of the laser cutting, thereby damaging the machine. As such, it is essential that metals are cut using the most appropriate laser technology.

Another challenge faced by laser cutting sheet metal is laser kerf. As the laser beam leaves the laser cutting head, it diverges meaning that for every mm away from the cutting head, the beam gradually widens. This widening reduces the cutting capability of the beam while also widening the cut. Therefore, the top side of a part will have a narrower cut than the underside, and this effect is amplified the thicker the sheet of metal being cut. Thus, laser kerf restricts the maximum thickness of sheet metals that can be laser cut.

To ensure quality and consistency throughout all parts that we manufacture, Ponoko has a specially curated range of sheet metals that have been chosen for their engineered qualities. From thermal conductivity to tensile strength, each material has carefully controlled stamping, plasma cutters, water jet, and moulds, all of which have varying degrees of pros and characteristics which ensures that any two parts exhibit near-identical qualities.


What machining methods exist for sheet fabrication?

Sheet metals can be machined into parts using numerous techniques including milling, cons.

By far, laser cutting is one of the adaptive machining methods thanks to its use of computer numeric control, the high degree of reliability and accuracy, speed, and operating cost. Furthermore, laser cutters can both engrave and cut in a single machining cycle which helps to speed up production rates while making cut parts market-ready straight out of the machine. However, factors such as laser kerf have to be taken into consideration, and this effectively eliminates laser cutting from being used on thick sheets of metal.

Plasma cutters are excellent for cutting thick sheets of metal that do not require levels of precision found in laser cutters. Furthermore, plasma cutting enjoys some of the same benefits as laser cutting including low operating costs and lack of tooling which helps to reduce plasma cut parts. However, plasma cutters are not able to work on non-conductive materials, and the inability to accurately produce small parts makes plasma cutting more ideal for structural parts.

Water jet cutters are another low cost cutting option for parts cut from thick metal sheets where accuracy is not essential. Compared to plasma cutters, water jet cutters are excellent for cutting extremely dense materials that are far too difficult for lasers or plasma, and the use of water means that they can cut non-conductive materials. However, the use of water limits what material can be cut (i.e. cannot be used for fabric, wood, and other organics), and then intense pressure of the water can induce mechanical stress.

Shearing is by far one of the quickest and cheapest sheet metal cutting techniques around. The use of two sharp right-angled blades that perfectly pass each other can be used to cut long straight lines in a piece of sheet metal, but this is only possible for thin sheets (thick sheets are likely to tear and bend). Furthermore, sheering is only able to cut straight lines from edge to edge, and cannot be used for internal cuts, nor can it be used for curves or other complex shapes.

CNC mills are able to produce extremely accurate parts thanks to the use of probing tools, engineered routing bits, and the ability to use vision technologies to measure tools accurately. As such, CNCs are typically used for precision parts where accuracy is essential (such as engine blocks, rotor blades, and matched parts. However, the use of tools and the slow speed of CNCs make them expensive to operate, and are therefore impractical for mass production of low-cost parts.

Moulds and stamps are another method for producing sheet metal that can be used for mass production. The use of a die allows for such parts to be made with extreme speed and consistency, but the high cost of dies make them unsuitable for prototyping. Furthermore, moulds and stamps can wear down over time which sees recurring engineering costs to maintain production quality.

Of all the listed manufacturing techniques, laser cutting offers customers one of the best options as it provides an excellent price to quality ratio while also supporting both mass production and prototyping. Laser cut parts from Ponoko can be quickly scaled up from prototype to production without any need for design changes, and the numerous additional services including bending and burnishing allow for market-ready parts to be produced.

Custom parts delivered same day.

Ponoko provides engineering grade metals specialized for use in sheet metal fabrication, with finishing services.

When it comes to choosing the right metal for sheet metal fabrication, it is essential that only laser-safe materials are used. Getting this information can be challenging which is why we have curated a list of materials that you can use, all of which are laser safe. These materials are also engineered meaning that they have clearly defined characteristics including electrical conductivity, density, and tensile strength. All our materials, including steel, aluminum, brass, and copper, are available for any order of any size, and you can compare and contrast these materials using our online software powered ordering and DFM system.

Custom parts delivered same day.

What are the benefits of laser sheet metal fabrication?

Compared to other manufacturing techniques, laser cutting presents numerous advantages including its speed, low cost, lack of tooling, and ability to scale from prototype to mass production with ease.

As laser cutters use CNC technologies (computer controlled motors, encoders, and digitally controlled laser power), they can rapidly produce any 2D shape with precision while also being able to do so repeatedly. This makes laser cutters ideal for precision work as well as mass production, and can rapidly scale their production outputs to meet sudden changes in demand.

The lack of tooling (such as router bits and drills), also sees laser cutters cheaper to operate compared to CNCs as there are few parts that wear down with use. Furthermore, the lack of tooling also makes laser cutters highly adaptable as well as faster to operate as no tool changes are needed.

The high speed operation laser cutters combined with the ability to both cut and engrave in the same machining cycle also helps to further reduce costs. As parts can be left in the same machine during its production, very little human intervention is required, and this allows operators to maintain multiple laser cutting platforms simultaneously.

Another major benefit of laser cutters is that as they use a beam of light, they apply no mechanical force to the target material. This allows for very thin sheets of metal to be cut without causing mechanical deformation, while also removing the need for tabs. Thus, parts can be entirely cut out eliminating rough edges and inaccuracies where tabs would normally be.

Finally, sheet metal is typically inexpensive while being highly uniform with consistent characteristics. As Ponoko has a carefully curated range of engineered sheet metals, this means that any two sheet metal fabricated parts will be practically identical including structural integrity, density, tensile strength, electrical conductivity, and thermal conductivity. Furthermore, Ponoko also offers numerous additional services including polishing, bending, and burnishing all under one roof which helps to reduce the number of additional manufacturing steps.


What disadvantages does laser sheet metal fabrication present?

While laser cutters are excellent for sheet metal fabrication, they do have some disadvantages including the inability to cut thick metal sheets, laser kerf, and economies of scale.

Even though laser beams can be used to cut metal, the width of a laser beam diverges as it leaves the laser head meaning that the cutting power of the laser beam falls with distance. At the same time, the cutting area widens with distance (due to divergence), and this results in the underside of a laser-cut part having a wider cut width than the top side. This effect is called laser kerf, and is more noticeable with thicker parts. To help ensure consistency amongst all parts, Ponoko limits the maximum laser kerf on all parts to 0.2mm. As such, the thickness of parts is limited.

Another challenge faced with laser cutters is that while they are extremely economical for small production runs and prototypes, they become less economical when scaled up. This is due to the fact that other production methods (such as stamping, molding, and casting), are suited for mass production. Therefore, parts that have passed initial production runs that intend to be scaled to tens of thousands, alternative production techniques are advised.

When manufacturing complex 3D shapes, using various 2D shapes welded together can see lower structural integrity compared to moulded or stamped parts as curves and other continuous structural features cannot be taken advantage of (i.e. domes, arches, and cylinders). By contrast, a 3D part machined entirely with a CNC would have one of the highest structural integrities possible.

Finally, laser cutters use extreme heat to vaporise material which introduces expansion and warping. While this is not typically an issue with smaller parts, larger parts that undergo large thermal stresses due to the bigger distances involved. Additionally, the use of extreme heat can also see hardening of the edge, and this can change the characteristics of the material.


What applications can sheet metal fabrication be used in?

Laser-cut sheet metal can be used in all kinds of applications ranging from aerospace, industrial, medical, and consumer industries.

An excellent example that takes full advantage of all the benefits of Ponoko laser cutting services is faceplates for enclosures and control panels. The use of metals such as stainless steel provides resistance to corrosion and rust, while the use of engraving for text and graphics provides resistance to abrasion. Such faceplates can be found in industrial environments as well as IoT products being used in remote locations.

Brackets and fittings can also be manufactured using Ponoko sheet metal fabrication services. Parts can be accurately cut with a laser cutter, and then metal bending can be used to create 3D shapes such as right-angled brackets, mounting plates, and fixtures. One advantage to using Ponoko for such parts is that the entire production process is under one roof, and this allows for market-ready parts to be directly delivered to customers without the need for additional steps.

Sheet metals such as copper and brass can also find numerous applications in electronics, mechanical, and artistic applications. Copper parts can be used for heat sinks and conductive busses, while brass can be used for low-friction gears and other mechanical components. Both of these materials can also be used for decorative purposes whereby gold can be later gold plated, and brass can be used for edging, decals, and plates.

Furthermore, sheet metal parts can also be highly advantageous for those needing EMI and RF shielding for electronic circuits. In many cases, trying to eliminate EMI in a circuit can be extremely difficult using purely placement and routing techniques, and thus engineers can turn to shields that sit on top of a PCB and are soldered directly to the circuit's ground. Ponoko laser cutting, engraving, and bending processes make the construction of such parts easy and cheap.

Custom parts delivered same day.

What is the sheet metal fabrication process?

The process of sheet metal fabrication involves cutting, bending, joining, and finishing.

The first stage of ordering laser-cut sheet metal parts starts with design submission to our cloud-based online ordering system that provides an instant quote. During this stage, the choice of material can be determined, the design can be checked, details about the part specified, and other additional services that are required. Once an order is placed, engineers at Ponoko receive the file and check the design to ensure that it conforms to our manufacturing capabilities. After being confirmed, the material is loaded into the appropriate laser cutting station, and production begins.

Once parts are cut, they are then moved onto the second stage of processing whereby they are burnished and deburred to remove any rough edges. This is not always needed, and depends on the material being cut (thinner generally don’t have an issue with burred edges).

Before moving onto bending, parts can also undergo additional finishing steps such as polishing and inkjet printing for graphics and text. After this, parts will then undergo any bending required by the customer.

Finally, the parts are delivered to the customer whereby they can be further used in products. Such parts can be assembled together using various joining techniques including glue, welding, and bolting.


What should be avoided when creating sheet metal parts?

As most sheet metal fabrication processes involve 3D parts, designers should take this into consideration when utilising 2D manufacturing techniques.

One such consideration is that metal bends are not square, but slightly rounded. As such, bends will have a radius that will change the distances between the edges as well as leaving a small gap if the part is placed flush against another surface. Furthermore, sheet metal parts have a measurable thickness, and this will affect the size of the bend.

Designers who are constructing 3D shapes from 2D laser-cut parts also need to keep in mind where welding joints will be located as access to these areas will be needed during construction. There is no point creating a 3D shape with a small angle between two surfaces that doesn't permit welding on the inside seam. This also applies to the positioning of bolts and nuts as bends can interfere with access to fittings.

Finally, it is essential that designers keep in mind Ponoko design constraints such as material thicknesses, laser kerf, and dimensional accuracy. Parts that require tolerances greater than what Ponoko can offer or integrate features that are too small cannot be guaranteed.


What accuracy and precision does Ponoko offer on sheet metal parts?

Ponoko has a strict set of design constraints to ensure that all manufactured parts conform to the same tolerances, reliability, and repeatability.

With regards to dimensional accuracy, Ponoko guarantees that all sheet metal fabricated parts will have dimensional tolerances of ±0.13mm, while laser kerf will never be larger than 0.2mm. Furthermore, all sheet metals stocked by Ponoko are specially curated to ensure that all parts have identical material characteristics such as tensile strength, electrical conductivity, and density.

The quality of the parts that we produce is not just demonstrated in our strict criteria, or even the engineered materials that we stock; we have manufactured well over 2 million parts for over 33,000 customers with a 99.3% precision part accuracy. To demonstrate our confidence in the parts we manufacture, all parts come with a 365-day guarantee whereby parts not up to standard are replaced entirely for free.

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*Same day delivery (or money back) is available for orders using a limited selection of materials, placed by 11am PT Monday - Friday, for 1-100 parts to Bay Area USA locations. Same day shipping (or money back) available to USA & worldwide locations.