As a general term, fabrication means constructing items from different parts using one or more of a range of processes and materials, including metals, wood (both soft and hard), laminates and solid surface materials.
The term is commonly used with steel fabrication, which is where steel parts are created by stamping, welding, cutting, bending and assembling pieces of steel.
Most metal fabrication these days is assisted by computer aided designs (CAD) that are programmed into computer numerical control (CNC) technologies to automate the assembly processes by communicating directly with shop floor machinery. These technologies improve quality standards, reduce fabrication time, reduce costs and material usage, and improve accuracy.
However, there are still instances where skilled fabricators are required to work manually on an item rather than automating the process.
A fabricator’s process often involves building an item that is made from manufactured materials – such as steel – that can later be assembled into a larger structure or item. Fabrication involves making components and parts for different products, such as machines, engines, household appliances and more.
Fabricated items cover a huge range of products that later feed into the manufacturing process… so, what exactly is ‘manufacturing?’
Manufacturing involves converting raw materials into a final product or products. This means that, for a part to be manufactured, it needs to be produced from start to finish.
Manufacturing can be on a small scale (such as with a hand-tool-using wood carver) or can be a large-scale manufacturing facility with machines, tools and chemical or biological processing.
Manufacturing covers a large range of industries, including apparel, chemicals and petroleum, cosmetics, electrical equipment and electronics, furnishings, leather goods, printing and publishing, plastic items, and more.
To be considered a manufacturer, you should produce goods from raw materials though the use of tools, equipment and processes, before selling the goods on to consumers.
Manufacturing can be broadly split into five types, as follows:
- Repetitive – A company repeatedly makes a single product
- Job shop – An open system without assembly lines, this is used for specialised and custom products
- Discrete – While following a production line method, the products and the processes used to create them are varied
- Continuous – This is the manufacture of products that are in constant demand – such as with oil refineries
- Batch - This includes contract manufacturing where products are made in specific quantities within a set timeframe
The difference between fabrication and manufacturing may seem subtle and it is true that areas of fabrication come under manufacturing. However, manufacturing involves the creation of elements from start through to the final assembly to produce a finished product, unlike fabrication, which involves combining pre-assembled elements.
If we take the example of structural steel, the manufacture involves creating the final structural steel from raw materials. These steel parts, once manufactured, are assembled to create a final structure, which is the fabrication part.
Another example is the building of ships, whereby the parts are manufactured separately from raw materials and then brought together and combined to create the final ship. The parts are manufactured from raw materials before being fabricated into components ready to be assembled.
Most companies do not make products entirely from scratch but instead work with other companies who may make component parts, especially for complex products. As a result, many fabricators and manufacturers operate together to deliver a final product.
For example, a company may take raw materials and make display screens for televisions, telephones, computers and tablets. These component parts are manufactured for other companies such as Apple or Samsung. So, while these parts are ‘fabricated’ as components for a larger device, they still count as being ‘manufactured’ – with the technology company being the consumer for these parts.
To summarise the difference, manufacturing involves creating a complete product ready for a consumer using either prefabricated parts or raw materials, whereas fabrication is the creation of component parts that can then be assembled to make a final item.
Although manufacturing and fabrication are separate, they often occur together. Fabrication involves the creation of parts from manufactured raw materials, while manufacturing also includes the process of assembling those parts into finished products.
Manufacturing includes preparing components for fabrication but, in industrial terms, today’s supply chains are highly segmented, so one company may process raw materials while another will take those materials and fabricate them into parts, which are then combined to make finished products.