Iron working and the beginning of metal
The introduction of ironworking to Greece in the late 10th century BC started the Iron Age in Europe. The Ancient Greeks produced basic armour and weaponry by hammering iron ore however the Roman Empire increased mining for iron and began to create spoons, saucepans, door fittings and a number of other items that still make use of sheet metal today.
Whilst iron production advanced under the Greeks and Romans it was India where steel production began in small quantities. This production was seen as a highly-skilled art and very labour intensive – so much so that steel was highly prized for a number of centuries, in particular Damascus steel swords were seen as the best available as they were tough and could be sharpened to a fine but resilient edge. Unfortunately, the skill of creating Damascus Steel was lost and, even with modern technology and manufacturing techniques, modern attempts to recreate it have failed.
If we skip forward a little bit to the medieval period we see the production of cast iron in Europe – it had been produced in China since the 5th century BC but production was low. During the medieval era production techniques were refined and saw the production of wrought iron in large amounts using water-powered bellows. Towards the end of the medieval era and into the Renaissance period the theories that have influenced modern sheet metal production began to take hold, namely the rolling mill.
Da Vinci and the cold rolling mill
Leonardo da Vinci produced designs and sketches for a rolling mill but there is no evidence that it was ever actually built. The concept was used in the early 16th century as a way of smoothing metal to a uniform depth but it is only in the 17th century that we have evidence of a rolling mill being used to produce thinner sheet metal than could be produced with hammers. There is written evidence in that late 17th century of sheet metal produced in a manner we would recognise today, namely a cold bar being rolled and formed into thin sheets.
The Industrial Revolution: a turning point for metal history
In the 18th century we get to the heart of modern sheet metal fabrication with the industrial revolution. Abraham Darby first began producing cast iron using coke for the smelting process and met his goal to produce thin, durable and inexpensive cast iron. This new technique kick-started major cast-iron production in Europe and was a key factor in the advent of the industrial revolution.
In particular, the industrial revolution is when the production of steel began to take over. Henry Bessemer developed a pioneering technique that allowed steel to be easily mass produced at a low cost. Bessemer steel was used widely during the industrial revolution, for everything from railway lines to ships, it was soon recognised that steel offered greater strength and durability.
During the industrial revolution, the production of sheet metal became self-fulfilling – as machinery and engineering took off it was crucial that metal could be formed, cut and joined easily to produce steam engines for a variety of uses. Steam engines were then used to fabricate ever larger and ever thinner sheet metal and the cycle continued.
Low-cost sheet metal fabrication
Following the industrial revolution sheet metal was easily produced at low cost. Different varieties of sheet metal began to be produced, with different levels of carbon, different alloys and different additions to the final sheet metal. All of this created a surge in the use of sheet metal that we continue to see today.
With this wealth of different metals at low cost the sheet metal industry began to see new ways of metalworking. Whilst the basics like punching and forming have been refined over time to offer incredible accuracy and quality we have also seen modern advancements like laser-cutting and rapid proto-typing.
Modern metalworking techniques
Now we’re up to the modern day and the future of sheet metal fabrication continues to evolve from its humble beginnings, contributing a vast amount to our everyday lives. New techniques are being developed and tools are evolving to improve accuracy, precision and quality.