A fabrication shop equipped for sheet metal working is an asset to any modern cladding project. The popularity of metallic cladding has grown, and workshops around the world are revolutionizing their methods to meet rising demands for products such as Aluminum Composite Panels (ACP).
ACP, which is formed out of raw Aluminum Composite Material (ACM), has become the premier aluminum cladding product, in part due to a streamlined process for custom fabrication. The act of turning a sheet of ACM into ready-to-clad ACP can be broken down into four stages: Cutting, Grooving, Bending and Assembling.
Accuracy and efficiency are the tenets of an optimized aluminum fabrication workflow. This is the standard by which fabrication shops excel in comparison to the otherwise common practice of forming panels out of raw ACM sheets on the job site. Nothing beats the reliable productivity of a shop with a honed workflow, steady access to material, and cutting-edge tools for making quality aluminum cladding products like ACP.
Why a Panel?
Panels are the ideal form for metallic cladding. Such a composition allows for fastening systems that hide behind the cladding itself so that the product’s glossy-modern look is not interrupted by the sight of screws, rivets, and brackets. Having these brackets extrude behind the face of the panels–attached to the sides–also creates the air cavity between the base wall and the cladding that is necessary for a rainscreen system.
Fabricators take the vision of designers from blueprint to panel and assist installers by providing ACP that comes ready to fasten on a building’s exterior. Here are the basic steps of fabricating ACM panelling, how a fabrication shop suits itself to the process, and a look at the tools that are transforming the industry.
Basic Process of Fabrication
Aluminum fabrication is a lot like creating origami with metal. The makeup of the panel, the face, and its sides are already baked into the raw material. Fabrication is the process of folding a cladding panel out of the raw ACM. Like any work of origami, a fabrication shop starts with a sheet.
ACM comes in raw sheets that are cut down to accommodate cladding panels that fit the design and are manageable to work with. Tools used for this purpose can vary, from a table saw to a CNC machine equipped with a rotating cutter that will mill or slice the material. In any case, fabrication shops seek accuracy, as the rest of the process draws from the product of the initial cut.
Nobody, for both environmental and economic reasons, wants to see raw materials wasted. The best fabricators measure to get the maximum amount of panels out of a raw sheet. It is like doing a puzzle backwards, and there are few things more satisfying than making perfect use of the material.
For such an order, the CNC machine is a fabrication shop’s best friend. Obedience to a well-calculated process is a central feature of CNC technology. There is but a small chance of error when technicians input the most effective use of the raw material according to the final design.
The turrets on a CNC machine–which hold spindles and respective cutting heads–can rotate in three dimensions. Mobility during the cutting stage, however, is mostly handled by carriages that slide the milling tool along the x and y axes. These carriages are made to slide quickly, as the rotating cutter makes fast work of ACM.
Bending ACM sheets is not easy. To prepare for that stage in fabrication, the freshly cut sheets are grooved. Four incisions are made that will become folds for the panel’s sides. Fabricators that have access to a CNC machine will use this technology for the best results. Not only do these machines work accurately to the original schematic, but the three-dimensional mobility of their turrets offers precision to complex designs.
The perfect groove is carved by a lathe equipped with the CNC Machine’s spindle. Fabricators seek enough depth to facilitate bending but still a groove shallow enough that the final cladding panel remains structurally sound. ACM is typically four millimetres thick, which gives you a sense of the slim margin of error for grooving. This makes many fabrication shops glad to have the accurate touch of CNC technology at their disposal.
A secondary element of the grooving stage is the process of making holes in the corners of the panel’s flaps, which will later be used during assembly.
An unwelcome but easily handled byproduct of cutting and grooving is the presence of metallic residue and dust. Pressurized air is useful for tidying up.
With the sheets cut and grooved, they are ready to be bent into shape. The incision of the groove helps, but fabricators still take pride in the strength required to fold up the panel’s sides. The delicacy of origami meets the effort of a workout during this stage. Clamps are used to create temporary grips.
This allows for a reliable hold and an even distribution of force that ensures each flap is folded plum.
This stage ends with a rose and a thorn. The good news is that the panel is now formed. The bad news: if the sides could be folded up, they can just as easily be bent out of shape. This issue is remedied in the final stage: Assembly.
Assembly is when fabricators fasten the sides of the panel to lock in long-term fortitude. Remember the holes cut into the flaps during the grooving stage? These become useful here, as fabricators grab some E-bars, L brackets, and rivets, the only non-ACM components needed for fabricating ACP.
First to come are the E-bars, four extrusions that have been cut to the lengths of each panel side. These are drilled with holes that line up with the ones in the panel itself. L brackets–also drilled accordingly–are placed in the corners of the panel. These will not only solidify the panel’s sides so they cannot be bent back down, but they will also encase and sturdy the E-bars.
Rivets join the L brackets, E-bars, and panel sides. These fasteners are slotted into the holes at the panel’s four corners and bucked so that their hold will remain permanent. Sixteen rivets, two for each corner, are all it takes for structural stability.
With these steps complete, what was once mere ACM is now fabricated ACP. Time to load up the trucks and get to installation!
How a Fabricator Can Assist Your Project?
Fabrication shops optimize and expedite the aluminum cladding process by gearing their workflows to produce quality ACP quickly. Beyond mere tools, experience is the biggest asset. Practice makes for accuracy and speed, so a dedicated team of fabricators is a good bet for work done well.
Such fabricators are a benefit to the full cladding process and are a great partner for installers seeking quality ACM cladding that arrives surprise-free and raring to go. Exteriors are clad with ACP according to a unique and specific design. Flaws in the fabrication process can derail an installation, as each panel is fastened based on the position of the last.
Errors mean wasted time and material, which is why the controlled environment of a fabrication shop is a fantastic asset. Experienced fabricators come with an understanding of quality assurance and work at a scale that mistakes–which will always occur to some degree–are not detrimental to the cost of supply. From small to large projects, dedicated fabricators offer partners the value of a high-scale operation, taking advantage of both bulk rates and the most efficient tools.
The CNC Machine
Revolutionizing the cladding industry (alongside many others) is Computer Numerical Control, the technology that the most prolific fabricators use to cut and groove their ACM. CNC machines are named not for the specific jobs they do but rather for the programming that automates said work.
For the purposes of ACM, CNC machines employ milling and turning tools tailored to create smooth cuts and incisions in metal. Of the two CNC machines that we use at Wiedehopf’s fabrication shop, our latest utilizes a laser cutter. The value of CNC machines is their compatibility with popular schematic and design applications such as Autodesk.
The bridge between the machines and these programs is a computer-aided design (CAD) file. These CAD files hold all the data both designers and fabricators need while facilitating coherent collaboration between both teams. Architects can rest easy knowing their blueprint will translate clearly to the finished product. The data points fed to CNC machines are digested quickly, and ACM meets the cutting head with expediency.
How Much Does ACM Fabrication Cost?
If you work as a cladding installer, or if your business involves any sort of sheet metal, you may wonder what it costs to enlist the services of a fabrication shop. At Wiedehopf, we want to help you, and our CNC machine is ready to be fired up for your specific project.
ACM has utility in a wide range of applications beyond cladding, so we have tailored our fabrication process to accommodate a wide array of purposes. Whatever your business, we invite you to call our office, at no obligation, for a free estimation of what our services will cost. Generally, fabrication prices range from $13 to $27 per square foot for the fabrication only. We will treat your project with the care that we put on our own and employ the best tools in the industry to meet our shared goals!
If you are seeking a fabrication partner who offers quality-assured Aluminum Composite Panels with quick lead times and prudent assembly, Wiedehopf can help! We have spent years optimizing our workshop to meet the modern needs of the cladding business. Wiedehopf is on a mission to serve our partners by fabricating panels to their exact specifications in a timely fashion.
With a battle-tested aluminum fabrication team and the aid of two cutting-edge CNC machines, we look forward to helping you get the best ACM panels for your metallic cladding project! Whether you are an installer looking to grow your business or a contractor looking for someone to handle the cladding aspect of construction entirely, our workshop stands ready to serve you. Fabrication is not just a process. For us, it is a passion.