Skip to the main content

* Required
* Required


Choosing the Right Metals to Manufacture Your Product

Here’s What Design Engineers Need to Know and Why

Download Article

With more than 100,0001 potential materials to choose from, knowing what’s right for your project can seem like a daunting challenge. But by identifying key project objectives and breaking down the product piece by piece, you can successfully match the right metals to your needs. Additionally, communicating with manufacturing partners in the early stages can make all the difference in achieving greater cost savings, improved aesthetics, optimal manufacturability and other project goals.

After developing a concept for a new product, engineers must work backwards to make the vision a reality. The “what” has already been established, but the “how” has yet to be answered. Metal choice holds a great deal of weight for product development and can be a stressful aspect of any project. This is especially true when engineers are tasked with leading projects that fall outside of their niches and areas of expertise. But with proper guidance and clearly defined goals for the product, selecting the right metals will become less of a choice and more of a logical decision.

Establishing the Objectives and Examining the Product From Every Angle

Step away from the product for a moment and think about what matters most to you and your team. Is it saving money in high-volume production? Or is it ensuring that the final product meets a certain weight or looks a certain way? Answering these questions early can immediately eliminate certain metals and bring you that much closer to choosing the right ones.. 

Other factors to consider are form, fit and function. How must the individual components work together? How might the physical properties of one component affect the performance of another? Hone in on each piece of the product and then step back to view it as a whole. This will make it easier to understand how each component supports the end use of the product and the various specifications that each part needs to meet.

Metal Application Influences Metal Choice

When it comes to metal selection, decisions that seem logical in the moment can actually backfire once the product is being manufactured. It’s critical to understand not only the defining physical and chemical properties of the metals, but also how they will be manipulated and changed during the manufacturing process.  

Dan Blindauer, regional sales manager at Vollrath® Manufacturing Services (VMS), shares an example of this common scenario:

“Oftentimes, clients will want to choose aluminum because it’s lighter. But in order to produce the intended part, they would actually need to start with a thicker gauge of aluminum. Ultimately, the part would end up being heavier than if they just started with stainless steel or carbon steel that are naturally stronger. You could then get a thinner, stronger part using steel versus going with aluminum even though aluminum weighs less.” 

In this instance where weight is a key concern, aluminum would seem like the ideal choice since it’s naturally lighter than steel. But after considering how the metal would be altered during the manufacturing process, it becomes clear that steel would be a better alternative. 

Merging project goals with material knowledge can also lead to significant cost savings. Blindauer explains how:

“Clients will come to us saying they want a cheaper part and quickly choose carbon steel based on the lower starting price. But given the end use of the product—whether it pertains to foodservice, medical or virtually any industry—they’ll need to use rust inhibitors or powder coat it to maintain the look. Whereas if they start with stainless steel that provides some of those rust inhibitor properties right out of the gate, they’ll end up saving money because they won’t need to add in all of those secondary operations.”

Both examples demonstrate the importance of thinking beyond the metal in a standalone capacity. A metal that is inherently lighter or cheaper won’t necessarily produce a lighter or cheaper product. It is also important to marry the metal with the type of manufacturing process. This is why it’s crucial for engineers to clearly define product specifications regarding cost, weight, durability and aesthetics so they can then understand how it will be manufactured. Focus on where the product ends to determine which metals will ultimately deliver the intended results.

Involving the Manufacturing Partner Early Is Key

Sometimes, companies will wait until they’ve already designed the product before contacting a manufacturing partner. While this approach does work in certain situations, it can often backfire if the design isn’t feasible from a manufacturability standpoint. Blindauer asserts the importance of involving the manufacturing partner sooner rather than later, saying:

“We always encourage clients to involve us early in the process. Sometimes they have their whole unit completely designed and are approaching us to help them with a single component. But by the time they get to us, they’ve gotten themselves so locked into a design that we can’t change the shape or material of that component without impacting the whole product. In these situations, if the client would have approached us earlier, we could’ve helped them make that component manufacturable at a cost that would have worked for them.” 

Before designing the product entirely in-house, Blindauer suggests consulting with a manufacturing partner that will suggest alternate metals or processes to produce the same product in a more efficient or affordable way:

“Oftentimes in contract manufacturing, the manufacturing partner will simply quote something to a print. They’re not really asking the questions because in most industries, speed is key. Whoever quotes the project fastest usually gets the job. But later on, both the client and manufacturing partner will have all sorts of questions that ultimately lead to delays, setbacks and frustrations. Here at VMS, we put in the time upfront to obtain all the details, share our recommendations and quote the job accurately, all of which saves our clients a great deal of time and money over the course of their projects.” 

Manufacturing partners can also leverage their industry relationships and global buying power to obtain higher-quality metals at a lower price. Some manufacturing partners can even use their own product lines as a starting point for new projects. For example, Vollrath Manufacturing Services often leverages the product line of its foodservice division to accelerate the design phase and save clients time and money as opposed to starting from scratch. 

It goes without saying that choosing the right metals directly impacts the cost and performance of the final product. But engineers do not (and should not) bear the weight of metal selection alone. By focusing on the end use of the product, establishing project goals and sharing these goals with the manufacturing partner early, engineers can complete their projects faster and more importantly, obtain the desired results with greater ease and efficiency.

1. INTERNAL DISCOVERY Establishing the end use of the product and the various specifications for each part.

2. FINDING THE MANUFACTURING PARTNER Choosing a manufacturing partner that proactively seeks information about the product and project before providing a quote.

3. FINALIZING THE METALS TOGETHER Walking through the project from start to finish to identify variables that can influence metal choice; utilizing the manufacturing partner’s buying power and industry relationships to save time and money on the project without sacrificing quality.

Download Article

Work With Us

We provide custom manufacturing and engineering design consulting, standard and made-to-order parts, and custom tool fabrication.