Making the most of metals

September 24, 2009
By: Eric Lundin

Editors know that fab shop owners wear many (many, many) hats, and depending on the size of the shop, have to be equal parts accountant, purchasing agent, sales manager, marketing guru, safety officer, shop supervisor, process troubleshooter, training manager, human resources department, and maybe even chief cook and bottle washer. Heck, some probably even get to lend a hand on the shop floor once in a while, doing the one thing they probably love the most: running the machines that fabricate metal products. Taking a bigger look at the process sheds some light on a bigger process: The metal cycle. The process starts with a metal ore and ends when the finished item's service life comes to an end when a product is thrown away, a car is junked, or a building is torn down. But the material itself doesn't have to be banished to the scrap heap. Many of the alloys we use today can be recycled many times over, perhaps indefinitely.

According to the Aluminum Association's Auto and Light Truck Group, nearly 90 percent of automotive aluminum is recycled; the Container Recycling Institute estimates that more than 40 percent of aluminum cans are recycled; and the Steel Recycling Institute says that in the U.S., "more steel is recycled annually than all other materials, including aluminum, glass, and paper combined." We recycled 70 million tons of steel in 2006. That's a lot of steel. How do these materials get recycled? Depending on how you define "recycle," it shapes up in two ways. First, scrap materials can become a mill's feedstock. This saves a lot of money for the mill; it's much more efficient than mining and processing more ore. Second, some cast-off products end up repurposed. Many artistic types use cast-off manufactured products to fuel creative works. Artists such as Eric Lankford assemble clever and whimsical renditions of people and animals and so on, whereas others such as Lee Tollefsrud dream up abstract pieces.

At the other end of the spectrum, in both scale and utility, are shipping containers. That's right, the 20-ft. or 40-ft. behemoths used to move freight hither and yon. They start out durable, weatherproof, and dull. Dull, dull, dull! Extremely dull. You can't really expect much from a rectangle, can you? As it turns out, you can. The applications are endless, limited only by a fabricator's skill and ingenuity. Need a diner that can be buttoned up at closing time, then opened up for business in just a few minutes the next day? No problem. Need a training facility for your local SWAT team? You're covered. Need a basic office on a small footprint? That's old hat. How about a home? A single might be a bit small at slightly more than 300 sq. ft., but it could be your ticket to a greatly simplified way of life. On the other hand, if you're a college student, it might be cool to live in a dormitory made from 1,000 such containers. The best one of all? Call me biased, but I'd say it's a portable metalworking shop. The United States Marine Corps can't wait on repair parts for every little thing that breaks, so it uses 20-ft. containers fitted with metalworking equipment so it can make parts in the field. It doesn't take a genius to see the beauty of this system. Its portability allows the fabricators and machinists who staff it to move from place to place so they can go where they're needed. It's almost cool enough to make an editor want to enlist. Almost. Semper fi!
Eric Lundin

Eric Lundin

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8262