March 2, 2021

Recent Enhancements Expand Sheet Metal Capabilities

By Amanda Tierney

For sheet metal fabrication, we know you have many options when choosing your vendor of choice. Like any service, there are usually trade-offs on items such as speed, cost, and overall capabilities, with certain advantages to each vendor. Here at Protolabs, we have created a model that provides the best of all of them—through digital manufacturing.

Recently we enhanced our operations to provide our customers the most complete list of sheet metal fabrication capabilities to meet your project needs, such as end-use components, large geometries, and functional prototypes. Here’s a deep dive into some of the most important changes we made to our capability list.

Aura Ventilator sheet metal fabrication
Designers at the Aura Project used our sheet metal fabrication, Multi Jet Fusion 3D printing, and injection molding services to manufacture the Aura Ventilator to increase medical ventilator accessibility during the pandemic last year.

Material Selection and Thickness for Sheet Metal

When selecting a material, you must consider the mechanical properties, manufacturability characteristics, cosmetic appearance, and cost. We offer a number of commercial-grade sheet metal including: steel, stainless steel, aluminum, copper, and brass.

The most common rule we provide to our sheet metal customers, is that parts must maintain a uniform wall thickness. This makes sense, since all fabricated sheet metal comes from a single sheet. A good way to save time and money is to order from the in-stock material and thicknesses list provided by your manufacturer. Until recently, we only used to stock materials with a minimum 0.025 in. (0.635mm) and a maximum 0.134 in. (3.4036mm) thickness. That has since been updated and we now offer a minimum 0.024 in. (0.6096mm) and a maximum thickness of 0.250 in. (6.35mm) on select materials. Before making your decision, we recommend reviewing our full list of material offerings or the list below.

Sheet Metal Material Options

Gauge Steel non-RoHS Stainless Steel Aluminum Copper Brass
  CRS Galvanneal Galvanized 304-2B 304 #4 316-2B 5052-H32 6061-T6 C101 C110 CDA260
24 0.024 0.024 0.024 0.024 0.024 0.024          
22       0.03 0.03 0.03 0.025 0.025     0.025
20 0.036 0.036 0.036 0.036 0.036 0.036 0.032 0.032 0.032 0.032 0.032
19 0.042     0.042 0.042       0.04 0.04  
18 0.047 0.047 0.047 0.048 0.048 0.048 0.04 0.04 0.05 0.05 0.04
16 0.059 0.059 0.059 0.059 0.059 0.059 0.05 0.05 0.063 0.063 0.05
14 0.074 0.074 0.074 0.074 0.074 0.074 0.063 0.063   0.8 0.063
13 0.089 0.089 0.089 0.089 0.089 0.089     0.09 0.09  
12 0.104 0.104 0.104 0.104 0.104 0.104 0.08 0.08     0.08
11 0.119 0.119 0.119 0.119 0.119 0.119 0.09 0.09 0.125 0.125 0.09
10   0.134 0.134 0.134   0.134 0.1 0.1      
8 0.16     0.16     0.125 0.125     0.125
7 0.179     0.179     0.16 0.16      
3 0.25     0.25     0.19 0.19      
2             0.25 0.25      


Sheet Metal Fabrication
A Protolabs technician prepares sheet metal for a punch press at our facility in New Hampshire. Recent upgrades have enhanced our fabrication capabilities to better meet customer needs such as end-use components, large geometries, and functional prototypes.

Additional Finishes for Sheet Metal

When it comes to finishing options, we now provide a number of solutions including powder coat, silk screening, plating, and surface finish options.

Our powder coat and silk screening offering is often used to enhance the cosmetic appearance of your part with branded colors and part marking. You can choose from more than 50 in-stock, powder coat options. If your powder coat needs extend beyond our in-stock options, we do offer custom powder colors (RAL only). Keep in mind this will add lead time to your job. For silk screening features, we can color match using the Pantone Color library and allow up to four colors per part. It is important to note the trade-off when it comes to silk-screening, the fewer colors you select for silk-screening the faster your lead time. This eliminates the need for set up between each color change adding lead time to your project.

Another recent expansion to our finishing offering comes in the form of plating, which is often used when your part needs protection against elements that lead to corrosion. To protect against corrosion we offer anodizing, hard anodize, color anodize, zinc, chromate, tin plating, and black oxide. This recent blog post offers more information.

Other Enhancements for Sheet Metal Fabrication

Although we like to think all designs can be fabricated from a single sheet of metal, realistically some designs are more complex than others and require some level of assembly and post processing like welding. If speed is important to you, we recommend keeping your part to 12 components or less, but if you have time to spare and the complexity of your design is more of a priority, we are happy to help assembly to your specifications.

In addition to welding and riveting, we offer hundreds of hardware products, from screws to fasteners, specifically designed for sheet metal fabrication. PEM hardware insertion and riveting is available as one of our secondary operations for our sheet metal process. It's important to make sure the hardware is not too close to a bend, edge, or other fastener. When designing near a bend or edge, use the centerline-to-edge (C/L-to-Edge) value to find the minimum distance to the outside edge. When calculating the spacing between multiple pieces of hardware, use the C/L-to-Edge formula plus one half the diameter of the second mounting hole.

With our easy-to-use quoting platform and expanded capabilities, we hope you try Protolabs for your next sheet metal fabrication project. Like other services, we believe our speed and reliability are unmatched. 

Amanda Tierney is the product marketing manager for CNC machining and sheet metal at Protolabs. She has 10-plus years of experience marketing to manufacturing engineers and designers across multiple industries. She holds a B.A. in business and marketing from Saint Michael’s College in Vermont.