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The Industry of Steel and Alloys Today

Humanity has always needed the right materials to forge living spaces, tools, and weapons alike, and indeed tool use is what set humanity apart from any other animal species. Although corvids and non-human apes use sticks as simple tools, it is humanity that learned to make tools and weapons from metal and similar materials. In fact, major eras in human history were named after the metal tools and items made during those periods, such as the Iron Age, Copper Age, and Bronze Age. Among others, metal is one of the most important materials for humanity, and today, metal is still widely used. Today’s stainless steel, combined metals and alloys, and thin steel sheets are used in ways that people in the Iron Age or Bronze Age couldn’t even imagine. Brass and copper, too, join steel, titanium, and others in modern industry, and thin metal strips may be the raw materials used to make nearly anything. There is plenty to see when it comes to thin sheet metal and the items made from it, not to mention alloys.

The Business of Steel

It may not be surprising to hear that steel is one of the biggest commodities around the world today, and nations such as the United States, Canada, Germany, and China make a lot of the world’s steel and export it everywhere. The United States in particular is a robust producer, consumer, and exporter of steel alike, and American steel production was the greatest in the entire world during the 1920s. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, steel has evolved from knights’ sword and shields made at blacksmith forges to a mass-produced metal used for all sorts of applications. Steel is a staple of construction, for example, and a lot of the world’s thin sheet metal and I-beams are used for construction. Steel mills produce the refined thin sheet metal rolls that are then sent to manufacturers of all kinds, and wholesale thin sheet metal may be used for car parts, home appliances, and much more.

A large part of the American economy is based on steel. In 2016, around 138,900 sheet metal workers were employed across the U.S., and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the thin sheet metal fabrication industry may grow 9% from 2016 to 2026. In that same time frame, some 12,000 new jobs may be added to that sector, if current estimates prove to be accurate. And around the world, the thin sheet metal industry is growing too, and it is seeing average growth of 4.09% or so. That growth may persist from 2018 to 2022, and possibly beyond.

The Right Metals for the Job

Metal is naturally found in the earth, unlike plastic, which is artificially made in injection molds. All the same, steel may need some refining even after it is made in a steel mill. Before being sold to wholesale buyers, thin sheet metal will be rolled through pressurized rollers to refine it, and exposed to heat as well to temper it. If sold like this, thin sheet metal is known as hot-rolled steel, and it is commonly used for applications that don’t call for ultra- exact metal dimensions, such as railroad track production. By contrast, some hot-rolled steel sheets may be rolled again, this time at room temperature, known as cold-rolled steel. This steel takes time to make and it must be shipped carefully, but this steel has precise dimensions and a glossy, tough finish, making it ideal for many applications.

Steel is widely used and quite effective, but it is not truly a catch-all metal; that is, it does not make other metals obsolete. Some particular applications call for alloys that are designed for the job, and ordinary metals would suffer if used in their place. Alloys are composite metals made of two or more ingredient metals, ranging from steel to titanium to copper, brass, and nickel. Flexible metal bellows, for example, are thin but tough, and they can endure extremes of pressure and heat inside them without rupturing. Alloys may also be used in extremes of cold, or they may be used underwater on pipes, where they can endure constant exposure to salt water without corroding and rupturing. Chemical plants often use alloys for valves and tanks.

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