Dubious Intentions & The Economics of Metalworking

There are many methods of metalworking, but if you’re talking huge pieces—construction girders, wear parts on industrial machinery, etc.—there’s only two names in the game: forging and casting. When performed by skilled workmen, both processes can produce essentially the same product. But there’s more to metalworking than just working metal: economic concerns can play a big part, potentially at the expense of public safety.

The Great Debate: Forging vs. Casting

Which is better? Which is cheaper? And why? Before we dig into those burning questions, we should first look a little closer at the two processes in question. Both are highly versatile and reliable methods of manufacturing metal products, particularly for “heavy duty” applications like construction. The processes themselves are very, very different, however.

Casting is kind of like making a jello mold or baking a fun-shaped cake. You heat the metal up until it’s molten, then pour it into a mold in the shape of the end product. Then it cools and hardens, et voilà—your finished product. In forging, you heat the metal up until it’s merely glowing hot, not quite molten; then you use the compressive force of gigantic machines to press the metal into the shape you’re after, freehand. (That’s the gist of ‘em, anyway. These explanations are massively simplified.)

A forging hammer at work.

A forging hammer at work.

Each has its own pros and cons, but here are two cons that are most pertinent to this discussion: A) forging is, generally, more expensive than casting; and 2) cast products are not as tough and may contain unintentional voids (i.e., internal air pockets where metal should be). You can probably guess where this leads…

Cutting Costs at Any Cost

Most businesses are looking to lower costs in any and all possible ways. In this case, it often means using a cast part instead of a forged one, because, again, casting is cheaper. This is pretty much Economics 101—if Thing 1 is cheaper than and essentially the same as Thing B, go with Thing 1. Here, however, the less expensive version can also be the more dangerous version.

Sorry, make that “the more dangerous version!

Keep in mind, forged and cast products are often used for construction. Y’know, like buildings and bridges and stuff. Cast products, being less tough and prone to HAVING HIDDEN HOLES IN THEM, are therefore a less than ideal choice for this application. Holding up countless tons of metal and concrete and people and who knows what else is not a real great job for the weaker option. But, casting is cheaper, so there you have it.

Capitalism kills.

Photo credit: christian.senger via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

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