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  • Writer's pictureChris Horst

Aluminum, Steel, or Stainless Steel?

When contemplating making anything out of metal, some of the first questions are always: What material should be used? Should this component be made from aluminum, steel, or stainless steel? 

That question is one we answer a lot at EMJD. Even for experienced manufacturers and engineers, selecting the right material can be more tricky than it seems. When we’re working with customers or prospective customers on new or revised designs, we typically start with four questions. 

Four big questions: 

  1. Is weight a factor? 

  2. Is strength a factor? 

  3. Is corrosion resistance a factor? 

  4. Is cost a factor? 



Aluminum, carbon steel, and stainless steel are the three primary metals used in manufacturing. And, each metal type features unique characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses. Understanding these features allows entrepreneurs and designers to best match their designs to the appropriate metal. 

Aluminum 

Aluminum is comparatively much lighter than steel and stainless steel. It features fairly high corrosion resistance. But, it does not have the same strength levels as steel. And, it does present unique welding challenges. Aluminum is commonly used to construct medical equipment, train and airplane fuselages, electronics, and canning. Aluminum is more expensive than steel and stainless steel on a cost-per-pound basis, but because it is lighter, buyers can often purchase a lower weight of the material than if the product was made from steel. And, different aluminum alloys can present comparatively better strength or forming capabilities.

Steel

Steel is an incredibly strong metal and the most common metal type in the world today. But, it is far heavier than aluminum. And, it features low levels of corrosion resistance. The corrosion risk can be mitigated and slowed by priming and painting or galvanizing. But, in some humid and wet environments, even these finishing strategies will not fully prevent the risk of corrosion. Carbon steel is commonly used in construction, pipelines, and machinery. Carbon steel is generally the least expensive metal type on a cost-per-pound basis. 

Stainless Steel

If corrosion resistance and strength are both paramount to the project, stainless steel can be a good choice. No metal is immune from corrosion, but stainless steel is one of the most resistant and this is why it’s almost always used in wet and exposed environments like carwash machinery, kitchen equipment, etc. Stainless steel is more expensive than carbon steel, but less expensive than aluminum on a cost-per-pound basis. 

Common Mistakes

When designing metal products, the most common error EMJD observes is overengineering the product. It’s understandable why designers would want the strongest and most corrosion-resistant material. But, it’s often not necessary for the application and can really drive the price up substantially. 

“My advice is to get your project on a napkin and talk to someone in the metal industry to steer you in the right initial direction,” shared Jeff Madsen, operations director at EMJD. “Industry veterans will undoubtedly have seen something similar and help you build a product that is engineered for your manufacturing requirements.” 


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