In many industries, aluminum has gradually caught up—and even surpassed—steel as the metal used in the production of all types of structures, equipment, and products. Why is this the case? Is aluminum simply a better material than steel?
Aluminum’s modern prominence is owed to many factors. And when faced with the choice between it and steel, it’s important to look beyond past and current trends in manufacturing and explore what each has to offer in terms of strength, resistance, affordability, and other attributes—as well as the limits of each.
Aerospace And Automotive Demands
In industries like aerospace, the prominence of aluminum isn’t new, hence why aluminum special flat washers and 2024 aluminum washers are sometimes simply called aerospace flat washers. Aluminum and aerospace are commonly associated because of the material’s lightweight strength and its resistance to factors like friction, rust, etc., which are very favorable when the aim is to get off the ground and withstand atmospheric forces. These advantages are now increasingly demanded by the automobile industry, mainly for purposes of fuel economy. Heavy-duty trucks in particular have reduced much of their steel with aluminum, including the frame as well as many of the smaller components. It’s become easier to get components like aluminum washers available directly from the manufacturer due to a rise in demand. To see just how much they differ in terms of stability for weight, simply compare the feel of an aluminum washer with that of a steel or stainless steel washer.
Advantages In Commercial Product Manufacturing
Aluminum’s strength-to-weight ratio gives manufacturers the ability to roll this material to very thin, light gauges and still create a sound structure. That feature makes it favorable for manufacturing shells, skins, and cases that house many electronic and tech devices.
Compared to steel, aluminum is better at defecting heat than conducting and absorbing it. This is how a laptop’s processor can heat up considerably but the temperature increase is less noticeable to a user holding it on their lap. It’s also the difference between accidentally touching a stainless steel pan fresh out of the toaster oven compared to the lifted edge of the aluminum foil used to line it. The steel holds on to heat much longer while the aluminum defects it.
Why Steel Remains Strong
So why hasn’t all steel been replaced with aluminum? There are several reasons why steel remains a valuable and useful material that’s needed for many applications. The first of these reasons is its strength.
Steel is indeed more weighty than aluminum but that’s part of what makes it more reliable in heavy-duty, high strength settings, including many vital infrastructure placements. And even though automakers are exploring and experimenting with frames made from lighter-weight aluminum, steel is still a dominant material for car and truck manufacturers. In commercial manufacturing, stainless steel has also lost little ground to aluminum and remains a standard material for all types of equipment, from heavy processing appliances to cutlery and similar tools.
Which One Is Better?
Whether aluminum will be a superior material choice over steel depends on the specific requirements of a job. If a metal material is needed but weight must be reduced as much as possible, aluminum is the better option. If rigid strength is a greater priority than weight, then steel will deliver better results. In terms of cosmetic appeal and resistance to corrosion, aluminum will retain its appearance without being affected by rust and other common types of oxidation, which will easily impact untreated steel. However, a resilient rust-free shine can be gained from many grades of stainless steel, including those that will resist very corrosive circumstances.
If cost is the make-or-break factor in the choice of aluminum or steel, aluminum is often mistaken as the cheaper material. In reality, when priced by weight, steel is conventionally lower in cost than aluminum. Material market fluctuations also impact this. That’s why it’s best to evaluate the individual performance capabilities and advantages of each material to determine which will impart the greatest value for the application.