The exponential growth of production and manufacturing in the industrial age often focuses on flashy innovation like the assembly line or more recently 3D printing technologies. In this rapid era of growth, it can be easy to overlook the simple designs that led to the jumps, however. Much like the simple wheel and axle, many innovations that we depend on daily can be taken for granted — yet without them, we’d come to a standstill.
One of these innovations is the evolution of connectors and fasteners, specifically in industrial settings, growing from clasps with simple nuts and bolts to top end Z-Line reductions that are used in applications such as heating and automotive today. Discover how far these reliable, everyday use products have come and why quality matters in your product selection today.
An overview of plumbing and pipes
The history of the use of pipes for water and sanitation needs has a varied origin. Some report that the storied King Minos of Crete has a version of the flushing toilet, yet in many areas including the United States, indoor plumbing was not in common use until the early 1800’s. And while early builders were happy to create plumbing for those who could afford it across the ages, most of this was initially made from wood. In 1804, Philidelphia became the first city in the world to adopt cast iron pipe for its water mains.
With the addition of metals as the new material standard, the methods of fastening these metals together had to evolve too.
An understanding of metal fasteners
To attach metal pipes, industrialists needed to create metal fasteners. Common types of fasteners are detailed through Wikipedia, and specific types of fittings and fasteners are associated with brand names and patents. Common pipe connectors include:
- Gaskets – ring-shaped mechanical seals used in flange joints
- Elbows – essential a corner connector at an angle of 90 degrees, 45 degrees, or rarely 22.5 degrees
- Coupling – a pipe connector. If this connection changes sizes, it may be referred to as an adapter or reducer
- Union – a connector like a coupling that allows for easy removal as needed
- Nipple – a threaded male end of a pipe, such as those on a garden hose
- Tee – as the name implies, a tee shaped connector. A diverter tee is a specialized fitting often used in heating systems
- Plug – fits inside a pipe to stop the flow of water or steam
- Valve – used to stop or regulate a flow by fitting inside a pipe
- Cap – works like a plug to stop flow but fits over the outside of the pipe
Fasteners are also gendered. Fasteners will be designated as male or female based on their connections. Fittings with a protrusion of those that fit inside another connection are generally considered male, such as a 3/4″ M Plug.
How metal connectors are made
Metal connectors are made through a variety of different materials and using a variety of different processes. Low-pressure home piping may work well in copper or galvanized steel, but industrial applications such as hydraulics require a more heavy-duty approach. For this reason, these reducers and valves will not be interchangable between applications, and will likely leak or not perform the intended function.
Metal alloys are popular for hydraulic fittings. Carbon steel is durable, strong, and good in the high heat. This steel often requires a coating, however, and coatings like Cadmium have proved environmentally unsustainable. Stainless steel is valued for both strength and anti-corrosive properties but may be more expensive than other options. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc that while strong, is easy to machine into specific parts. Aluminum is easy to manufacture and corrosion resistant but requires an additional factor to meet strength requirements for most hydraulics.
As these alloys are used to create reducers and fasteners for metal pipes, there are different processes used to create the right shape. Hot forging involves heating metal to create the correct shape, but environmental sustainability proponents often favor cold forging. Cold forging allows for the physical molding of metal at room temperature, thereby reducing wasted material.
We don’t often stop to consider the small, yet vital role our smallest components in the industry, but without them, things would literally fall apart. Metal fasteners have come a long way from their humble beginnings, and new technology only promises to make these items stronger, more durable, and more affordable over time.