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Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover: A Heavy-Duty History of Structural Aluminum Profile in Machine-Building, Manufacturing and Automation

Executive Summary:

Known for being light weight and durable, structural aluminum profile has been used in North American manufacturing for necessary but basic functions like safety hard guarding and building simple tables and work benches. European manufacturers however, have used the same material with great results for more innovative, cutting-edge designs and processes that include single and multi-axis linear motion, machine building, automation and material handling applications.

To continue to remain competitive in a global economy, North American manufacturers must consider alternatives – like structural aluminum – to traditional welded, painted steel for their most critical processes. Structural aluminum profile offers a lighter, reusable and more cost-effective solution than traditional welded steel for a variety of manufacturing processes, including assembly, automation, linear motion and material handling needs.

The European Roots of Structural Aluminum in Machine Building

The idea to utilize structural aluminum for machine building applications began in Germany, in 1976. Like most great concepts, the innovative idea was born of necessity. Building custom machines with steel was not only time-intensive, but also expensive too. Add in to the equation design changes and process alterations were nearly a given in machine building, and missed deadlines and delivery dates resulted in lost profits.

European manufacturers – with many German engineers leading the charge – developed a system of structural aluminum profiles and modular components that worked together to provide robust solutions for a wide range of assembly, manufacturing, automation and materials handling needs.

This not only sped up the engineering and build time associated with the common practice of welding, grinding, priming and painting steel tubing, but also provided design flexibility. If engineers needed to make a design or process change, it was much easier to implement with the reusable structural aluminum than rigid and heavy steel. As a result, this made the manufacturer a more agile and profitable enterprise.

The structural aluminum system European manufacturers employed was highly tested and precisely engineered. Design of fasteners and modular components were heavily tested before products were introduced to the marketplace. As a result, many European manufacturers were quick to embrace this new technology in mission-critical processes, like automation. For example, Porsche AG quickly realized that item structural aluminum profiles and modular components were just what they needed when upgrading a popular sports car engine assembly line. See the Porsche Case Study.

Additionally, other manufacturers called on structural aluminum profile in materials handling processes and automation processes. Slowly, the use of this light-weight but robust material spread around the continent and across the ocean.


Structural Aluminum Comes to North America

As a country that was built on steel mills and traditional manufacturing methodology, North American companies were reluctant to adopt structural aluminum in the same way that Europeans did. Welded, painted steel was the foundation for machine bases, frames, structures, assembly lines and automation cells for American manufacturers.

When structural aluminum was introduced into this marketplace, it was originally for safety hard guarding and simple tables or work benches. Still today, structural aluminum profile is used very effectively in safety hard guarding. Of all its uses, structural aluminum profile is perhaps most commonly used for machine guarding in North America. Although tough, durable and effective for this task, the material is just as impressive – if not more impressive – when used for advanced applications.

Seeing the success of their European brothers, some North American manufacturers decided to try using structural aluminum in more complex processes. However, because distributors were selling the profile for simpler applications, tight tolerances, quality and precision fit was not a top priority.

Early profile promoters rarely paid attention to project requirements and product failures were common. Because of this, when structural aluminum was used in more complex processes, projects frequently vibrated apart and fasteners failed to work as designed. Unfortunately, even when precise fasteners and components became more readily available, few manufacturers were confident enough in the technology to make it a critical part of their processes.

Companies that are willing to make the leap to structural aluminum profile have yielded great success, though. And one U.S.-based company, item North America, has been proving this advantage for more than 15 years. By relying on the world’s best aluminum extruders, item North America uses structural aluminum profile to create robust structures, sub-structures, machine bases, frames, work stations, laser enclosures, sound containment enclosures, and custom or specialty enclosures for a wide array of applications to replace welded, painted steel. Whether using aluminum profile to create a simple structure or complex linear motion processes, the material can be used across industries – from aerospace to personal care.

Aerospace Industry – item North America provides structural aluminum profile to many segments of the aerospace industry, including space exploration and commercial aircraft production. In fact, NASA used item North America support extensively in their Mars exploration program. Additionally, a major commercial airline manufacturer approached item North America to jointly design a 40 foot long unit with multiple XY axis and ball-screw Z axis to test integrity of aircraft components.

Sports Beverage Bottling – Working closely with a global provider of safety compliance and solutions, item North America was invited to participate in providing safety hard guarding to a major sports beverage bottler. The safety hard guarding consisted of fixed wire mesh panels, removable wire mesh panels, safety switched sliding doors and gates, hinged doors and light curtain muting stands to create an integrated safety solution for a complex bottle de-palletizing operation which posed significant worker safety threats.

This project involves over 20 North American bottling operations with each station requiring a unique solution to meet worker safety needs, as well as high speed production demands. Future safety requirements for this bottler could double or triple after seasonal demand for bottled product lessens in the fall of this year.

“Green” water solutions – A South American provider of boxed water products contacted item North America about the opportunity to design a robust solution for filling five liter water bags for consumption in areas where safe water supplies are questionable. Within a six month window, item North America delivered a prototype for customer review. Minor changes were quickly completed and the end user ordered multiple units for immediate delivery. This overhead gantry linear motion application is just one of the ways structural aluminum profile can be used in green manufacturing.

Personal Care Products – item North America structural aluminum profiles and modular components have been specified as the “primary provider” for an Ohio based major producer of personal care products. Many of these components have been assembled to complete linear motion processes. Specific product lines include baby care and feminine care hygiene products divisions.

Alternative Energy Industry – A number of solar energy panel producers and major machine builders for the glass handling industry rely on item North America to deliver a wide range of production machinery related to panel assembly, handling and packaging. item North America has been asked to deliver complex solutions which were easily handled due to the ability to create XYZ linear motion within T-slot profiles.

Consumer Product Testing – An Akron, Ohio, provider of consumer product testing and certification frequently calls on item North America for solutions to some unusual requests. Recently, item North America has designed test equipment to evaluate the life expectancy of paint brushes, power washers, refrigerator hinges, and saw blades among other everyday products. Because these requests are so unique, item North America’s engineering team and product is consistently put to the test.

Cutting Edge Technology Producers – item North America also works with an extensive group of high technology companies that produce computer hard drives, cell and smart phones, DVD Blu-Rays and more. Additionally, the Department of Energy, Department of Defense and pharmaceutical/medical companies across the country consistently call on item North America for automation solutions.


Why not Steel?

And it’s not just about trying a new technology that should make structural aluminum profile attractive to North American manufacturers. For many reasons, steel simply cannot bring the same results as aluminum profile. First, steel structures take much longer to engineer and assemble than aluminum. And chances are, once a team has finished welding, grinding and painting the steel to exact measurements, there’s sure to be a design or process change. Now, the team must modify the structure and repeat the same labor-intensive process it took to get there. And even after the final steel product is in place, there’s still maintenance to think about. Steel is prone to rust, so care must be taken to maintain the metal and repaint regularly.

Had the team been using structural aluminum instead of steel, there would be no welding, grinding or painting involved. And if a design change occurred, engineers could quickly refit the structural aluminum components as needed with little slow-down. This flexibility means fewer delays and missed deadlines so profits start flowing faster. Parts can be reused over and over again as needs change.

And unlike steel, there are no scratches, warping, flaking paint or rust to worry about. The end product not only looks as good ten years down the road as it did on installation, but it’s as strong and robust as it was on day one, too.

And it’s not just plant managers who reap the benefits of structural aluminum profile in their manufacturing processes. Engineers and executives have less risks and higher rewards too. Structural aluminum profile can be engineered to a much more precise level from the start than steel ever could be. Near-perfect measurements and cuts mean fewer delays and the ability to meet even the tightest deadlines. And with ever-growing regulations and compliance demands for virtually every industry, design and process changes can be met faster and cheaper. This also gives engineers the ability to innovate and react faster to market conditions with quicker changeovers. All of this combines to bring a lighter-weight, flexible solution with the lowest total cost of ownership possible.

Recently, machine builders, integrators and solution providers have started to accept the fact that some structural aluminum product lines are a viable solution for machine bases, frames, structures, sub-structures, assembly lines and automation cells. Still, North American manufacturers and machine builders have much to look forward to with further adoption of this material.

The Future of Structural Aluminum in North America

Creating XYZ linear motion with belt-driven actuators is growing rapidly since off the shelf components can be used to create custom solutions. Furthermore, the market for structural aluminum and modular components has to grow if North American manufacturers expect to stay and become even more competitive in the global marketplace as pressure comes from low cost producers.

Even for complex processes with multiple components, proven vendors like item North America can create solutions that are assembled faster and offer a lower total cost of ownership than found in traditional products. These custom solutions made from off-the-shelf components are faster to engineer, build and test than their steel counterparts. Even making changes to an assembled product can happen quickly and easily.

In fact, it’s not any facet of the design, assembly or implementation phases that takes the most time when it comes to creating an aluminum profile solution. Instead, most companies find the longest delays in getting enough buy-in to test the product. Some companies fear that the product is not robust enough to handle their heavy-duty needs; however, this is simply not the case. With case studies across industries and projects, the bottom line is clear: structural aluminum profile is just as strong as steel, is faster to engineer and assemble, and is cheaper and easier to maintain.

To find out more about how structural aluminum profile can not only save your machine building, manufacturing or automation processes time and money, visit: and fill out the form. We’ll learn your requirements and help you communicate the benefits of structural aluminum profile to your internal team. Whether your request is simple safety hard guarding or a structure paired with complex linear motion, we can meet your need. Together, we’ll design and implement a custom solution in less time and at a lower total cost than you’ve ever experienced before.