Robot welding metal

Aluminum Or Steel: Which Metal is Better for Your Product?

Within our industrial niche, products can be made out of a wide variety of materials. Each vendor likely has their reasons for choosing a particular type of material to build their products with, be it metal stairs, crossover platforms, or ship ladders. And each customer may also have reasons why they prefer one material over another.

At SafeRack, we pride ourselves on being one of the few companies that use both steel and aluminum to construct our products. What we use for your solution will depend on your unique needs including your worksite setup, the environment, load weight, budget, and more. We take every situation on a case-by-case basis.

In this article, we’ll address how to determine if aluminum or steel is the better bet. Both metals have distinct advantages over the other — the right choice will depend on what you want your solution to achieve.

Yield Strength (psi)36,00035,000The difference is negligible
Modulus of Elasticity (ksi)29,00010,1006061-T6 will deflect more easily than steel, but springs back to its original shape. This helps Miracle products soften the force of impact loads. Where less deflection is desirable, Miracle products make use of larger cross-sections that increase stiffness.
Corrosion ResistanceRustsForms protective layer6061-T6 will not rust and does not need to be painted. Your Miracle products will continue to work well and look good for years to come.
Weight (Density) lbs/in30.2830.0986061-T6 weighs almost 2/3 LESS than mild steel.
Hardness (Bhn)117 (approx)95 (approx)Mild steel is slightly harder than 6061-T6, but the aluminum’s ability to flex under impact actually results in superior performance under impact loading.

Steel Holds Strong for Heavy-Duty Applications

For most of the 20th century, steel was the go-to option when constructing safety platforms and systems used across industries. One of the most attractive features was its extreme resilience. Because it’s difficult to bend, steel is ideal for heavy-duty operations that require products to withstand repeated use, wear, and tear.

Steel is also the most commonly used material in SafeRack products — and for good reason. Over time, galvanized steel holds up better than other materials. Although aluminum has similar durability in the walking environment (i.e., gangways and rolling stairs), steel is what’s needed for applications that hold tons of product weight, such as piping systems or platforms with multiple gangways, cages, and loading arms.

Steel Pros:
● Durability
● Strength
● Chemical compatibilitySteel Cons:
● Weight makes it hard to move around
● Additional expenses possible for set up
● Requires constant maintenance if it’s painted
● Must be built from an engineered drawing

More than twice as heavy as aluminum, steel’s weight affords increased durability — but it also can make it challenging to set up, manipulate, and move around. If you have to get a piece of steel-made equipment to the top of a building, you’ll need more than just a ladder. (In fact, any height above 6 feet requires a platform, not a ladder, per OSHA.) You may have to look into a crane or other solution to lift the equipment — not to mention other considerations like rooftop access, permits, and fall protection — all of which add cost.

Steel-based products also aren’t as easily shaped into complex designs and construct stair parts. This means its construction requires more planning upfront and there’s less room for error. This again is where costs can add up — and where aluminum solutions may be a good alternative.

The last downside to steel is that it’s more prone to rust and corrosion, which decreases the product’s durability over time. That’s why it’s important to ask for galvanized steel, which has a protective zinc coating to prevent rusting.

Aluminum Solutions Weigh — and Cost — Less

Despite steel’s benefits, many manufacturers over the years were on the lookout for an alternative metal to use. Aluminum ended up being a viable replacement for many applications.

Because it’s so much lighter in weight than steel, aluminum-made products are easy for anyone to install, manipulate, and re-position for various uses around the work site. And it also makes it easier for us to ship to you — meaning less shipping time and costs.

Aluminum is also far more flexible than steel, meaning our manufacturing team can mold it into intricate and complex designs that perfectly fit your needs and specifications. And even with these malleable qualities, aluminum still has a similar strength profile to that of steel. It can’t hold many tons of piping systems, for instance, but for most platform environments, it works extremely well.

Aluminum Pros:
● Lightweight
● Steel-like strength
● Doesn’t require maintenance or painting
● Easy to manipulateAluminum Cons:
● Not compatible with all chemicals
● Can’t hold as much weight

Lastly, aluminum has the benefit of being corrosion-resistant, meaning it won’t rust over time. It stands up well to rain, snow, salt air, and other environmental elements, which adds to its superior durability over a long period of time.

Because of these qualities, aluminum is the metal of choice for our work platforms and aluminum stairs. In fact, SafeRack is one of the only industrial manufacturing companies building with aluminum. This is because we have the engineers, technology, and expertise it takes to cut, bend, and stamp aluminum to create a stronger, more durable product.

Conversely, vendors like custom fabrication shops — typically more accustomed to working with steel — rarely have the level of experience needed to work successfully with aluminum.

The one downside about aluminum is its lack of chemical compatibility. If exposed to hazardous chemicals, such as caustic soda, sulfuric acid or HCl, it has greater potential to corrode over time. Keep this in mind if you use these chemicals as part of your daily routine. If you do, SafeRack can still outfit you with a solution that works for you — likely in galvanized steel.

Say No to Fiberglass and Wood

Two materials that we would warn you against using are wood and fiberglass. For industrial safety products, these two materials are far from being safe.

The only benefit of wood is its low cost. But it’s far less durable than aluminum or steel, requires constant maintenance, and above all else does not meet OSHA compliance. Similarly, though fiberglass offers resistance to harsh chemicals and adverse weather conditions, it’s far less sturdy compared to aluminum and steel. Product selection here is also extremely limited due to the fact that very few fabricators are qualified to make fiberglass products — meaning costs can surge quickly.

Overall, both aluminum and steel have superior profiles in terms of strength, weight, and long life of service. This is why SafeRack uses the highest-grade aluminum and steel available when designing and manufacturing every one of our products. We’ve found this saves our customers significant time and resources down the road, as they never have to worry about repair, maintenance, or replacement.

If you have any questions about which material to ask for when ordering or building your safety solutions, just ask us. You can call a SafeRack representative