80/20 Aluminum’s Cost (Short- & Long-Term) for Structural Framing
Aluminum extrusion framing systems are a no-brainer for many industrial and commercial products and machines that need structural support. With the right materials and some clever engineering, you can rapidly build a high-value solution with a long useful life.
There does, however, seem to be a lot of debate in online forums about “value” and “right materials.”
Often, 80/20 aluminum’s cost is the measuring stick for extrusion framing. (Note that 80/20 is a specific brand, and doesn’t refer to all T-slots, despite many folks using the terms interchangeably.)
No matter who you buy from, the cost of aluminum T-slots depends on several factors, from material selection to design complexity. There are also “hidden” costs – the ones you face months and years from now.
To ensure you get the best value throughout the project’s life, review the top four factors in up-front cost, plus the top three influences on post-sale costs. We’ll cover not only the cost of 80/20 framing and similar competitors, but also a custom extrusion option gaining popularity recently.
Up-Front Costs – 80/20 Aluminum & Custom Alternatives
There are thousands of profiles in the T-slot library to match your specs and desired performance level. Here are two common examples from 80/20 and a competitor, Vention:
Cost per 45mm
$2.79 per cut
None for standard lengths
For 80/20 orders, shipping costs rise incrementally at lengths of 138", 174", 210", and 234".
Those are the bare basics. To truly understand the value of your framing system purchase, consider these up-front pricing points:
1. Material Grade
Different alloys have different prices, so it’s important to select an aluminum alloy that matches the demands of your project.
- 6063-T6 – slightly lower cost, limited strength
- 6005-T5 & 6105-T5 – better strength than 6063-T6 at the same price
- 6061-T6 – high strength, but pricier because it’s tougher to manufacture
- 7075-T6 – highest cost, but its brackets excel in high-stress applications
Overall, there are many grades available that will raise or reduce the amount of weight an aluminum extrusion can hold – particularly for the brackets.
The most expensive materials are reserved for special T-slot extrusion alternatives that use self-aligning technology. The high-strength components mechanically lock, offering long-term benefits for industrial applications that usually offset the initial cost – and then some.
2. Size – Part, Assembly, & Order
Each aluminum part’s size is commonly referenced by vendors in pounds per foot.
Sizes over ~7 lb./ft. may require a higher minimum order. This is because larger parts require a bigger press to manufacture.
The size of the overall structure adds indirect cost once it comes time to assemble it.
This is where you’ll get wildly different results depending on whether you choose T-slots or their more highly engineered successors. The superior connection strength of self-aligning frames allows you to reduce the assembly’s size, saving material cost.
What’s more, traditional T-slot systems are notoriously slow builds often contracted to a third party. Advanced systems (the self-aligning ones mentioned above) reduce labor time by 50%, and a single in-house worker can assemble them with an Allen key.
The larger your build is, the more efficient it is to pay a little more for high-end framing.
The volume of your order may further impact the rate a supplier charges you. The larger your order is, the better your odds are of getting a discount. Give your custom aluminum extrusion supplier an early heads-up about how many you’ll need for the first order, and whether recurring orders may be necessary.
3. Shape & Complexity
Builders of low-intensity and low-stakes applications tend to source from the traditional T-slot component library. This library has grown to 1,000s of parts since the 1970s, so chances are you won’t need a custom order.
If you need custom shapes or detailed designs – like cutouts or intricate patterns – you may need to pay for the supplier to create custom tooling dies.
High-end (self-aligning) extrusion framing has a smaller part library, increasing the odds you’ll need to pay for custom brackets. However, just like with strength, the purpose of these ultra-precise systems is to offer alternatives for harsh applications, where T-slots offer poor value.
One reason these high-strength aluminum frames cost more is that the technology requires more advanced machining techniques to manufacture. Also, smoothly blended curves and edge-breaking radii make for more aesthetically pleasing parts that eliminate stress concentration.
All T-slot suppliers anodize their aluminum parts by default to protect their structural integrity and aesthetics.
Most suppliers offer clear and black finishes. Look out for exceptions:
- Some manufacturers don’t anodize profiles in black by default – make sure yours doesn’t charge extra for a non-standard finish.
- Light bronze is another color available for a minimal cost increase, but it’s only available at a single supplier, Anglelock. This color is only found in architectural-grade anodizing (which provides added corrosion and UV resistance).
Structures for harsh environments might also benefit from architectural-grade anodization. This option adds a negligible amount to the final cost, but it too is exclusive to a single supplier.
Long-Term Costs – 80/20 Aluminum & Alternatives
It doesn’t take a genius to compare aluminum extrusion price tags. Where managers and other influential stakeholders can make a real difference is calculating the long-term impact of a purchase.
The top ROI factors for aluminum framing components are:
1. Stability – Custom Engineering
Durability is an odd concept in engineering. The less you spend, the more you pay.
In a static, low-risk, or temporary application, the popular brand (or a cheap 80/20 alternative) may provide acceptable bang for your buck. In dynamic applications – especially those with vibration – the total cost of ownership skyrockets for T-slot systems.
If you buy a standard T-slot system with crudely engineered connections, they’ll loosen and weaken over time, resulting in extra expenses:
- Recurring maintenance to tighten connections
- Bracketing add-ons
- Replacement of failed parts
- Downtime until new parts arrived & are installed
- Lost time due to injury & other safety factors
In applications where stability is paramount to safety, there’s an additional human element to cost:
- Losing a productive employee for weeks because a loose bracket caused a smashed finger
- An insurance claim because a machine guard failed
- Legal action because an overhead assembly fell
For these critical applications, self-aligning aluminum framing offers far superior total cost of ownership. They create mechanical locks that never slip and cause injury, even when someone or something puts an unexpected load on the assembly.
2. Modularity & Shipping
If your framing assembly must travel and adapt to changing needs, pay close attention to the engineering style in which you’re investing.
Take the example of a company displaying exciting, new technology at trade shows around the country. This robot enclosure, built from T-slots, gets bounced around while traveling by truck, meaning it needs to be reassembled and realigned from scratch at each stop. Building it is more complex than simply tightening a few screws, so the company pays a third party to assemble it every time it’s moved.
Before you buy, consider the long-term costs of frequent setup, teardown, and modification of your modular framing system.
If you are in that situation, investing in a self-aligning framing system will likely be more cost-efficient because it eliminates redundancy. They’re a one-time assembly you can handle in-house, saving future labor costs.
Because you can easily remove and add components without worrying about alignment, these systems are also easy to repurpose. If you have a field product or production process with ever-changing needs, a modular system can promote a “reuse, don’t replace” philosophy.
Aluminum extrusion technology varies in aesthetic quality, both from a chemical and a physical standpoint.
In applications prone to corrosion, anodized extrusions are a more cost-effective option than modular steel framing, which requires regular recoating to avoid rusting.
You can extend the benefit of aluminum by going with an architectural-grade finish. This surface protection lasts even longer in applications with moisture, chemicals and other corrosives.
A more obvious eyesore that can subtract long-term value is an add-on component (or two or three … or 10). Because standard T-slots systems are quick to loosen, sag, and fail, engineers are forced to add bulky supports as needed.
Modifications add up over time, and the whole structure often ends up in the trash because it looks embarrassing and unprofessional.
The more you invest in your framing up-front, the less likely you are to throw it away and pay for a new one, years ahead of schedule.
[More Resources] 80/20 Aluminum Cost vs. Alternatives
How much does 80/20 cost? First, that depends on whether you’re actually looking for that specific brand’s products. Second, it depends on whether your application is actually built with 80/20 aluminum and its cookie-cutter alternatives.
The 80/20 brand tends to be more expensive up-front than its lesser-known competitors. When it comes to long-term ROI, they’re all the same – wasteful and frustrating, except in the light-duty applications.
Meanwhile, advanced aluminum extrusion framing that maintains alignment may cost more up-front in terms of:
- Bracket pricing
- Custom engineering
- Architectural-grade finishing
However, in anything but the tamest applications, self-aligning aluminum frames are vastly more cost-efficient than traditional T-slots because they:
- Are maintenance-free
- Can last for decades
- Injure fewer people
To learn more about advanced aluminum modular frames for industrial use, see our other blog resources: