The design engineer who sets a list of specifications for a particular design and the professional buyer who purchases the components have many similar needs. Both want to produce a quality product in the most cost-effective manner possible. Producing a final design often becomes a tug-of-war of time, cost and quality constraints. One example of these considerations comes when making a 316 vs. 304 stainless steel cost comparison.
You don’t want a product that can’t do its job because you used the wrong materials, but you also don’t want to use the most expensive components if a lower-priced one will get the job done equally as well.
316 vs. 304 Stainless Steel Cost
We’re often asked about the differences between the various grades of stainless steel. You want your product to be competitive, but experience shows that the cheapest route isn’t always the best.
We tell customers that stainless steel is a wonderful alloy known for its strength, durability, and mirror-like shine. There are many different grades, depending on the material content, but the two most often-specified are 304 and 316 stainless. So what’s the difference in these two austenitic stainless steels?
304 Stainless Steel
This alloy is the lower-priced of the two. It’s usually made up of 18-20% chromium and 8-12% nickel.
At the time of this writing, the price of a 304 2B stainless steel sheet was $1.55/lb. Prices always fluctuate -- especially when politics get involved -- so keep checking in on the market price.
316 Stainless Steel
The 316 alloy is usually comprised of a lower amount of chromium (16%) and a potentially higher amount of nickel content (10%). The major difference, though, is the addition of 2-3% molybdenum, which is needed in certain environments to increase corrosion resistance.
It's a little harder to find the price of new 316 stainless online, but perhaps its scrap price gives us a clue. You can get $0.78/lb. for 316 scrap; you can only get $0.56/lb. for 304 scrap.
Your manufacturer should have up-to-date prices for all metal grades.
So, Which Do You Need?
Is it worth the extra money to specify and order 316 stainless, or can the job be accomplished with the lower-priced 304 stainless steel?
Well, that depends on your application. If your end product is going to be used or manufactured near chlorides, salty sea water, or deicing salts, then 316 is a more sensible choice. It will last much longer and keep your product humming along.
If your end product involves milder acids or isn’t exposed to salt, then 304 stainless is a great choice. It has solid resistance to corrosion, is easier to work with, and the slightly lower cost could make a big difference in your total project budget.
Of course, there are other grades of stainless steel with different compositions and mechanical properties. In the 300 series, these can range from the highly ductile type 301; type 321, with its addition of titanium for a lower risk of weld decay; and type 347, which includes niobium. Click here for a stainless steel grades chart.
Crucial factors to take into consideration when choosing the most effective form of stainless steel for a particular job include:
- Corrosion resistance
- Tensile strength
- Heat exposure
Get Your Design Right!
To recap, the cost of 316 stainless steel is slightly higher than its 304 cousin. While some might say that cost is the only factor, it might be wise to spring for the more expensive alloy depending on your job application.
An all-in-one metal fabricator can help you with material and other design choices if you still don’t feel comfortable with your specifications. Admitting you need help now can help you avoid unnecessary extra costs later in the form of defective parts!
Here are some extra resources for those comparing stainless steel materials:
- A Shockingly Simple Difference: 316L and 316 Stainless Steel
- 304 Vs. 304L Stainless Steel for Industrial or Commercial Projects
- Stainless Steel Vs. Carbon Steel Tubing: Find Your Soulmate
- 304 Vs. 303 Stainless Steel Properties: Which Is Better?
- Stainless Steel Welding: Choosing the Best Types of Steel
(Editor's note: This article was originally published in April 2018 and was recently updated.)