Over the past decade, the metal fabrication industry has gone through some seismic shifts. From new, productive technologies and automation to changes in workforce demographics, shop floors don’t look like they once did. As big ideas such as Industry 4.0 are transforming the manufacturing landscape, there are plenty of small changes that are making significant impacts, as well.
According to Patrick Carroll, senior product manager, maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) at Norton | Saint-Gobain Abrasives, the use of smaller abrasives and supporting tools is on the rise. It’s based on a need to produce parts with fine finishes and provide more control with less gouging of parts, all while improving ergonomics for workers.
“In addition to achieving better finishes, the smaller abrasives trend is in response to reshoring initiatives and the need to accommodate a workforce that is constantly being tasked with more responsibilities,” Carroll says.
“For companies that have decided not to move their labor overseas and for those that are bringing that work back, it’s more important than ever before to take care of employees. Having a smaller tool and a smaller abrasive helps with common issues such as carpal tunnel syndrome while also making it easier to achieve the desired end result with less operator fatigue.”
Definition of Small
The definition of a small abrasive is about as straightforward as they come. For example, if abrasive discs and wheels are, on average, 4.5 in. and larger in diameter, then smaller abrasives are, well, smaller than that in diameter.
Like their larger counterparts, Norton’s smaller abrasives come in a range of product shapes, including quick-change discs that typically measure 4 in. in diameter and less in both coated and non-woven versions, and mini flap discs that measure 3 in. in diameter and less. Similarly, flap wheels measure 3 in. in diameter and less and are popular in 60, 80 and 120 grits.
Smaller abrasives are also available in a range of specialty shapes, including coated spiral bands, cartridge rolls, tapered cartridge rolls, square pads, cross pads, overlap slotted discs and bore polishers as well as non-woven cross buffs and stars. Specialties, such as cartridge tapered spiral rolls that are available in diameters less than 1/2 in. and square and cross pads that measure 3 in. and below, are especially helpful for getting better control in hard-to-reach areas.
In addition to the physical dimensions of the abrasive product, the idea of smaller abrasives also encapsulates power hand tools, such as lighter weight angle and die grinders, as well as improved ancillary abrasive tools, such as mounted points and carbide burrs. When both the abrasive and the handheld tool are lighter weight, the fatigue felt by the operator is greatly reduced.
“Better control of the tool is another key benefit that’s tied to the lighter weight of smaller abrasives,” Carroll explains. “That translates to less rework and a smoother, consistent surface finish. It also translates to less instances of carpal tunnel. Customers could achieve all of those benefits by simply using, as in just one example, a 3-in. disc instead of a 7-in. disc.”
Although the abrasives may be small, the range of applications for which they’re well suited is big. From a channel perspective, smaller abrasives are finding favor with those in basic metal fabrication and MRO as well as in the aerospace, medical, railcar and energy markets. Outside of industrial applications, the abrasives are also popping up in the DIY world and for work in the automotive aftermarket.
From a materials standpoint, smaller abrasives work well for stainless steel, carbon steel, titanium and Inconel, among others.
“Considering that stainless steel or harder materials are often the materials of choice, a hard abrasive grain and versatile abrasive backing are incredibly useful,” Carroll says. “Several of Norton’s small abrasives exhibit those characteristics, but it’s also their lighter weight that gives operators better control of the tool and, therefore, the better, more consistent finishes that these applications require.”
“For so many customers, especially in medical and aerospace, consistent grain finishes and tight tolerances are a must,” he adds. “Whether it’s a knee replacement or a jet engine blade, there is no wiggle room when it comes to tolerances.”
Regardless of the application, smaller abrasives are preferred by any employer that values the health and well being of their employees. When employees are tasked with grinding and finishing throughout an eight-hour day, there are short- and long-term effects.
Short-term effects include fatigue, which can result in inferior surface finishes – especially as the workday wears on. Long-term effects include back and shoulder injuries, which can be costly for the employee as well as the employer. Giving employees a lighter weight tool, however, can reduce the chances for both the short- and long-term effects.
Productivity in Pink
In response to the growing trend of smaller abrasives, Norton released a new product line that includes small specialties and flap wheels that are specific to stainless steel applications. The Norton Merit Pink R928 line of products is what Carroll describes as a better tier line of flap wheels and specialty abrasives.
Included are cartridge and spiral rolls and square and cross pads that feature a ceramic grain that improves beveling, blending, cleaning, detailing, deburring and finishing in stainless steel and other hard-to-grind materials. Also included are mounted points that feature Norton’s 86A aluminum oxide abrasive, which delivers friability and form holding.
To deliver on durability, the Merit Pink flap wheels feature a polycotton backing instead of the cotton backing traditionally found on other abrasive products. They also have a special coating on the grain/bond, which reduces friction for better grain holding ability that can be helpful when dealing with hard-to-grind materials.
“The key point of the polycotton backing is that it offers the best of both worlds – the long life of a polyester backing plus the flexibility and finishing characteristics of a cotton backing,” Carroll says. “The Merit Pink flap wheels also have a grinding aid that reduces heat at the point of contact, which is important for so many of our customers – especially those that cannot compromise on tolerances or aesthetics.”
To tie it all together, Norton released a handheld pneumatic die grinder that’s lighter weight and more ergonomic than most other die grinders on the market. The die grinder can be used with all of the abrasives in the Merit Pink line. In fact, the new die grinder complements the previously released 2-in. and 3-in. Norton Mini Angle Sanders, broadening Norton’s offerings in this category.
“Norton is so committed to spreading the word about small abrasives that it chose a distinctive pink color for the new line of products,” Carroll says. “We understand that customers have a history of using the bigger stuff, but we need a culture change. We hope that the pink color garners a lot of attention and helps drive that shift.”