The Myth of Low-Price Grinding Wheels

To improve your overall cost position, David Long of Saint-Gobain Abrasives examines how premium grinding wheels, cut-off wheels, flap and fiber discs are competitive opportunities for lowering your tooling cost, improving your quality and eliminating the time and cost involved in a key labor area of the operation.

To improve your overall cost position, premium grinding wheels, cut-off wheels, flap and fiber discs all represent competitive opportunities for lowering your tooling cost, improving your quality and eliminating the time and cost involved in a key labor area of the operation. Here’s why.

Having been in the abrasives business for over 34 years in various sales and marketing positions, I have always been amazed at the continued emphasis in the industry on low-cost grinding wheels and coated abrasive discs that employ the same technology that was used 60 years ago. Think about it: Do you use right angle grinders with technology that is over half a century old? Not if you want to be in business for the next half of this century.

Grinding wheels for metal fabrication have experienced dramatic increases in performance over the years. Some of these improvements came through stronger bond technology and closer manufacturing tolerances, but the majority of results were directly related to advances in abrasive grain technology. Up through 1980, for example, aluminum oxide was the only choice for grinding all types of metal. However, in the late 1970s the creation of zirconia alumina grain (through a fusion of zirconia and aluminum oxide) provided a sharp, tough grain that would still remain friable (the ability of the grain to fracture under pressure) enough to break down in portable applications.

Zirconia alumina wheels provided three times the life and a 25 percent faster cut due to a controlled fracturing of the grain that allowed for increased utilization of each cutting particle in the wheel. In the 1990s this grain technology advanced through the creation of ceramic alumina grain. This new grain provided superior microfracturing that allowed a continuous supply of sharp cutting edges while raising the utilization of each grain to over 80 percent before being expelled from the wheel. This resulted in wheels lasting up to 10 times as long as aluminum oxide, depending on the material being ground.

That’s not all. When the machinery provides enough power to maximize the grain technology, cut rates on hard-to-grind alloys increase to over 300 percent versus aluminum oxide wheels. One example of the latest technology of proprietary ceramic alumina grain blended with zirconia alumina is a NorZon Plus raised hub wheel, an ideal combination of the industry’s fastest cutting and longest lasting wheel. In a recent test at a large fabricator on stainless steel, wheel usage was cut from 100 competitive A/O oxide wheels to 14 of these advanced wheels to accomplish the same job. When adding in the cost of labor to change wheels, the overall abrasive savings was 80 percent. On top of the abrasive cost reduction, the cost of labor for the job was reduced by another 33 percent through the faster cut rate of the advanced wheel.

These are the immediate measurable savings that can be achieved at any shop or job site. Then add to these the longer-term qualitative savings of less operator fatigue, less machine maintenance and less metallurgical damage/improved part integrity that are realized through the constant supply of sharp cutting edges. So why are manufacturers that pay out labor and burden costs of $24 per hour and higher still using the lowest priced wheels?

The answer is perception. Abrasives are seen as a tertiary expense for the operation. On average, less than 2 percent of the total cost for the end user falls into this category. What most shops do not realize is that 10 to 15 percent of their labor is consumed in metal fabrication and finishing operations. While cutting their abrasive cost is attractive, elimination of labor costs is the real upside for the end user.

How can this perception be changed? In recent surveys that asked how metal fabrication shops obtain their product information, the distributor was cited as the primary source. This means that until the end user becomes more comfortable in accessing the wealth of technical information on the Internet, it will be up to the abrasives manufacturer to provide the training for distributors so they can communicate and, in many cases, run the tests necessary to actually demonstrate the overall cost reduction opportunity to the end users. In other words, abrasives manufacturers will have an extensive outside sales force that not only trains their distributors in direct product applications, but also in how to lower their customer’s total cost in abrasives and labor.

If you are looking to improve your overall cost position, consider investing in premium abrasive grinding wheels, cut-off wheels, flap and fiber discs as competitive opportunities for lowering your tooling cost, improving your quality and eliminating the time and cost involved in a key labor area of the operation.

David Long

David Long is the director of marketing and strategy for Norton Abrasives Inc., 1 New Bond Street, MS 301-403, Worcester, MA 01606, 508-795-4435, Fax: 508-795-2794,, He is also a columnist for Melting Point, a welding industry e-newsletter that is published each quarter by Fabricating & Metalworking.


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