According to statista.com, U.S. consumption of aluminum totaled 5.1 million tons in 2022, a substantial rise from the roughly 4.1 million tons used in 2021. Part of this growth is due to a rising number of fabricators and manufacturers shifting from steel to aluminum based on a variety of factors, including aluminum’s lower weight, corrosion resistance and recyclability. However, in industries where weight reduction is critical, such as aerospace, automotive and transportation, the value of aluminum has been long understood.
Whether the use of aluminum is the norm or is being newly adopted, businesses must ensure that they are using the right tools for the material. When Norton | Saint-Gobain Abrasives, a producer of grinding, cutting, blending, finishing and polishing solutions, saw the sustained growth of aluminum it set out to help fabricators and manufacturers cut and grind aluminum and other non-ferrous soft metals with new wheels.
“The biggest thing is that aluminum is a lightweight material,” says Brad Povelaites, manager, product and commercial management at Norton | Saint-Gobain Abrasives. “It’s a lot lighter weight than steel, so it helps with reducing gas consumption if you have to move or haul things. One of the biggest industries that we’ve seen shifting from steel to aluminum is trailer manufacturing. You can still put a lot of weight on the trailer, but your energy and gas consumption go way down when using aluminum.”
So, for trailer manufacturers and beyond, the company launched its Norton for Aluminum thin wheels for the right-angle cutting and grinding of aluminum and other non-ferrous soft metals at Fabtech 2022 in Atlanta. The wheels boast twice the removal rates and 30 percent faster cutting.
This new design was made with end user’s needs in mind,” says Adriana Fuentes, product manager at Norton. “We used a specialized bond technology that prevents overheating and loading, which improves material removal rates while also improving wheel life. The combination of the bond technology with a high-quality grain resulted in our proprietary special formula that gives improved performance across the spectrum of aluminum cutting and grinding applications.”
Taking a Load Off
Norton and, well, anyone that has ever needed to cut or grind aluminum understands that there are a few common challenges to overcome when working with the material. Loading of the wheel might be the top offender. Because aluminum is a softer metal, an abrasive wheel can become gummy, clogged or loaded, which can reduce its efficiency and increase the risk of overheating.
Technically, “loading” is the term that industry professionals use, but out in the field or on the shop floor, an operator would probably just say that the wheel is “gummed up.” When that happens, there are a few options, but they all take time and eat up productivity.
“The biggest concern is that operators will try to remove the loading from the wheel,” Povelaites says. “They’ll take that wheel and flat grind it on a piece of steel to try to remove the debris, but running a wheel at those high speeds can be a big safety issue. Because Norton for Aluminum wheels don’t load up or get gummed up, the operator doesn’t have to worry about it or try to remove it.
Operators also don’t have to apply wax to the wheel, Povelaites adds, which is a common approach to keeping a wheel from getting gummed up in the first place. Wax takes time to apply and then it takes extra time and often chemicals to remove the wax debris that imparts itself onto the part. Anytime chemicals can be removed from the manufacturing equation, it is a good thing.
If an operator isn’t using wax or trying to dress the wheel, the only other option is to change out the wheel for a new one. And that adds up – in the form of lost productivity and product cost.
“When we ask potential customers how we can help reduce bottlenecks,” Povelaites says, “many of them say they need help reducing the amount of wheel changes they do in a shift. In terms of the savings they can expect, we have an entire department dedicated to quantifying that. The process is called systems documentation where we estimate labor rates, cost of the product and cost of the material. If you over-grind expensive material, there’s a big cost to that, too, of course.
Aluminum has seen rising adoption for some time in a variety of industries, including aerospace and automotive. As its lightweight, corrosion-resistant characteristics gain more visibility, additional applications are coming to light.
According to Adriana Fuentes, product manager at Norton | Saint-Gobain Abrasives, the rising trend of using aluminum in place of steel is putting a spotlight on the need for dedicated aluminum abrasives. From shipbuilding and scaffolding manufacturing to window and door production, almost every market that cuts and welds aluminum will need grinding and cutting wheels designed specifically for aluminum.
“The new Norton for Aluminum wheels are ideal for aluminum, but they can also be used on other non-ferrous materials, which adds to the versatility of the product,” Fuentes says. “We talk about legacy aluminum users like recreational boat manufacturers and the automotive and aerospace industries, but there are plenty of other applications, such as the aluminum steps that are being produced for buses and trailers. There are so many applications for aluminum that are already on the market, but there are so many more that are emerging.”
The cost of using the wrong tool when working with aluminum goes far beyond the price of a grinding wheel or the lost productivity from swapping out wheels. When operators are forced to use inferior products, that puts their comfort and safety at risk, which can result in injury or high labor turnover rates.
“When an operator uses the proper tool, they can let the wheel do the work,” Fuentes says. “Conversely, with a wheel that is prone to loading, a natural response is to add more pressure and expend more energy. But that only causes more heat buildup with no real material removal. With Norton for Aluminum wheels, however, operators just need to work smoothly and let the wheel bite into the material. By applying less pressure, their overall fatigue will be significantly reduced throughout the day.
When operators use the wrong tools, they are also susceptible to various conditions, including white knuckle syndrome from the extreme grip required to apply extra pressure as well as vibration white finger, which results from the prolonged use of vibrating tools, like a grinder. Both have similar side effects and can cause numbness and tingling in the fingers and whitening of the fingertips.
Anytime an employer can make an operator more comfortable and less prone to injury or fatigue, it leads to better staff retention. Furthermore, when a business owner can promote the best equipment on their shop floor, it’s a great incentive for someone to choose them as an employer over the business down the street.
In addition to fatigue, aluminum dust and debris can pose a risk to workers’ health and safety, as it can be highly flammable and cause respiratory issues if inhaled. Therefore, responsible employers should employ proper safety precautions for operators, such as PPE and designated dust collection systems.
And finally, while it might be a minor issue, riffling through a box of wheels to find the right one can be frustrating for operators. And that’s why Fuentes says her team wanted the Norton for Aluminum wheels to be easy to identify in the shop where there are so many other wheels in use. The wheels’ grayishsilver coloring is meant to be a clear indicator that they are meant for use on aluminum and other non-ferrous soft metals.
Feedback From the Field
In fact, one field operator testing a Norton 5-in.-by-0.045-in. Type 1 cutoff wheel said that the results were almost immediate. “It tested so well that after two cuts, the operator/ supervisor said we can start supplying these on a full-time basis.”
The same field operator, who previously had difficulty finding a good wheel for grinding aluminum, tested a Norton 5-in.-by-1/4- in. Type 27 grinding wheel and experienced “fast removal rates and no loading.”
Another customer said that the wheels delivered 30 percent faster material removal, adding, “These are the only grinding wheels truly meant for grinding aluminum. Cut rate is 100 percent consistent, which seems to be a rarity in aluminum-specific Type 27 grinding wheels.”
And all Norton for Aluminum wheel users will not be surprised when further long-term benefits, such as better product quality and higher staff retention, emerge.