The Low Cost Myth

Technical advancements can reduce costs.

I am always amazed at the continued emphasis on low-cost grinding wheels that employ the same technology that was used 60 years ago. Do your customers use right angle grinders with technology that is over half a century old? Not if they want to be in business for the next half of a century!

Grinding wheels for metal fabrication have had dramatic increases in performance over the past years. Some of the improvements have come in bond technology and manufacturing tolerances, but the majority is the result of advances in abrasive grain technology. Up through 1980, aluminum oxide was the only choice for grinding all types of metal. 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 be friable enough to break down in portable applications. (Friable is the ability of the grain to fracture under pressure.) Zirconia alumina wheels provided three times the life and 25 percent faster cut due to a controlled fracturing of the grain that allowed for increased utilization of each cutting particle in the wheel.

Surface Detail Comparison

This grain technology was advanced in the 1990s with the creation of ceramic alumina grain that provided microfracturing, allowing for a continuous supply of sharp cutting edges while raising the utilization of each grain to over 80 percent before it is expelled from the wheel. This resulted in wheels that lasted up to 10 times as long as aluminum oxide, depending on the material being ground. Cut rates on hard-to-grind alloys increased over aluminum oxide wheels to over 300 percent when the machinery provided enough power to maximize the grain technology. New advanced versions of raised hub wheels showcase the latest technology of ceramic alumina grain blended with zirconia alumina that provides an ideal combination of fast cutting and a long-lasting wheel. In a recent test at a large fabricator of stainless steel, wheel usage was cut from 100 competitive aluminum oxide wheels to 14 ceramic alumina/zirconia alumina wheels to accomplish the same job. When adding in the cost of labor to change wheels, the overall abrasive savings was 80 percent. In addition to the abrasive cost reduction, the cost of labor for the job, due to the faster cut rate, was reduced by 33 percent.

These are the measurable savings that can be done at any shop or job site. In addition, the constant supply of sharp cutting edges provides qualitative savings through less operator fatigue, less machine maintenance and less metallurgical damage/improved part integrity.

Give Your Customers a Solution
So why are manufacturers with labor at $24 and up per hour in fully loaded cost for employees still using the lowest-priced wheels? The first answer is perception. Abrasives are seen as a tertiary expense for the operation. On average, less than two percent of the total cost for the end-user is in this category. What most shops do not realize is that 10-15 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 you change this perception is the second answer to the above question. In recent surveys of metal fabrication shops on how they obtain their product information, the distributor was cited as the primary source. Until the end-user becomes more comfortable in accessing the wealth of information on the Web, it will be up to the manufacturer to provide the training for distributors so they can communicate and, in many cases, run the tests to demonstrate the overall cost reduction opportunity. It is important that manufacturers of abrasive brands provide training for their distributors not only on product applications, but also on how to lower their customer’s total cost in abrasive and labor. To augment these face-to-face training opportunities, three other significant areas of focus that distributors should be looking for from their suppliers are:

• Online support that addresses product information and application solutions

• Training programs that serve to educate the end-user

• Inside sales personnel who are available to answer the distributors’ questions.

If you want to help your customers improve their overall cost position, look at the abrasive products in grinding wheels, cut-off wheels and flap and fiber discs as an opportunity for lowering tooling costs, improving quality and reducing time spent in a key labor area of the operation. And be sure to also look for suppliers who provide you with the tools to answer your customers’ questions so that you can provide the correct solution for their needs.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association

David J. Long Meet the Author
David J. Long is director of marketing at Norton Abrasives, located in Worcester, Massachusetts, and on the Web at