In industrial applications requiring precision grinding, abrasive wheels are commonly employed. Such machines have been used by the manufacturing industry for over 150 years to produce high-quality finishes on a number of products. However, despite their widespread use in manufacturing, abrasive wheels are typically unknown to the general public due to their size, price, and narrow range of applications. In this blog, we will discuss how these precision machines are made and how they work to produce many of the items we use daily.
An abrasive wheel is a circular mass of abrasive material that can be mounted on a spinning axle to facilitate grinding. Abrasive wheels have been utilized widely in manufacturing as far back as the 1870s when engineers used glass-like materials as abrasives. However, before such engineering techniques were available, grindstones made of natural stone had long been implemented to achieve similar results.
The production of abrasive wheels is an important and tightly regulated process due to the high risk of injury in cases of failure. Today, most manufacturers use a cold-press method in which two or more materials are mixed together and shaped into the desired disk-like structure at room temperature. Cold-pressing starts with the selection of the various abrasive, bonding, and additive materials, which are all mixed in a specific ratio. Once the material has been combined, it is placed into several molds, which help shape it into various pieces. After the material is set in the molds, a hydraulic press puts up to 5000 psi of pressure onto the material, which helps it settle with uniform shape and thickness. While there are no universal performance standards governing the production of abrasive wheels, most manufacturers have agreed upon and follow voluntary standards.
While abrasive wheels have been formed using a wide variety of materials, the two most commonly used today are silicon carbide and aluminum oxide. Silicon carbide is harder and sharper than aluminum oxide but is more brittle and prone to fractures. As such, it is used on materials with low tensile strength, whereas the opposite is true for aluminum oxide. Other materials such as diamond and cubic boron nitride (CBN) are considered superabrasives and are only used in specialty applications. Each material can be prepared in different grain sizes, with 10 being the most coarse and 600 being the finest. Coarse grain sizes allow for quicker, yet less precise work, while finer grains are used for precision finishes.
Several other factors determine the performance of the abrasive wheel, including wheel grade, grain spacing, and wheel bond. First, wheel grade is quantified on an alphabetical scale from A-Z, with the structure getting "harder" as it moves to Z. Soft grades are compatible with hard materials and have a shorter lifespan, while the opposite is true for hard grades. Next, grain spacing is ranked from 1-17, with 1 being the densest and 17 being the least. Density is positively correlated with the accuracy of the finish and tracks negatively with the wheel's ability to cut deep. Finally, the bonding material used determines the level of cooling and maximum speed at which the wheel can spin. Examples of bonding materials include rubber, oxychloride, silicate, and more.
In general, six types of abrasive wheels are commonly used and are thus explained:
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