The daily grind

By Stephanie Andrews

Custom abrasive flap disc handles multiple operations in railcar manufacturing

May 2013 - In 1804, Lewis and Clark set out for the Pacific Coast by way of St. Louis, Thomas Jefferson was reelected as president and the first steam engine locomotive hauled 10 tons of iron, 70 men and five wagons nine miles from Penydarren Ironworks in Wales. It was in 1830 that the first American steam locomotive, Tom Thumb, was built, and in 1857 the Pullman Sleeping Car was invented to accommodate overnight travelers. The American railroads have come a long way since the early 19th century but are as iconic as the Wild West and black-and-white television. Carrying approximately 1.8 billion tons of freight per year, railcars are the lifeblood of transportation. 

Railcar design and manufacturing is the heart and soul of American Railcar Industries Inc., St. Charles, Mo., which operates two railcar manufacturing facilities in northeast Arkansas. From freight and tank cars to coal and multi-unit intermodal well cars, ARI creates railcars tailored to its customers’ unique specifications. Steel and aluminum castings, heavy steel fabrication, roll forming, production machining, specialty welding and forging are some of the services ARI offers. It also operates six full-service and five mobile repair shops that provide railcar maintenance and repairs—from repainting to rebuilding major wrecks—throughout the U.S. With all the fabricating and repairs ARI tackles, it needed abrasives that would be durable and long-lasting, while saving time and money. Worcester, Mass.-based Norton Abrasives, a brand of Saint-Gobain Abrasives, had the right flap disc for the job.


Smooth touch

Norton Abrasives has been working with ARI for five years. Before that, ARI had tried multiple abrasive products. “We have various vendors come by and want us to try out their products,” says Tom Hazlewood, production manager at ARI. “And we will try them out, especially if they talk about saving time and money.”  

“When I got in the plant and started looking around and working with the people, one thing kind of led to another,” says Tom Deluca, sales manager at Norton Abrasives. “I saw what they were using and I asked them if I could save them money and show them a different product class.” 

The process, however, wasn’t as easy as just ordering from Norton Abrasives’ inventory—ARI needed a custom-designed abrasive. “They wanted to be able to leave the disc on the grinders longer so operators would work more efficiently,” says Deluca, “and wouldn’t have downtime changing off products on their grinders.”

Approximately 98 percent of Norton Abrasives’ customers purchase stock items, but it will design custom abrasives for customers, like ARI, that request it, Deluca says. It took Norton Abrasives nearly six months to develop a flap disc that met ARI’s fabrication needs. The challenge? Satisfying more than 300 different workers. “That was the tough part,” says Deluca. “We would bring in one product class of flap disc and they’d like them but maybe a different department didn’t, so we had to keep overcoming those hurdles.” 

After some trial and error, ARI landed on the winning flap disc—the Norton Blaze R980P. “They were using a variety of products similar to this, so we custom designed a 4 1⁄2-in. flap disc with a certain type of abrasive and resin and backing and we spread it throughout the whole plant,” says Deluca. “But we had to make a product that all three of their plants liked, and they’ve enjoyed the Norton Blaze R980P for the past five years.”

Norton Abrasives provides abrasive products for applications ranging from aerospace and foundry to automotive and do-it-yourself. “It can range from steel accounts to people who fabricate to manufacturers of steel I-beams. It could be for steel pressure vessels—a variety of metal fabricators can use our products,” says Deluca.

ARI uses the Blaze R980P primarily on carbon steel and occasionally stainless steel to blend out weld scratches that may occur during fabrication, says Hazlewood. “It puts a nice smooth surface back where it needs to be.” The flap disc’s plastic backing is trimmable, allowing more use of the flaps—an asset for ARI, which does a lot of blending and finishing work, as well as contouring and edge work.

Ceramic convenience 

Flap discs often come with one of three abrasives: zirconia alumina, ceramic alumina or alumina oxide. The type of abrasive depends on the material a customer is cutting. “People love ceramic alumina for carbon steel, zirconia alumina for carbon steel, mild steel or stainless steel, but a lot of it is personal preference,” says Deluca. “I showed ARI alumina oxide, zirconia alumina and the ceramic alumina, and it saw the biggest value in the ceramic alumina.” 

Ceramic alumina has a fine grain microstructure that fractures to allow a constant flow of sharp cutting edges. This provides a faster cut and longer life, particularly on stainless and other high-alloy materials. While ceramic alumina is still rather new to the abrasives world, it tackles a host of industry concerns, from wear and tear to operator fatigue. “You want [operators] to get in and out of the grind zone as fast as they can because it’s hot,” says Deluca. “These guys are welders and they are working very hard, so you don’t want them having to work even harder to grind away the extra slag from the weld or the grind zone.” 



Abrasives are a mainstay for crews working with freight cars. “We move a lot of metal and do a lot of welding,” says Hazlewood, “and there is a need for grinding rocks and flap discs. We blend welds, and clean spatter from welding.” From TIG to robotic MIG, ARI specializes in welding everything from aluminum to alloy steels. But ARI couldn’t get through as many operations with the abrasives it was using because they wore down and needed to be changed too quickly. Once ARI started using the Norton Blaze R980P, it was able to speed up operations, decreasing turnaround time. 

“The difference between this product and others is it lasts longer,” says Hazlewood. “We have tried some competitors’ grinding rocks that may only last five minutes and you change and get another; same with flap discs. We have had some that fall apart. So longevity is really important to us.” For a company like ARI that specializes in heavy metal fabrication for rail, agriculture, bridge and barge, having a durable abrasive is key to keeping production moving swiftly.  

The Blaze R980P hasn’t just increased productivity but also has made ARI employees happy. “My operators like them because they last longer,” says Hazlewood, “and that means you don’t have to change them as much. We can get more production. It also has helped with cost because we can get more bang for our buck.” FFJ

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