Cut and thrust in the global abrasives market

By IM Staff
Published: Monday, 22 August 2016

The global abrasives market is a fairly steady one, but new innovations in application technology are helping to compensate for areas of shrinking demand, Rose Pengelly, IM Correspondent, discovers.

If diversity is the key to survival, then the abrasives industry is better placed than most industrial sectors to endure the triumvirate of stagnant global GDP rates, oversupply and rising competition that have been gnawing at the fundamentals of many raw materials sectors for the last five years.

With applications ranging from crystal jewellery to toilet cleaners, abrasives have been relatively fortunate in terms of the health of their demand drivers, although some pockets have performed better than others. Precise cutting technology for high value component parts and high tech devices are fairly narrow but nevertheless high value and expanding areas of abrasives demand, while refractory and foundry abrasives consumption have tracked the flat-to-declining growth trajectories of worldwide steel, aluminium, cement and glass production.

Abrasive minerals make up a long list, but the most commonly used types include aluminium oxide (alumina), carborundum (garnet), silica, silicon carbide and zirconia. 

There are no consensus figures for the overall size of the global abrasives market, but commercial reports covering various segments of the industry all point to growth in the sector’s value over the next few years.

A study by London-based market research agency ReportBuyer predicts that the value of the global abrasives market will grow from $421.bn in 2015 to reach $58.43bn by 2021, based on a forecast compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.1%.

Technavio, another London-based market research provider, calculates that the coated and bonded abrasives sectors, the principal abrasive applications for alumina, will collectively be worth $5bn by 2020, assuming a CAGR of between 5% and 6%.

Delaware, US-headquartered Global Market Insights Inc. has forecast that the worldwide market for sandblasting media, which use abrasives including alumina, silicon carbide, silica sand and garnet, will grow at a CAGR of 6.5% to reach a total value of $441.9m by 2023.

Analysts agree that abrasives consumption is rising fastest in industrialising and urbanising countries in the Asia-Pacific region. However, the more mature markets of North America and Europe are currently still among the most valuable regions for abrasives consumption.

According to figures compiled by the France-based Federation of European Producers of Abrasives Products (FEPA), the EU’s abrasives industry alone has an annual turnover of €3.5bn ($3.88bn) and employs around 20,000 people.

"The abrasives industry is of major importance for the EU," says Franck Verguet, secretary general of FEPA. "European abrasives producers represent extremely high levels of expertise in technical fields. They provide solutions for many other industries in Europe and worldwide, including automotive, aeronautic, energy, green technologies, electronics, communications, construction and agriculture – as well as the do-it-yourself (DIY) segment."

The Freedonia Group, another market research firm based in Cleveland, US, has estimated that abrasives demand in the US will expand at a rate of 3.8% per year to be worth $7bn by 2019, driven by growth in durable goods manufacturing.

According to Jeff Wherry, managing director of the Cleveland-based United Abrasives Manufacturers Association (UAMA), the automotive industry has been one of the fastest expanding markets for abrasives in the US.

"US car demand is fairly steady – 2016 auto sales look like they are going to be close to what they were last year – but auto designs are becoming more sophisticated and this is good for abrasives," he explains. As well as abrasive tools used to size automotive parts, sandblasting is employed in auto-manufacturing to clean surfaces before paint is sprayed on, to improve anti-corrosion resistance and adhesion.

US abrasives consumption took a hit when oil and gas prices plummeted in 2014. Making the machinery and solid structures and components required by the energy industry uses large volumes of abrasives, Wherry says. The country’s shale oil and gas boom was a good few years for the abrasives sector, he remembers, "but since oil and gas prices have stayed low, this has kind of tailed off now".

Despite the collapse of the energy sector and flat-to-modest rate of growth in US automotive demand and economy generally, other factors are helping to boost the value of the domestic abrasives market.

"We are seeing more and more re-shoring of US companies that make and use abrasives," Wherry says. "A few years ago these companies moved out to Asia, but they found they were unable to penetrate the Chinese market and also that the quality of the product they can produce there is frequently sub-par."

US abrasives manufacturers might have been repatriated, but according to US Geological Survey (USGS) figures, these companies still rely on China for their raw materials. The US imported 83% of its fused alumina and 60% of its silicon carbide from China between 2011 and 2014.

In its annual review of the abrasives sector for 2015, the USGS notes that "foreign competition, particularly from China, is expected to persist and continue to limit production in North America". 

However Wherry does not regard imports as a threat to the US abrasives industry. "I don’t think we have a problem with dumping of Chinese materials," he says, but acknowledges that cheap steel imports have posed a threat to refractory abrasives demand.

Abrasive1  

American model Karlie Kloss sports abrasive-cut Swarovski crystal jewellery, which is cut into intricate designs using quartz,  sand and other minerals. (Source: Swarovski)

Innovation

Although abrasives demand is generally rising at a healthy rate, anecdotal evidence suggests that competition to claim a share of this expanding market is also growing.

Product innovation in this area is tough and huge sums can be invested in R&D for incremental improvements which are difficult to sell to customers. As a result, in addition to research into producing new abrasive materials, technologies for applying abrasives are receiving more attention, with software developments playing an increasingly important role in the industry.

ReportBuyer’s study highlights a growing interest in "accurate manufacturing" techniques offered by new abrasives technologies, while Global Market Insights’ report identifies increasing demand for the exact shaping and finishing of materials abrasives can offer. Specifically, it notes the adoption of robotic abrasive-blasting, which allows for more precise quality control than standard automation systems.

"One of the few positives to come out of increasingly tight regulation of this industry has been a thrust forward in innovation," says Wherry. "Right now, I’d say that R&D is pretty healthy, we’re seeing a lot of new technologies being developed and brought onto the market."

The rapidly developing software base for abrasives has allowed for these products to be used in an ever-wider range of applications, with some notable achievements.

Earlier this year, abrasive-blasting robots were employed in what will be a two-year project to repaint the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia – the first time it had been repainted in its 81-year history.

The maintenance team responsible for
the project needed to find a way of removing the old paint from the structure without exposing workers to harmful substances like lead and asbestos. Collaboration with a group of researchers from Sydney’s University of Technology led to the development of two grit-blasting robots equipped with high-pressure abrasive blasting technology. These devices were able to map the bridge as a virtual 3D structure, determining how much force was needed to remove the paint as they worked their way across the bridge.

The achievement has been hailed as a first by its creators, who think there is potential to commercialise their robotic abrasive technology for maintenance of steel bridges across the world.

In the US, social media giant Facebook recently installed high-precision abrasive water jet cutters at its new hardware prototype laboratory in Menlo Park, California. The devices are being used to build the outer shell of the company’s recently announced Facebook Surround 360, a panoramic camera which is due to be rolled out later this year.

Progress is also being made in other, more traditional application areas. In the aerospace sector, new product lines being pedalled by Belgian industrial materials giant Saint-Gobain include fixed abrasive robotic polishing technology for turbine blades using engineered abrasive belts.

French firm Imerys recently launched its own sol gel product – a specially engineered alumina-based ceramic grain for use in premium performance refractory bonded and coated abrasive applications.

"Imerys produced the abrasive grain through fusion – fused aluminum oxide and sintering – sintered bauxite and alumina," explains Olivier Berger, vice president of Imerys’ fused alumina division.

The sol gel process is a method of producing solid materials from small molecules. Imerys’ patented product based on the technology was developed in Austria by the company’s Centre for Abrasives and Refractories Research and Development over the last three years and is now produced in a production facility in Villach. 

Berger says that Imerys’ material can deliver a performance improvement of around 15% over existing abrasive products and that Imerys has been working to rapidly ramp up its output.   

Abrasive2  

Robotic abrasive-blasting machines have been used to remove old paint from the Sydney Harbour Bridge. (Source: Christophe Robert Hervouet, via Flickr)

Environmental considerations

According to FEPA’s Verguet, one of the chief aims of improving abrasives technology is to increase downstream efficiency by reducing raw materials and energy consumption and enhancing the sustainability of industrial processes.

Such policies, coupled with cost-saving incentives, are driving research into more efficient abrasives technology. Many mineral-based abrasives, including alumina and silicon carbide, are regarded as recoverable and reusing these materials is encouraged.

The USGS estimates that up to 30% of fused alumina and 5% of silicon carbide is recycled annually in the US, leaving ample scope for improvement in recovery rates and plenty of commercial potential for companies to develop relevant technology – an opportunity which many are seizing.

In April this year, the UK’s University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) published the findings of a four-year, €7m research programme conducted in partnership with US aerospace technology group Boeing, to design new ways of waterjet cutting and milling composite materials which reduced the process’ environmental footprint while maintaining performance.

Researchers who worked on the project, which was dubbed "REFORM", found that using a new design of cutting head and nozzle for the waterjet device increased water and abrasives recovery by 95%. Given that around 60% of the cost of waterjet cutting is typically accounted for by the abrasives content, this represents a significant cost saving.

In the US, globally operating sheet metal profiling company Hypertherm last year unveiled its EcoSift abrasives recycling unit, which they claim enables companies to reclaim up to 60% of their used waterjet abrasives, which can be reused without any reduction in cutting quality.

Recycling of abrasives is likely to take some of the heat out of growth in consumption of virgin materials, although this is balanced to some extent by a trend towards higher intensity usage, particularly in the sandblasting segment. 

"Growing emphasis on improved manufacturing processes will prove beneficial to sandblasting media market revenue, since it not only requires higher usage per unit, but also correspondingly impacts demand for value-added higher priced products," Global Market Insights points out in its report.

For abrasives which are not recycled, manufacturers and users are coming under increased pressure to demonstrate that these materials can be disposed of responsibly.

One of the main advantages of using some natural mineral abrasives, like silica sand and garnet, are that these are considered to be expendable and can be released into the environment without causing pollution. 

Manufactured abrasives, such as glass beads, steel shot and plastic media, have a less neutral impact, however.

One of the most recent well publicised examples of this has been the backlash against plastic microbead abrasives widely used in skincare products and toothpaste. These tiny plastic beads are small enough to pass through water filtration systems into waterways and oceans, where they can be ingested by aquatic and marine life. Global activist group Greenpeace has called on cosmetics companies to remove microbeads from their products and there have been moves in North America and Europe to ban their use outright.

The phasing out of plastic microbeads is creating a gap in cosmetic markets for new types of exfoliator. Although this is already being filled by plant-based alternatives such as walnut and coconut shell powders, mineral abrasives could also benefit from this trend. Dehydrated silica and hydrated aluminium oxides are already being used in toothpaste, while new brands of mineral-based exfoliators containing magnesium sulphate (Epsom salt), pumice, magnesium alumina silicate and sodium bicarbonate are gaining traction.

Abrasive3  

Abrasive grinding discs are a steady, traditional
market for abrasive materials.

Regulation 

The heavy industry applications of most abrasives mean that this sector comes with a healthy dose of safety regulation, to such an extent that some regard its governance as too onerous a burden to allow the industry to thrive.

"The regulation side of this industry continues to grow and grow," complains UAMA’s Wherry. "One of the effects of this has been to make it so expensive to hire people and companies have to spend so much of their time keeping up with new regulations – its keeps us all busy at UAMA, helping them deal with that."

One of the most significant sweeping pieces of legislation to affect the US abrasives industry was the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) final rule on employees’ exposure to silica. The rule, which came into effect on 23 June this year, reduces the permissible exposure limit for respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic metre of air, averaged over an eight-hour shift.

The widely debated legislation is designed to curb the health hazards associated with the use of silica and is generally regarded as a positive step forward in protecting workers, but there have been criticisms of the cost and bureaucracy associated with complying with the new rules. In addition, industry analysis suggests that the legislation will hamper North American industry demand for silica-based abrasives.

Other practical safety concerns regarding the use of abrasive tools are also regulated. Abrasives manufacturers based in, or selling to, EU countries are governed by European safety standards: EN 12413 for bonded abrasives, EN 13236 for superabrasives and EN 13743 for coated abrasives, as well various other standards for abrasive power tools. While these standards are not mandatory, national abrasives federations generally advise manufactures and distributors of these products to conform to the guidelines.

The British Abrasives Federation, for example, offers training on the safe use of abrasives and recommends that users refresh their familiarity with the guidance every three years.

"The safety of the end users is the major issue faced by abrasives producers," says FEPA’s Verguet. He explains that the European safety standards have been developed by industry experts, with particular attention paid to how the products are used and the associated risks.

"However, these standards are not sufficiently known by the end users who consider abrasives as commodity products and ignore that they are exposed to extremely serious injuries in the event of an accident," Verguet says. Although industry bodies generally assume responsibility for promoting product and usage standards, it is harder to ensure awareness among non-professional users of abrasives.

Broadly speaking, despite complaints about bureaucracy, which are common to most externally regulated industries, the abrasives sector is not considered particularly high risk and the OSHA silica exposure regulation was an exceptional move.

Supply of most abrasive minerals is currently cheap and plentiful and unlike some other raw materials, the concentration of their supply inside China does not seem to be a cause for concern within the abrasives industry and pricing of these minerals has been fairly stable, so there has been relatively little in the way of reactive trade regulation for abrasives.

Many of the largest abrasives producers, like Imerys, have locked in their supply and established processes by which they can guarantee access to the quality of material they need at pre-agreed prices. "Imerys’ strategy on alumina sourcing is to secure long term supply agreements with well-established partners and try to limit exposure to the spot market," explains Berger. "Therefore, short term price evolutions have no real impact".

For now, the main focus of attention in the abrasives industry is on new technology and markets and luckily for abrasives manufacturers, the sector is a fertile one for innovation and variety. 

*Conversion made August 2016