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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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.
American model Karlie Kloss sports
abrasive-cut Swarovski crystal jewellery, which is cut
into intricate designs using quartz, sand
and other minerals.
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.
Robotic abrasive-blasting machines have
been used to remove old paint from the Sydney Harbour
Bridge. (Source: Christophe Robert Hervouet, via
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Abrasive grinding discs are a steady,
market for abrasive materials.
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
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
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
"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
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
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