1. Creating a game-changing abrasive
particles - where science matters
  • Creating a game-changing abrasive

    By Sue Casement, 3M Storyteller and Eliot Popko, 3M Videographer

    quote - right when we needed it

    cubitron abrasive metalworking
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    • This 3M inventor went from studying how glass breaks to creating a game-changing abrasive.

      Award-winning 3M scientist Mark Schwabel grew up knowing he had career options – he could be any kind of engineer he wanted to be. He and his brothers were strongly encouraged to be engineers, so that’s exactly what they did.

    • Mark Schwabel abrasive discs

      Mark earned his Ph.D. in ceramics engineering, studying how glass breaks – which could be applied to the durability of fiber optic cables. That set him up for a unique career path where he worked in both technical and business roles and made global connections that he never expected.

      As he neared graduation, he did some networking in the ceramics industry and landed a job at 3M. He was able to apply his ceramics knowledge to making a better abrasive. When Mark first started at the company, abrasive grain was primarily a commodity. 3M had a slight competitive advantage because they crushed minerals in a way that created a sharper grain.

      Then, another manufacturer came up with a new abrasive grain type that was better, and 3M was on the hunt for the next breakthrough.

    • cubitron II abrasive grain close-up
      Photo: Microscopic image of abrasive grain

      The answer? Sol-gel abrasive-grain technology – a method for producing solid materials from small particles. Mark was tasked with finding a way to adapt the technology so it was feasible to manufacture with the equipment available. And after a bit of tinkering, it was a huge success.

      Mark continued to work on the both the abrasive technology along with business capabilities when he became technical manager of the group. He worked with marketers and manufacturing to determine the most efficient and productive methods to grow the business.

      “That was a blast because I was running the technical group then while we were building that business. It was definitely a cooperative group, with all my people and the marketing and manufacturing people who helped educate me on the business of abrasives.”

      3M was also slowly growing the business of selling cut-off wheels. “I moved back over to the technical side, but I took this with me as what I called a hobby business,” says Mark. “I knew it was a really good fit.” He was able to make global connections as he traveled for his job. A big breakthrough came when 3M Korea, with Mark’s support, started selling huge numbers of the abrasive cut-off wheels – enough to convince the division in the U.S. to start manufacturing them in 3M facilities.

      Mark was recently honored for driving the success of Cubitron II abrasives – both the technical development and commercialization of the product. He was inducted into the 3M Carlton Society – a hall of fame for the best and brightest in scientific achievement.

      “There are so many people who made me successful," says Mark. "They deserve tremendous amount of recognition – technicians who made things work and people who came up with technology right when we needed it. I’ve been elected to this honor, but it’s really all these people that I work with.”