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NMSU builds abrasive block cutter from scratch

"Built from scratch" is an apt term to describe the latest creation from New Mexico State University's Advanced Manufacturing Center. It is a machine designed to cut abrasive blocks into sizes small enough to be used around the home. Staff and students at the AMC designed and built the device from the ground up for Earthstone International, a Santa Fe company that uses glass to make the abrasive blocks. The cutting machine will result in increased productivity and a safer workplace at a reduced cost.

The QUIKSAND blocks can be used in place of sandpaper for household jobs such as sanding and paint stripping, said Steve Haines, Earthstone's director of research. Other types of blocks can be used as a heavy-duty household cleaner, a rust remover or grill cleaner, he said.

Cutting the blocks presented a unique challenge, Haines said. The bearings and steel blades on the band saws they used were repeatedly wearing out because of the material's harsh nature. "It's so abrasive it wears things out, but you can cut it with a pocketknife," he said.

That's when a small business development office connected them with NMSU's Advanced Manufacturing Center, a fully operational manufacturing facility within the College of Engineering that pairs full-time staff, often with experience in engineering fields, with students in various disciplines at NMSU.

About 17 students and three full-time staff worked for about nine months to design and build the cutting machine. Composed of four sections put together in an L-shape, the machine uses a conveyor belt to automatically propel large blocks through several cutting areas. Blades in each of those areas slice through the block as though slicing a loaf of bread. The blocks are cut in several directions, ending in small, uniform pieces with little waste. To combat the problem of worn-out blades, the new machine uses a combination of diamond-cutting blades and carbide inserts, which are much harder than and don't wear out as quickly as the current blades.

Earthstone's officials are thrilled with the outcome. The AMC was able to respond quickly and was very cost-competitive, Haines said. Earthstone might expect a similar product to sell for about $250,000, yet they spent about half that for the AMC machine.

"It will increase our production ten-fold, at least, while also reducing labor cost and increasing air quality, safety, efficiency and consistency," Haines said.

He said air quality in particular was a problem because cutting the blocks produces abrasive dust particles. Fine dust particles hang in the air, he said, resulting in poor air quality. The new device cuts slowly, creating larger dust fragments that can settle. It also is adjustable, allowing operators to cut blocks in a variety of sizes.

"This is exactly the kind of project we want to do more of," said Ed Hensel, AMC director. "The AMC designs and manufactures unique industrial machinery and process automation equipment. This equipment often opens up new market opportunities for New Mexico businesses."

Yu-Ping Tang, an NMSU mechanical engineering graduate with his master's degree, was the design engineer. Benjamin Varela, an NMSU mechanical engineering doctoral candidate, served as the project manager, overseeing all aspects and coordinating project involvement at the AMC from start to finish. "I had to find materials, work with vendors, develop quotes and job orders for the students in the shop," he said. "I learned a lot from managing this kind of project."

One of his jobs included helping the students translate Tang's drawings into a physical product. Mechanical engineering technology student Wes Eaton said that was one of his biggest challenges in building the machine. "We had to try to understand the design, and the way the designer was thinking, to build it," he said. "This project was totally new. You don't know what's going to happen, so you have to try it and go with it."

He and classmate Chris Paulk said the project was a challenge, and sometimes required adjustments where a design would call for difficult tolerances. They then would make suggestions about the best way to meet the specifications.

Paulk, who is from Gilbert, Ariz., said he loves working at the AMC. "You can apply what you learn, which gives us an advantage. Plus, we gain experience from the professionals working here. Their connections for job placement are phenomenal for us," he said.

"It's just like working in the real world," said Eaton, a Carlsbad, N.M., native.

From the results of this project, it seems Earthstone International will continue to provide that real-world experience. "We have some projects on the back burners that we'd like to bring to the AMC," Haines said. "We're looking very favorably at continuing to work with them."