Celebrating a century of cemented carbide use in tooling

June 23, 2023 - 07:30am
cemented carbide

2023 marks the 100th anniversary of the invention of cemented carbide. This class of alloys, known for its ability to withstand high temperatures and fast machining, is the foundation of many modern machine tools. Cemented carbide has a rich history, both for the industry and for Sandvik Coromant. What might the next 100 years hold?

Many notable periods in history are characterized by the material of the time — the Stone Age, the Iron Age and so on. Labeling these periods based on tool materials demonstrates how integral they were to society, as well as our human drive to constantly improve and find better methods. The application and sophistication of tools have changed significantly over the centuries, but they’re still just as crucial to keeping our world running today.

First steps

The development of the first commercial steel alloy is often credited to Robert Forester Mushet, who discovered in 1868 that adding tungsten to steel increased its hardness, even after air cooling. This finding formed the basis of alloy development, leading to the use of tool steels. In the early 1900s, the forming and machining of metals was still very much a skill; highly skilled craftsmen used tool steel as a cutting tool material.

But as demand for mass production began to increase, particularly with sectors such as the automotive sector starting to take off, it became clear that tool steel wouldn’t be able to keep up. Its limited heat resistance resulted in softening at higher temperatures, particularly at the cutter-workpiece interface, making high-speed cutting difficult.

As a result, high-speed steel was developed, containing more cobalt than tool steel. The additional cobalt gave high-speed steel an improved hot hardness, enabling much higher cutting speeds. Faster cutting led to a boost in productivity, dropping overall product cost and, ultimately, helping make vehicles more accessible and affordable to the public.

Introducing cemented carbide

The success of high-speed steel led the industry to develop further, resulting in the invention of cemented carbide. Fine carbide particles are cemented into a composite with a metal binder to produce cemented carbide. The most common carbides include tungsten carbide (WC), titanium carbide (TiC) and tantalum carbide (TaC), with cobalt and nickel often used as the binding metals.

On March 30, 1923, Karl Schröter, the head of R&D at Osram at the time, filed the first patent, “Gesinterte harte Metallegierung und Verfahren zu ihrer Herstellung” (DE420689). The material was originally intended for drawing dies in the light bulb industry, but later, cemented carbide was developed and tested for cutting tools. As such, it was introduced at an exhibition in Leipzig in 1927.

In the same way that the introduction of high-speed steel revolutionized the manufacturing market, the invention of cemented carbide allowed for even faster machining. Steel cutting speeds of up to 150 meters per minute became possible, almost four times faster than high-speed steel.

It’s here that Sandvik began developing cemented carbide tools. The Sandvik Coromant brand name was established in 1942, with its sole aim to offer modern cutting tools using cemented carbide as the base. Sandvik Coromant’s first cemented carbide tools for metal cutting were manufactured the following year in 1943 and, as industrialization took off in the 1950s and 1960s, demand only continued to grow.

In 1969, Sandvik Coromant became the first in the world to offer ceramic-coated cemented carbide inserts. The ceramic “Gamma Coating” greatly improved both the wear and heat resistance of the tools, increasing metal-cutting performance by as much as 50 percent. Sandvik Coromant continued to develop its cemented carbide offering, developing new grades and drills for a variety of industries, with its GC 4225 cemented carbide grade becoming the world’s best-selling grade in 2005.

Finite materials

But what about the future of cemented carbides? Central to the production of cemented carbides are metals like tungsten and cobalt, but these resources are in limited supply. Cobalt, for example, is a common component in lithium-ion batteries, valuable in extending battery life. But soaring demand, combined with mining challenges, means we could see shortages as soon as 2028.

To protect these finite resources, manufacturers and suppliers must play their part in working sustainably. This could be through repairing and refurbishing old tools to give them a second, or even a third, life. Tools that are completely unusable can be sold through buy-back programs, with the scrap being recycled into new material. Sandvik Coromant offers both services, with its latest line of steel turning grades containing at least 40 percent recycled material. Considering issues like supply and sustainability right from the tool’s design also helps to ensure that only the necessary amount of material is being used.

Looking ahead

The availability of raw materials will be a factor in the future of cemented carbides. At Sandvik Coromant, continuing to improve and make the most of sustainability schemes will be a focus. In particular, the sorting aspect of the recycling process is likely to be a key area of development, as this is still a challenge in terms of the energy resources it demands.

Despite big leaps in innovation, older cutting tool materials like high-speed steel still play an important part in the overall market. It’s clear that, even in its 100th year, cemented carbide is still a vital cutting tool material for many industries. But there’s always room for improvement and, as applications change and new ones arise, Sandvik Coromant will always be challenged to come up with new and better solutions.

Related Glossary Terms

  • alloys


    Substances having metallic properties and being composed of two or more chemical elements of which at least one is a metal.

  • cemented carbides

    cemented carbides

    Typical powder-metallurgical products. They are sintered compounds of cobalt (or another binder metal) and carbides of refractory metals suitable for use as a cutting tool material. The majority of metalcutting indexable inserts are multicarbide compounds of tungsten carbide, titanium carbide, tantalum carbide and/or niobium carbide with cobalt as a binder metal.

  • cutting tool materials

    cutting tool materials

    Cutting tool materials include cemented carbides, ceramics, cermets, polycrystalline diamond, polycrystalline cubic boron nitride, some grades of tool steels and high-speed steels. See HSS, high-speed steels; PCBN, polycrystalline cubic boron nitride; PCD, polycrystalline diamond.

  • hardness


    Hardness is a measure of the resistance of a material to surface indentation or abrasion. There is no absolute scale for hardness. In order to express hardness quantitatively, each type of test has its own scale, which defines hardness. Indentation hardness obtained through static methods is measured by Brinell, Rockwell, Vickers and Knoop tests. Hardness without indentation is measured by a dynamic method, known as the Scleroscope test.

  • titanium carbide ( TiC)

    titanium carbide ( TiC)

    Extremely hard material added to tungsten carbide to reduce cratering and built-up edge. Also used as a tool coating. See coated tools.

  • tool steels

    tool steels

    Group of alloy steels which, after proper heat treatment, provide the combination of properties required for cutting tool and die applications. The American Iron and Steel Institute divides tool steels into six major categories: water hardening, shock resisting, cold work, hot work, special purpose and high speed.

  • tungsten carbide ( WC)

    tungsten carbide ( WC)

    Intermetallic compound consisting of equal parts, by atomic weight, of tungsten and carbon. Sometimes tungsten carbide is used in reference to the cemented tungsten carbide material with cobalt added and/or with titanium carbide or tantalum carbide added. Thus, the tungsten carbide may be used to refer to pure tungsten carbide as well as co-bonded tungsten carbide, which may or may not contain added titanium carbide and/or tantalum carbide.

  • turning


    Workpiece is held in a chuck, mounted on a face plate or secured between centers and rotated while a cutting tool, normally a single-point tool, is fed into it along its periphery or across its end or face. Takes the form of straight turning (cutting along the periphery of the workpiece); taper turning (creating a taper); step turning (turning different-size diameters on the same work); chamfering (beveling an edge or shoulder); facing (cutting on an end); turning threads (usually external but can be internal); roughing (high-volume metal removal); and finishing (final light cuts). Performed on lathes, turning centers, chucking machines, automatic screw machines and similar machines.


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