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Tracing the Flow of Waterjet Processes

  Ellen Kehoe








By Ellen Kehoe
Senior Editor

What’s able to cut steel, disposable diapers, composites, newsprint, titanium, ceramic tile, wood, cloth and even cake? With apologies to Superman, it’s waterjet, of course.

Although “a modern waterjet system can slit a mile of newsprint in a minute using only a cup of water,” the history of using water for washing away material goes way back. SME Technical Paper TP86PUB412 quotes an article in the Journal of the Apparel Research Foundation that mentions how waterjets were used in 1870 in California to erode the terrain in search of gold.
Yes, waterjets can cut cake! Photo from TP12PUB50 by Jonathan Meas, Flow International.
Another early application of waterjets was for debarking logs. Dovetailing this use to furniture manufacturing, TP86PUB412 also quotes from Furniture Design & Manufacturing magazine: “The [waterjet] process was invented [in the late 1960s] by Dr. Norman Franze, Professor, Department of Forestry, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and was developed by McCartney Manufacturing Company, a subsidiary of Ingersoll-Rand Company. This might well be the most important development since the introduction of the circular saw in 1814.”

“The desirable characteristics of waterjet machining arise from the fact that it closely approximates the ideal single point cutting tool, with a high concentration of energy applied to the workpiece.” This succinct explanation in the above tutorial paper leads to descriptions of the first waterjet cutting installation in 1971 for contoured paper forms for furniture parts. Progress in the 1970s and 80s furthered the acceptance of waterjet technology as a viable and economical tool “to permit production of products not previously considered.” As the process was adapted to industrial applications using CNC, it was increasingly incorporated into flexible manufacturing systems (FMS).


Automotive Applications

The automotive industry jumped on waterjet and made inventive use of the technology. Waterjet deburring began to be applied extensively in automatic transmission production, for high reliability of burr removal and elimination of manual operations. A Ford author describes how the process was first used by the automaker in 1971 to remove machining burrs and thin diecasting flash from nonferrous automatic transmission control mechanism components.

High-pressure water deburring was “the reliable high speed method of burr removal” chosen after extensive evaluation in 1975 by Delco, then a division of General Motors, for deburring cylinders for automotive air conditioner compressors.

A paper from WESTEC ’88 describes a number of automotive applications of waterjet cutting, including one of the first robotic installations, an ASEA Robots and Ingersoll-Rand waterjet system at Volvo in Sweden for cutting headliners, door panels and carpet. Reasons cited for acceptance were: “easy to automate, flexibility for design changes with various car models, ability to cut in any direction, and ability to cut several different materials from plastic and rubber to carpet.”

American auto manufacturers followed their European counterparts in applying waterjets in cutting systems for floor carpet, headliners, center gearshift consoles, trunk liners, dashboards, door panels, rear decks, hood liners and automotive glass (with abrasive). The increasing use of thermosetting and thermoplastic resins, as well as SMC (sheet molded compound) molded body components, housings and trim corresponded well with waterjet’s capabilities.


Cutting Composites

As the aerospace industry, in particular, embraced metallic and nonmetallic materials for lighter, stronger structural components and more efficient production systems, “waterjets have carved out an important place in the machining of composites.” Authors from Ingersoll-Rand, Textron and Lockheed Martin Aeronautical describe waterjet cutting and hydrobrasive machining of materials such as aluminum and titanium alloys and epoxies; continuous fiber reinforced metal matrix composites; and graphite-reinforced resin, ceramic-reinforced aluminum or thick-plate titanium, respectively.Waterjet nozzle with dynamic tilt angle compensation capability (M. Hashish, TP04PUB277).

Several Flow International authors have contributed more than a dozen SME Technical Papers on all aspects of waterjet technology. Related to composites, a paper from 1977 examined the effect of varying jet pressure, nozzle orifice diameter, material feed rate, material type and material thickness on cutting effectiveness and demonstrated that “a waterjet can cut composites with practically no airborne dust generated and at the reasonably low noise level of less than 80 db.” The latest offering, presented at AeroDef 2014, discusses the hardware and data on the use of abrasive waterjet for trimming and drilling CFRP (carbon fiber reinforced plastic) parts such as those used in modern aircraft.

Aerospace Addendum

A unique implementation of ultra high pressure waterjet technology—aircraft paint stripping—met environmental and safety requirements and was cost effective. Interestingly, the paper was presented at a 1992 SME course called “Maintaining and Supporting an Aircraft Fleet.”

We’ll look more at robotic waterjet systems and abrasive waterjet technology in another post.


SME Technical Papers

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Published Date : 2/10/2015

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