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Two Tracks for Abrasive Waterjets

Bill Koenig
By Bill Koenig Senior Editor, SME Media

Technology advances with updates but low-cost models also added

Waterjet technology, cutting materials with a jet of water, is proceeding down two parallel paths. The first involves more advanced machines, operating with more sophisticated software finding the right mix of pressure and speed, producing parts faster. The second is developing low-cost machines, encouraging machine shops to bring waterjet work in-house instead of contracting the work to waterjet specialists.

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An Omax A-Jet is a software controlled multiaxis cutting head that expands the versatility of the company’s waterjet cutters. It has a cutting range of 0 to 60°.

Makers of abrasive waterjet systems are pursuing both paths.

“Waterjet cutting is a technology that has grown in the past few years and is continuously improving,” said Brian Sherick, vice president of North America sales for Flow International Corp. (Kent, WA).

“Today’s waterjets are much faster, more accurate and less expensive to operate than the machines available a few years ago,” he said. “Systems now have a much faster acceleration rate and can cut parts with better cycle times than any other machine offered in the past, which is a major development for the waterjet industry.”

Like other manufacturing methods, waterjet performance has improved as digital technology was implemented.

“One of the biggest innovations that improved speed and efficiency in cutting intricate shapes was the introduction of our fourth-generation cutting model,” said Stephen Bruner, vice president of marketing at Omax Corp. (Kent, WA). It has a “sophisticated set of algorithms [that] determines the optimal speed and cornering strategies to create accurate parts fast.”

Makers of waterjet cutters have moved to find the right pressure, which isn’t always the highest.

“The waterjet industry has achieved 90,000 psi [620 MPa] which has become widely available,” said Arion Vandergon, product application engineer for waterjet products at Hypertherm Inc. (Hanover, NH).

‘Cold Cutting Process’

“However, many people don’t realize that higher pressures also come with increased operating and maintenance costs,” Vandergon said. As a result, many “of the new advancements in technology relate to creating smarter systems that allow more predictive maintenance and service intervals. Customers benefit from this technology by being able to predict downtime and schedule their work around existing jobs.”

Waterjet advocates say there are reasons why the technology has always made sense to use in manufacturing.

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A Hypertherm waterjet machine cutting parts out of aluminum.

“It’s easier to list the materials a waterjet can’t cut than what it can cut,” Bruner said. “Because it’s a cold cutting process, waterjet can cut all grades of steel without burn marks, cracking or excess burr on the edges. Waterjet is great for cutting aluminum, titanium and alloys because, unlike cutting with plasma or laser, there’s no thermal distortion. Cutting advanced materials such as carbon fiber is becoming more common. With waterjet, there’s no delamination, no melting and no hazardous fumes…You can cut thick stainless steel one hour, sheets of brass the next hour, and ultra-thin glass panels the next on the same machine without any tool changes.”

Hypertherm makes the same case. “Flexibility is one of the key benefits of waterjet cutting,” said John Caron, product marketing manager for waterjet products at Hypertherm. “The ability to cut a wide variety of materials without imparting heat is a big feature. Also having the ability to deal with various thicknesses can be very beneficial.”

Now, according to Flow’s Sherick, waterjets are getting better at producing finished pieces. “More often than before, waterjet is used to cut finished parts in comparison to before where net shapes are cut followed by secondary finishing,” he said. “Waterjet cutting is also being incorporated into five-axis and robotics.”

What follows is a look at how the companies are responding to waterjet industry trends.

‘Makes Sense’

Omax is utilizing new technology to improve its waterjet cutters.

The company “has introduced a number of advancements in the last 10 years that have enabled waterjets to cut 3D shapes and also to cut intricate designs quickly and more efficiently,” Bruner said.

“Our introduction of an articulating cutting head made the waterjet a five-axis machine and cutting 3D shapes with a waterjet became a reality,” he said. “To speed up work flow, we developed our intelliCAM software which lets users import 3D models and easily generate 2D and 3D toolpaths. We redesigned our direct-drive pumps, doubling the time between pump rebuilds. We’ve also created system monitoring software that allows operators to accomplish more.”

Omax also is targeting smaller shops. “The driver here is the shop economics,” he said. “If outsourcing becomes a significant cost or if it introduces uncertainty to a shop, waterjet ownership becomes attractive.”

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Omax’s intelliCAM software lets users import 3D models and generate 2D and 3D toolpaths.

The company introduced GlobalMAX, which Bruner described as “an essentially featured waterjet that has the lowest entry price of all of our waterjet lines.”

Omax says GlobalMAX has three-axis cutting with a linear positional accuracy of 0.003″ (0.0762 mm). There are three sizes: GlobalMax 1508 (cutting envelope of 800 x 1525 mm), GlobalMax 1530 (cutting envelope of 3050 x 1530 mm) and GlobalMax 2040 (cutting envelope of 4038 x 2032 mm).
“This product line makes sense for a shop that is looking for basic cutting capabilities,” Bruner said.

According to Omax, customers don’t need much training. “We typically have operators cutting parts in one day,” Bruner said. “We train customers onsite post-installation and offer ongoing classroom training at our facilities in Kent, WA.”

Preventative Maintenance

Flow said it has upgraded its product offerings.

“We’re in the unique position of offering 60,000 psi [413 MPa] direct-drive pumps, 60,000 psi intensifier pumps and the upgraded 94,000 psi [648 MPa] intensifier pumps,” Sherick said in a written statement. “We find on systems where the 94,000 psi pump is available most customers are opting for this option. Software capabilities are also evolving to take advantage of the latest control capabilities and work as a united fabric to support equipment productivity and reliability.”

What’s more, Sherick said, “The industry is migrating to a preventative maintenance model instead of the break-fix mentality of the past.”

The company has introduced the new generation of its Mach Series, which includes the Mach 300, Mach 500, Mach 700 and NanoJet.

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Flow International Corp. says its Mach series, such as this Mach 500, is focused on “predictable uptime.”

“With this series, we are focused on predictable uptime,” he said. The company has “launched new preventative maintenance and exchange programs ensuring the equipment is always ready. Maintenance plans designed for each system are becoming an industry standard.”

Such plans, he continued, cover “all of the maintenance and service for the first two years and supplies all of the required consumable parts. This results in less customer interaction with the equipment allowing customers to focus on making parts and running their business.”
Flow also sees waterjet moving into smaller shops.

The technology “is growing rapidly for in-house production,” Sherick said. “Smaller and less costly designs are allowing more companies to expand into waterjet cutting.”

The cutting process “is becoming an integral part of machine shops,” he continued. “Waterjet is an ideal process for reducing costs and improving efficiency through versatility, easy setup and operation, and high-quality part production.”

The executive said new waterjet customers have factors they need to study.

“Be careful not to make your purchase decision only based on current production,” he said. “It is critical to fully evaluate not only your current applications, but your future potential growth as well when acquiring a new system.” Having waterjet capability, he said, “often opens new doors and may require more capabilities than at first expected.”

According to Flow, while some training is necessary, waterjet systems require less maintenance than before.

“Fully understanding how the process works and mastering the software programming of the system is critical to a successful operation,” Sherick said. “With that said, employing a maintenance staff is no longer required as the industry is now moving to preventative maintenance contracts and major component exchanges.

“In the past, waterjet users needed to really understand how to work on their systems in order to operate with minimal downtime,” he continued. “Downtime can now be virtually eliminated and the cost of ownership is much more understood and predictable.”

Little Training Needed

Hypertherm offers what it calls Advanced Intensifier Technology, which the company said lowers the cost of ownership by increasing uptime. Advanced models of the company’s HyPrecision waterjet pumps have Advanced Intensifier Monitoring, Hypertherm’s Arion Vandergon said.

“This system allows the operator to monitor the health of the intensifier while it is stroking to determine the stroke rate and the balance of the stroking between each side of the intensifier,” he said. “This data can be used to determine and plan maintenance intervals as the seals and other consumables begin to wear.”

Hypertherm also seeks business from customers wanting more advanced systems and those seeking lower priced ones.

“We believe there is always a segment of customers looking for lower priced alternatives,” said the company’s John Caron. “However, we have also seen growth with larger, more expensive systems which can drive multiple heads, resulting in substantially more cutting per hour.”
Hypertherm also is among the companies that say less training is needed.

“Most waterjet cutting systems of today can be used with very little training,” Vandergon said. “CNCs are becoming more user friendly and intuitive, which is decreasing the amount of time required for training to get customers running.

“In addition, information is becoming much more available through various formats that keep pertinent information at the operator’s fingertips,” Vandergon continued. “This includes having manuals and training material available at the CNC and having maintenance training available through mobile applications such as the Hypertherm Waterjet Mobile Assistant.”

Waterjet cutters do have issues that may be addressed in coming years, Caron said.

“Recent concerns about the availability of garnet, the abrasive often used in waterjet cutting, have made its recycling more important,” he said. “We anticipate more products to come on the market in the next few years that will help address this issue.”

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