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Waterjet Makers Move to Increase Uptime of Machines

Bill Koenig
By Bill Koenig Senior Editor, SME Media

Companies also seek to simplify machine operations

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A Flow International Corp. waterjet working on a piece of carbon fiber. Photo courtesy of Flow

Waterjet technology—cutting materials with a jet of water—is expanding. Use of waterjets is moving to smaller shops, where there may only be one or two such machines. As a result, makers of waterjet machines are looking to boost uptime and simplify how they operate.

“We’ve seen a demand in the industry from customers to increase uptime with a constant focus on efficiency, allowing a smoother running operation,” said Randhir Shetty, product manager at Flow International Corp. (Kent, WA). “For our customers, increased uptime means a boost in productivity.”

Increasing uptime also is a priority for Omax Corp. (Kent, WA). “With the addition of our solids-removal system, Omax has reduced downtime through mechanical garnet removal from the tank,” said Stephen Bruner, vice president of marketing for Omax. “The alternative would be to shut down your abrasive waterjet and manually shovel, or vac-truck, the garnet out of the tank.”

At Hypertherm Inc. (Hanover, NH), executives say they’re well aware of the need for uptime. “The man who founded Hypertherm’s waterjet business ran a small job shop for many years,” said Dave Dumas, director of OEM waterjet sales for Hypertherm. “So he saw firsthand the havoc a downed waterjet could cause to a person’s business. It was actually this experience—having a pump go down and seeing the pain and time involved in getting it up and running again—that prompted him to design the HyPrecision waterjets we sell today.”

Jet Edge Waterjet Systems (St. Michael, MN) has multiple approaches to increasing uptime. “We utilize heavier duty components that consistently perform longer to the original equipment specifications with less downtown,” according to a written statement by Steve Murry, president of Jet Edge, and Michael Wheeler, engineering manager.

Also, they said, “We look to configure machines that can manage multiple cutting heads, eliminate secondary operations with the use of shuttle tables, and keep more non-value activity offline.”

Meanwhile, in terms of simplification, waterjet makers are looking at both customer training and new controls.

For example, “Flow is developing a new, more intuitive user experience allowing a faster user ramp, less need for waterjet-specific expertise and significantly more flexibility for automation of the workflow,” Shetty said. “This new foundation opens new possibilities for integrating waterjet technology into multi-process production environments bringing the value of the waterjet process to new markets.”

What follows is a closer look at how waterjet makers are adapting to market changes.

‘Predictive Uptime’

Flow introduced FlowCare, “a comprehensive maintenance plan that ensures our systems are always ready,” Shetty said. “We’ve moved away from the break-fix mentality, [and are] now making waterjets [that are] extremely reliable and easier to maintain. Reliability is what matters most to today’s businesses with the focus on efficiency that allows a smoother running operation.”

The company has customer technology centers in Kent, WA, as well as France and South Korea. “Our facilities are dedicated to training with application specialists who have years of waterjet experience,” he continued. “The curriculum is continuously evolving, providing our customers with new materials and hands-on training. Our goal is for customers to be well informed about their equipment and capable of cutting to the system’s maximum potential.”

Flow utilizes what Shetty calls “ultrahigh-pressure pump technology.” The company, he said, has a “long history of varied waterjet applications experience, and the use of high-grade materials of construction for its equipment.” All of that contributes to an increase in uptime, according to Flow.

The company has introduced its new-generation Mach Series, including the Mach 300, Mach 500, Mach 700 and NanoJet, plus the more recent Mach 100 and Mach 200. “Our flagship system, the Mach 500, has a much faster acceleration rate and can cut parts with faster cycle times than our legacy machines,” Shetty said.

“With the new Mach series, we are focused on predictable uptime through our preventative maintenance and exchange programs through FlowCare,” he continued. “The program has been a success, with customers requesting these same plans for existing machines.”

‘Listening to Our Customers’

Omax said it has been working on improving uptime. One example: “Our EnduroMAX pumps run 1,000 hours between major rebuilds versus 500 hours for other pumps,” Bruner said. “Also, the pump is designed to minimize the rebuild time and requires no special tools to perform.” To ensure high reliability and peak performance, Omax designs and builds nearly all of its waterjet pumps in-house at its Kent headquarters.

“The solids-removal systems greatly increase uptime by removing garnet and other solids from the tank,” Bruner added. “All of our water treatment line of accessories [chiller system, reverse osmosis system, water recycling system] help to maintain optimal working conditions of the abrasive waterjet to allow for maximum operational uptime.”

What’s more, “The Intelli-VISOR software increases efficiency and reduces downtime by connecting operation controls with machine maintenance and upkeep,” he said. “By digitally monitoring your machines, you can conduct preventative maintenance in a well-organized manner and predictively schedule repairs.”

Omax also said its software is changing. “With every iteration of the Omax software, we are listening to our customers,” Bruner said. “Quick keys, streamlined toolpath creation, geometric shape generation, pump pressure controls, intelligent material piercing, as well as many other advancements in our software have improved user experience and overall workflow.”

Bruner said Omax “has continued to improve motorized positioning to micro-level accuracy. Our growing line of accessories champion customer time-saving measures. By developing better taper compensation, precision optical locators, and terrain followers, Omax has developed tools to make our customer’s procedures easier and more consistent.”

‘Free Training for Life’

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An Omax Corp. waterjet nozzle in the middle of a manufacturing operation.

To help customers become more efficient and proficient with Omax equipment, the company offers free training for life to customers on how to use its software as well as how to use and maintain Omax equipment.

Omax offers about 100 classes per year, serving 500 students, and since 2006 has run about 725 classes for 3,700 students, according to Julene Bailie, technical training department manager for Omax, speaking at the company’s 25th anniversary event, held in July at Omax headquarters.

Classes offer a hands-on learning approach, where students draw parts using Omax Intelli-MAX software in the computer lab, then move into the machine training lab, where they make the parts on Omax waterjet equipment. By learning about the latest Omax software and machine tools, customers can improve productivity in their shops. They also learn how to properly maintain machines, helping to extend machine life and improve uptime.

In addition to teaching customers, Omax teaches its own technicians through certification training programs, which also include testing prior to certification. The training department has a technical writing team that prepares all customer-facing documentation, such as operating manuals, and has the capability to translate that documentation into 18 languages. The training department also prepares e-learning videos for on-demand learning and trains mentors and instructors who teach waterjet cutting at vocational schools.

Lasting Longer

Hypertherm’s Dumas said the company is designing parts so its waterjets run longer.

“Our plunger bearings are longer than our competition, with a spiral groove allowing the plunger to be immersed in a bath of oil,” he said, “Our waterjet piston is designed with a hydraulic T-seal with wear rings, giving it an extended life up to 12,000 hours vs. 2,000 hours. We use a screwless, low-pressure poppet so no Loctite thread locker is required. Our customers don’t have to worry about a failed, loose or dropped screw damaging the plunger. We designed our pumps with threadless high-pressure cylinders to eliminate the issue of cracked, struck, misaligned, or stripped threads.

“Hypertherm estimates the total cost of ownership for our HyPrecision systems is up to 20% less than competitive systems,” he added.

The company also engages in efforts to familiarize new customers with waterjet technology. “Hypertherm offers a number of tools,” Dumas said. “[They range] from traditional site visits to phone support to our Waterjet Mobile Assistant, an interactive smartphone and tablet app that uses an embedded scanner to pull up step-by-step instructions.”

The waterjet maker also offers its waterjet system as part of what it calls Built for Business Integrated Cutting Solutions. Dumas said Hypertherm’s ProNest nesting software, a computer numeric controller and HyPrecision waterjet “work together to automatically apply the right cutting parameters and adjust things like the feed rate, abrasive flow rate, pump pressure and more.”

Training Users

Jet Edge says it focuses “on utilization and throughput,” according to the written statement by Murry and Wheeler.

“We look to configure machines that can manage multiple cutter heads, eliminate secondary operations and, with the use of shuttle tables, keep more non-value activity offline,” they said. “We provide full nesting software that provides better sheet utilization and less change over. Our sensor technologies provide ‘lights-out’ cutting operations, so equipment can be run off-shift to increase throughput. We also work with users to optimize speed and feed rates with abrasive consumption to ensure they are achieving optimum production results with minimum consumable wear.”

Jet Edge also has ways to familiarize new users with waterjets. The company provides “user training, scheduled maintenance training and system trouble shooting training at various points during a customer’s experience,” Murry and Wheeler said. “Often the user training begins at our factory prior to a system order as part of an engineering analysis used to validate the system requirements. Programming, abrasive settings, and feeds and speeds are validated at that time for optimum cuts.”

Jet Edge programs include “free scheduled training to our end-users at our Minnesota headquarters,” they said. “The course has standard content for service optimization, but also carves out time for specific training on the attendee’s equipment configuration and operating methods.”

Murry and Wheeler also described how controls are changing.

“Waterjet controls, like all machine tool controls, continue to evolve to make them more intuitive and easier to use. More features, basically ‘canned code,’ make it less necessary for the operator to understand machine programing and the features/geometry of a part. However, too many ‘canned code’ lines reduce the operator’s access to programs and may negatively impact skilled users’ flexibility to optimize cuts and nest production. Finding the right balance is important.”

What’s more, “the use of sensors and fault signals integrated into the controls provides real-time feedback on performance and assists in the accurate diagnosis of faults. The performance of scheduled maintenance remains a critical tool for predictive and preventative maintenance.”

Waterjet technology has advanced in other ways, they said. “The introduction of five-axis cutting technology has brought waterjet cutting out of the 2D world into the 3D world,” they continued. Twenty years ago, “most manufacturers knew very little about cutting with water and this knowledge gap required filling by the equipment providers. Today, the range of waterjet applications is vast with the advent of five-axis cutting, robotics, multiple cutting heads, mobile applications, surface preparation/cleaning techniques and shuttle systems.”

Lab, Field Trials

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Hypertherm HyPrecision Waterjet systems work with ProNest nesting software, the computer numeric controller (CNC) and the torch height control to automatically apply the right cutting parameters and adjust settings like the feed rate, abrasive flow rate, and pump pressure on material including aluminum.

KMT Waterjet (Baxter Springs, KS) “continually develops high-pressure pumps and components via lab and field trials,” said Sean Schramm, director, Enabling Technologies Group Product Management.

“Advances in patented seal technologies and exotic materials have provided an increase in service intervals,” he added. “Time for service and assembly errors is reduced by combining individual consumable parts into single assemblies.”

KMT’s products have also evolved. “What started out as cutting two-dimensional flat parts has branched out into advanced five-axis cutting, engineered composite and glass cutting, food cutting applications, high pressure pascalization of food products, etc.,” he said.

KMT says its PRO series of 90,000 psi pumps has improved cutting speeds and reduced the cost per part.

The company is looking at further improvements. Schramm said that future machines will require “less customer attention, allowing customers to focus on their applications and their end-customers. Continued hardware and software development, along with more remote monitoring, will bring this concept into reality.”

Smart Technology

Maintenance practices are also changing. “Historically, maintenance practices for waterjet pumps have been at the discretion of the operator,” said Jim Fields, national sales manager for Techni Waterjet (Lenexa, KS). If something leaked, got hot or made noise, it was left to the skill sets of the operator to troubleshoot the problem.”

Fields described Techni’s strategy. “We wanted to use smart technology to turn the pump into a self-monitoring unit to help the operator establish predictive maintenance practices,” he said. “Through a combination of sensors, switches, and computer software, Techni Waterjet set about developing a pump that could ‘communicate’ to operators when maintenance tasks needed to be performed.”

“The ability to plan maintenance means fabricators don’t have to experience down time in the middle of a ‘hot job,’” he continued. “Minimizing downtime is a bigger concern than ever.”

Fields said the company’s machine controls have also changed. “Our controls have evolved into a complete intelligence system to minimize downtime and provide a ‘predictive maintenance warning’…With predictive, you can plan the maintenance after the job is finished.”

Industry 4.0

Some makers of waterjet equipment expect further evolution as Industry 4.0 takes hold. That’s shorthand for “connected” machines that provide real-time data around a factory floor.

Flow’s Shetty said his company sees growth “through software and connectivity. Connected machines will supply data from predictive maintenance intervals to optimized machine operation for specific jobs or classes of jobs to a continually improving cutting process. Linking the data generated from running the machine will further efficiency, accuracy and reliability of waterjet systems.”

Hypertherm’s Dumas said his company is looking at developing features such as “automated alerts that will let a customer know when a seal is nearing the end of its life, or monitor things like fluid management or pump life and efficiency. Indeed, we are already starting to introduce some of these features.”

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