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Compact Waterjets: The Perfect Teaching Tool

By SME Media Staff

At trade schools, universities and high schools, abrasive waterjet cutting machines provide an excellent teaching tool. They are simple, versatile, easy to use—and easy on the budget. Full-size industrial abrasive waterjets cost less than conventional chipmaking machines. Their drawback is their large size; many schools struggle to make room for waterjets. Now, compact machines offer their full-size counterpart’s benefits to teachers in a fully enclosed, cost-effective platform.

The ProtoMAX cutting a carbon fiber workpiece.

These compact systems use 240-V, single-phase power on a dedicated 30-A circuit, so they install quickly in educational settings, roll through a standard doorway on casters, and require only a clean municipal water source and a collection-tank drain. This design enables educational institutions to add a technology that cuts nearly any type of material with the same CAD/CAM software that commercial employers use.

As Chris Baer, senior sales manager, government and education for OMAX Corp., Kent, Wash., pointed out, virtually every engineering and skills-based teaching curriculum wants to incorporate abrasive waterjet. “Compact waterjet systems, such as our ProtoMAX, give learning institutions quicker access to the technology with a smaller investment,” Baer noted. Many institutions have acquired a ProtoMAX as their first abrasive waterjet, including Oregon State University, Corvallis; Pine Bush (New York) High School; and North Montco Tech Center, Montgomery, Pa.

Size and cost initially kept Oregon State University’s Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering (MIME) department from putting an abrasive waterjet in its Machining and Product Realization Laboratory (MPRL). With the ProtoMAX, MPRL was able to add this technology. “Our lab is packed with equipment,” said Brian Jensen, manager of the MIME MPRL. “Before ProtoMAX, we had no options besides a full-size system, so we decided against waterjet. Plus, standard systems have open tanks of water, which can be a bit messy and noisy. We needed to conduct classes at one end of the lab while the waterjet machine ran at the other end. Because the ProtoMAX is fully enclosed, cleaner and quieter, the system was perfect for us.”

The ProtoMAX helps shorten students’ learning curve. According to Jensen, students get up and running on the lab’s conventional machine tools in about 14 to 20 hours, but need less than six hours with the ProtoMAX. And the waterjet is easier to use than other CNC equipment.

At MPRL, students and faculty cut aluminum and plastics, composites and wood parts. The instruction-focused lab enables students to make prototypes as a form of hands-on learning. MPRL also offers its services to anyone at the university who compensates the lab for its cutting time, and proceeds from past prototype services has paid for the machine.

The Society of Automotive Engineers Club racing team has been the biggest user of Oregon State’s ProtoMAX. It makes parts for the formula-style car and Baja off-road type vehicle that it races against other schools.

The Excelsior Engineering Program at Pine Bush High School needed an abrasive waterjet cutting system to give students firsthand experience of manufacturing engineering. With safety as its top priority, the school acquired a ProtoMAX. Its full enclosure helps teachers protect students and maintain a clean, quiet classroom.

“Hands-on instruction is key to the effectiveness of our Excelsior Engineering Program courses,” said Kenneth Marshall, secondary STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) coach and director of the Excelsior Engineering Program. “‘Watch, then do’ is how we teach. Students can make mistakes and learn from them.”

The ProtoMAX installed at Oregon State University.

This type of learning is critical because on-the-job mistakes cost employers money. Hands-on learning also cultivates a better work ethic because it provides a reward—the part students designed and produced—in a much-quicker process than with other cutting machines.

Annually, about 300 students from grades nine through 12 study in the Pine Bush High School manufacturing program. The curriculum incorporates engineering and technology into math, science, history, English, performing arts and home and career courses through project-based learning.

Student projects begin with design and continue into machine instruction. “We not only teach them how to program and run the ProtoMAX, but also how to run the machine and maintain it,” said Marshall. “The ProtoMAX accepts DXF files, so students can export directly from graphics software, which has proven extremely popular with art classes and manufacturing students.”

Marshall was initially skeptical that the compact machine could handle required part sizes. “My past experience was with 6 × 12' [1.83 × 3.66 m] waterjet tanks and worktables, so initially, I thought the ProtoMAX’s 12 in.² [77.4 cm²] workspace would be very limiting. But we realized that all the parts we cut fit easily within that size envelope,” he said.

Machine size, cost, and safety made ProtoMAX the right choice for Frank Torrente, a teacher in the Computer Integrated Machining Technology Program at North Montco Tech Center. “An abrasive waterjet system had always been on my equipment wish-list,” said Torrente, “but we worried about student safety with a big industrial-sized machine. In addition, we were concerned about keeping the machine and teaching area clean. The ProtoMAX put those concerns to rest and significantly helped build student confidence.”

Many students are “a bit leery” of the school’s five-axis milling machine, Torrente said, but find the ProtoMAX less intimidating. “We let students learn from their mistakes,” said Torrente. “With the ProtoMAX, if they scrap a part, they get another piece of material, fix their programming mistake and cut a new one. Plus, producing the part tends to spark new design improvements. Students learn more from this trial and error than they do from being guided every step of the way.”

Torrente also teaches a six-week after-school program for his area’s First Robotics team, which designs and builds a robot to compete against other high school teams. The center’s ProtoMAX helps produce half of the robot’s parts in far less time than on a milling machine.

Most of North Montco Tech Center’s students head straight into the workforce. Classes average between 20 and 30 students from grades nine through 12, and many begin working during their studies through a co-op program. In the center’s night class, 28 adult education students finish apprenticeship-program classes or enhance CNC machining skills to improve their employment opportunities. All of these students produce a part on the ProtoMAX and a conventional CNC mill. Students design in popular CAD/CAM software and do their own programming and cutting on the ProtoMAX, using multiple materials.

Compact abrasive waterjet systems such as the ProtoMAX are an ideal teaching tool. Their size, affordability, safety and non-intimidating appearance enable instructors to introduce students to a versatile cutting technology.

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