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Cutting more than metal with a waterjet

Making Sense of Flexible Cutting Solutions: Laser and Waterjet


Glass, stone, rubber are some of the possibilities

By Mike Burns and Dan Davis

With waterjet cutting equipment, shops are no longer limited to the world of metal fabrications. They can search for new business in areas that were once considered unrealistic.

Waterjet image

With waterjet cutting equipment, shops are no longer limited to the world of metal fabrications. They can search for new business in areas that were once considered unrealistic.

Simply put, a waterjet is capable of cutting almost any 2-D material, usually up to 6 to 12 inches thick, but thicker materials are possible if the operator goes slow enough. The waterjet's small-diameter cutting stream—approximately 0.040 in. to 0.050 in.—allows it to produce tight corners with very high tolerances.

Also, waterjet is a "cold" cutting process that produces no heat-affected areas or burned edges. These factors mean that there is little or no secondary operation required for most applications. Exotic materials such as titanium, Hastelloy®,andother alloysare cut easily with no need to predrill holes.

But it doesn't end there. A waterjet can cut both hard and soft materials, including titanium, stainless steel, aluminum, munitions, exotic alloys, composites, stone, marble, floor tile, glass, gasket, foam, rubber, insulation, textile, and food. The soft materials are cut with water only, while hard materials require a stream of water mixed with fine grains of abrasive garnet.

In this day when fabricating shops are looking for protection from the ups and downs of being too closely linked to one manufacturing segment, shop owners should see waterjet cutting machines as a key to diversification. These shops could be cutting glass, stone, and foam materials just as easily as cutting metals.

A Clear Understanding of Cutting Glass

Waterjet glass materials

Figure 1
This glass block was cut with a five-axis waterjet cutting head that allowed for beveling.

Glass cutting is a suitable application for a waterjet. Without any tooling or setup changes, a fabricator can go from cutting sheet metal to cutting delicate glass. In fact, a waterjet can cut the strongest laminated, bullet-resistant glass on the market—which can be as thick as 4 in.

The very fine cutting stream enables almost any shape to be cut (see Figure 1), no matter how fine or intricate, with nearly no force from the cutting process being applied to the glass. This differs from a more traditional glass-cutting method, such as a spinning router, in which load is applied to the surface. To avoid shattering the glass, which is a real possibility, waterjet operators must use low-pressure piercing.

Glass cutting with a waterjet also can be done very fast. A waterjet is able to cut 0.25-in.-thick glass in excess of 40 inches per minute (IPM).

When cutting glass with a waterjet, an operator uses the same abrasive, mostly likely garnet, as when cutting metal. However, the operator uses less abrasive. When cutting metal, 1 lb. of abrasive is consumed; when cutting glass, 0.25 lb. to 0.50 lb. is consumed.

Like in metal cutting, the waterjet leaves a few thousandths of an inch of taper on the glass material. This is of little concern to customers because traditional cutting methods usually leave 0.50 in. of taper. The abrasive waterjet also leaves a high-quality finish, free of faults, minute fractures, and chips.

A waterjet with a five-axis cutting head can bevel and chamfer glass, which is difficult to do with traditional cutting methods.

What sort of applications might a shop cut glass for? The waterjet-cut glass commonly is used in cutouts, holes in backsplashes, frameless showers, mirrors, and other architectural applications. With a waterjet, fabricators can cut radii, contours, and profiles of any shape. It can cut an inside radius as small as 0.020 in. to 0.030 in.

The Hard Facts of Cutting Stone

Waterjet stone materials

Figure 2
A waterjet cutting machine and a good programming software package make cutting decorative stone inlays a simple job.

A waterjet's small stream size and low-pressure piercing capability make it suitable for stone cutting as well. With extremely high pressures, up to 60,000 PSI, a waterjet stream can handle material as thick as 6 in.

The speed at which a waterjet cutting machine can cut through stone depends on the quality of cut desired and the color of the material. For example, black granite is very hard and requires a slow cutting speed, and yellow granite is less dense. A waterjet cutting machine can slice through a 1.25-in.-thick granite countertop at 5 IPM to 12 IPM and a 0.75-in.-thick backsplash at 8 IPM to 15 IPM.

Once again, garnet is the abrasive of choice for cutting stone. About the same amount of abrasive is consumed cutting stone as is used in cutting metal.

Perhaps the most important consideration for a shop looking at stone cutting is material handling. The slabs of stone are heavy, but they must be handled with care. A marred surface is not acceptable to the customer.

In addition, the slabs, which usually are 5 ft. by 6 ft. or 6 ft. by 7 ft., have to be moved in the vertical position. If they are moved around in the horizontal position, the slabs break or crack under their own weight.

That's why a shop should consider material handling upgrades when working with stone materials. Vacuum lifters can be used, but the slabs still run a great risk of cracking. Some material handling systems are specially designed to move the slabs in the vertical position and then slowly move them with hydraulic arms to the horizontal position atop the cutting bed. Maximum load capacity of such equipment is typically 1,100 lbs.

The slight taper that a waterjet cutting machine might leave is not a concern for most stone-cutting applications. Polishing usually is required anyway, but with a waterjet not as much time will be needed for secondary finishing.

Because the waterjet produces a very clean cut, a shop doesn't need to worry about grinding after the cut to get the stone to meet the exact specs. Programming software assists the waterjet cutting machine in delivering stone cut to the exact dimensions required.

What sort of applications might a shop cut stone for? The obvious end uses can be seen all around a house—kitchen and bathroom countertops, backsplashes, flooring (see Figure 2), and landscaping accessories.

When the Rubber Hits the Waterjet

Waterjet cutting also is suitable for many foam, rubber, plastic, insulation, and woven materials, and a shop doesn't have to worry about the material handling headaches associated with surface-sensitive material such as glass and stone.

A programmer can plan for a very tight nest, and because of the waterjet's fine cutting stream, good material yields can be obtained. A waterjet can accommodate stack cutting, with a thickness up to 8 in. being possible.

The real benefit a waterjet offers for cutting these materials is speed. Multiple cutting heads combined with conveyor feed systems can achieve cutting speeds of almost 1,000 IPM.

Typically, those rubber, foam, and similar materials are cut using a steel rule die, which has to be designed and constructed for each cutting job. A waterjet replaces the need for the die, which can cost thousands of dollars.

Shops cutting plastics don't have to worry about the cutting process interacting with the material and releasing noxious fumes. The cold nature of the waterjet stream eliminates the possibility of such interactions.

Nonmetal Cutting in the Future

The cutting of nonmetals is going to increase in the future, especially as people become more aware of global trends. For instance, the use of glass as an architectural element in both commercial and residential buildings in Asia and Europe dwarfs the use in the U.S. Tinted glass is used extensively in Asia and Europe as a backsplash as opposed to stone materials.

Also, more aerospace components are being made of composite materials instead of metal. Boeing, for example, has made it known that its 787 Dreamliner will be made mostly of composite material.

A fabricator with a waterjet cutting machine can take advantage of these trends, while simultaneously cutting the metal sheet and plate that helped to build the business.

By Clyde Braviere, Icon Machine Tool, Inc.

In an industry as competitive as sheet and plate metal fabricating, it is becoming more difficult to set your business apart from the rest. Your customers are placing higher demands on shops to be more competitive on price, lead times, and quality. The most successful companies are staying ahead of the game by adding the most technologically advanced CO 2 lasers and abrasive waterjets (AWJ) on the market. While lasers and waterjets have been used in the industry for years, the daunting question for engineers, estimators, and shop owners is which of these technologies makes the most sense for their projects. To start to make sense of which of these processes is right for you, you have to ask yourself some basic questions first.

What material would you like to cut, and how will it react?

This is the most important question on the quest of choosing a cutting system. The answer to this question can sometimes eliminate one process over the other immediately. Lasers are able to cut materials that have low reflective properties such as carbon steel, stainless steel, and thinner aluminum at very high cutting speeds. Even though most of today’s laser cutting in the industry is in the ½” and below range, today’s high powered lasers can cut up to 1” mild steel, 1” stainless steel, and 5/8” aluminum. Reflective and heat resistance/sensitive properties set the limitations and exclusions for laser processing materials such as copper, brass, and bronze.

Thickness limitations are not usually a problem for the AWJ. Maximum material thicknesses are determined by how high the cutting head is off of the material. It is not uncommon to cut 6-8” thick on the AWJ. Materials with reflective, conductive, heat sensitive and heat resisting properties become ideal candidates for AWJ processing. Inconel, titanium, and hastelloy which are very heat resistant and sensitive can be processed without affecting the material composition. The AWJ process can be superior when processing aluminum, copper, and brass due to their less dense and softer properties. Higher speeds, dross-free cuts, and lack of discolored edges are the benefits here. Non metals, such as rubber, thermoplastics, glass, foam, stone, carbon fiber, and ceramics, can be processed on an AWJ. Piercing of these non metals needs to be done with care as they are prone to chipping and fracturing due to their brittle nature.

The heat affected zone created by thermal cutting processes will play a role in the secondary operations on your parts. In steel cutting, a hardened oxide edge is the byproduct of laser cutting that can affect secondary operations such as reaming, tapping, and profiling with lower tool life and added labor. Welding and powder coating will be affected if all edges to be welded or painted do not have their contaminated oxide edges removed before work is done.

AWJ cutting is a cold process, where little to no heat is introduced into the workpiece. An AWJ cut part is ready for any of those secondary operations straight off the machine. Many machine shops employ this application to rough out piece parts and complete them by only making finish passes. Tool and die companies use this process to do the same and need only do a skim cut on their slow and expensive wire EDMs. The results are shortened overall processing times and extended tool life.

As today’s metal market prices continue to escalate, it is paramount to be able to bill out every single pound of your stock material. Lasers and AWJs both process parts by simply following a programmed path that can be laid out on a sheet irrelevant to rotation limitations. Thus, they are both able to achieve higher sheet yields than most punching machines. When nesting a laser cut sheet, the programmer has to allow for a web between parts that can allow laser-generated heat to flow, in some cases, equal to the material thickness. Nesting parts too tightly can result in welding of the part back into the sheet or relieving too much of the stresses in that sheet primarily from heat buildup. The cold cutting AWJ process allows shops to nest parts more tightly than laser cutting since there is no heat. In most cases, the only limiting factor in nesting AWJ nests is its own kerf, which is typically .045” to .060”.

What is the acceptable edge quality and tolerance of your part?

An AWJ usually pumps its water/abrasive stream through the part at the maximum rated pressure. The edge quality of the part is determined simply by the feed rate the machine travels. The maximum feed rate is merely a speed that the machine can make a material separation cut. This is a cut that is typically not an aesthetically acceptable quality, but for example, if the part were to have secondary machined features on it, the edge quality does not matter and you can let the waterjet cut faster. However, if the AWJ cut part is finished off the machine, a slower feedrate will produce a more aesthetically acceptable part. Most AWJs can deliver acceptable finished parts at a speed 40%-60% of the maximum separation cut speed.

Changing the feedrate with a laser will not produce a better cut, it simply will not cut. That feedrate is only one of the ingredients in the recipe of the laser process. However, operating with optimum parameters, the laser will have a smooth glass-like finish with very little vertical striation. These edges require little to no deburring or sanding.

Both systems can easily achieve tolerances in the +/- .005” range, but that is determined by the machine tool associated with the laser or AWJ.

How fast would you like to cut?

I want to cut fast! When it comes to sheet metal and thinner plate shape cutting, the laser has the speed advantage over the AWJ. Processing metals with a thermal tool such as a laser is much faster than an abrasive one, because heat leads to speed. With advancements in shop air cutting technologies, cutting speeds approaching 1200 ipm is commonplace. Total control over beam power, diameter and frequency during piercing can now get through the material faster than ever before. For example, lasers can now pierce through ¼” mild steel in 0.1 seconds and can even cut two 0.100” diameter holes in 1 second. Piercing through ½” mild steel can be done now with smaller piercing craters and little to no spatter on the surface of the workpiece.

However, when it comes to softer, less dense material, the AWJ has the edge. Aluminum that is able to be laser cut can be cut at speeds two or three times as fast on the AWJ.

What is the cost limit on your cutting process?

For that answer we need to look at the initial costs of the machines themselves and what they cost to operate. Let us assume we are looking at a 5’x10’ table on both machines. We will also say we are comparing a 60k psi waterjet pump to a 4kW laser. A laser of this size and capacity can cost from $450k to $650k, and the AWJ can cost $150k to $200k. While that’s a substantial difference, the operating costs can tell a different story. The laser will cost anywhere from $9.00/hr to $13.00/hr to run including electrical consumption, lasing gas, optics, resonator components, and consumables. The AWJ will cost anywhere from $25.00/hr to $32.00/hr including electrical consumption, flow through water, pump and cutting head maintenance, consumables, and the abrasive medium. The biggest difference in cost between the two systems is electrical consumption and maintenance. AWJs use far more electricity to run the pump than the entire laser machine, and require more hands-on maintenance. That does not mean that a laser cutting system is maintenance free, but it is not subject to the same mechanical forces as an AWJ. You see, the good thing about a waterjet is it cuts everything, but the bad thing about a waterjet is it cuts everything – including itself. Let’s face it, anything that comes in contact with the forces needed to generate the AWJ’s 60k psi, will wear out quickly. High pressure seals, hydraulic components, water and abrasive delivery lines, and nozzles need to be replaced often.

The laser’s main enemies are heat and contamination. Maintenance on the laser is designed to combat the effects of heat applied to and contamination of optics. Water is the life blood of any laser system. Used as a vehicle to remove heat from resonator components and optics, it runs throughout the machine. A laser that cannot dissipate its own generated heat will not be up and running for long. The system’s chillers require a careful eye to measure the level and purity of the water. Contaminated or dirty optics will be a quick downfall for the laser. Periodic examinations of the optics ensure the machine is delivering all the energy into the workpiece, and not absorbing it.

What is the best solution for my company?

We have looked at a few of the determining factors in choosing a cutting solution that makes sense for your facility. Lasers have the speed advantage and require less maintenance. AWJs offer much more material capacities and have benefits in secondary operations. While these machines process materials in different ways, they are extremely flexible complimentary systems. But maybe you are still not sure what to do next. This is not always an easy decision. Icon Machine Tool’s team of qualified sales engineers are here to help. Please contact us today to evaluate your manufacturing process and give you the edge you need.

Icon Machine Tool is proud to distribute TECHNI waterjet cutting machines throughout Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Iowa, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.


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