In the 1950s, forestry engineer Norman Franz experimented with an early form of water jet cutter to cut lumber. However, the technology did not advance notably until the 1970s when Mohamed Hashish created a technique to add abrasives to the water jet cutter. Today the water jet is unparalleled in many aspects of cutting and has changed the way many products are manufactured. Many types of water jets exist today, including plain water jets, abrasive water jets, percussive water jets, cavitation jets and hybrid jets.
The cutter is commonly connected to a high-pressure water pump where the water is then ejected from the nozzle, cutting through the material by spraying it with the jet of high-speed water. Additives in the form of suspended grit or other abrasives, such as garnet and aluminum oxide, can assist in this process.
An important benefit of the water jet cutter is the ability to cut material without interfering with the material's inherent structure as there is no "heat-affected zone" or HAZ. Minimizing the effects of heat allows metals to be cut without harming or changing intrinsic properties.
Water jet cutters are also capable of producing rather intricate cuts in material. The kerf, or width, of the cut can be changed by changing parts in the nozzle, as well as the type and size of abrasive. Typical abrasive cuts are made with a kerf in the range of 0.04" to 0.05" (1.016 to 1.27 mm), but can be as narrow as 0.02" (0.508 mm). Non-abrasive cuts are normally 0.007" to 0.013" (0.178 to 0.33 mm), but can be as small as 0.003" (0.076 mm), which is approximately the size of a human hair. These small cutters can make very small detail possible in a wide range of applications.
Water jet is considered a "green" technology. Water jets produce no hazardous waste, reducing waste disposal costs. They can cut off large pieces of reusable scrap material that might have been lost using traditional cutting methods. Parts can be closely nested to maximize material use, and the water jet saves material by creating very little kerf. Water jets use very little water (a half gallon to approximately one gallon per minute depending on cutting head orifice size), and the water that is used can be recycled using a closed-looped system. Waste water usually is clean enough to filter and dispose of down a drain. The garnet abrasive is a non-toxic natural substance that can be recycled for repeated use. Garnet usually can be disposed of in a landfill. Water jets also eliminate airborne dust particles, smoke, fumes, and contaminates from cutting materials such as asbestos and fiberglass. This greatly improves the work environment and reduces problems arising from operator exposure.
A water jet cutter creating a specialist tool
Because the nature of the cutting stream can be easily modified the water jet can be used in nearly every industry; there are many different materials that the water jet can cut. Some of them have unique characteristics that require special attention when cutting. Each material cut will have some unique characteristics that have to be taken into account.
Materials commonly cut with a water jet include rubber, foam, plastics, composites, stone, tile, metals, food, paper and much more. Materials that cannot be cut with a water jet are tempered glass, diamonds and certain ceramics.
Water jet cuts are not typically limited by the thickness of the material, and are capable of cutting materials over eighteen inches (45 cm) thick. The penetrating power of these tools has led to the exploration of their use as anti-tank weapons but, due to their short range and the advent of composite armour, research was discontinued.
Commercial water jet cutting systems are available from manufacturers all over the world, in a range of sizes, and with water pumps capable of a range of pressures. Typical water jet cutting machines have a working envelope as small as a few square feet, or up to hundreds of square feet. Ultra-high pressure water pumps are available from as low as 40,000 psi (276 MPa) up to 90,000 psi (621 MPa).
There are six main process characteristics to water jet cutting:
Uses a high velocity stream of abrasive particles suspended in a stream of Ultra High Pressure Water (30,000 - 90,000 psi) which is produced by a water jet intensifier pump.
Is used for machining a large array of materials, including heat-sensitive, delicate or very hard materials.
Produces no heat damage to workpiece surface or edges.
Nozzles are typically made of sintered boride.
Produces a taper of less than 1 degree on most cuts, which can be reduced or eliminated entirely by slowing down the cut process.
Distance of nozzle from workpiece affects the size of the kerf and the removal rate of material. Typical distance is .125".
Temperature is not as much of a factor.
Edge quality for water jet cut parts is defined with the numbers 1 through 5. Lower numbers indicate rougher edge finish; higher numbers are smoother. For thin materials, the difference in cutting speed for Quality 1 could be as much as 3 times faster than the speed for Quality 5. For thicker materials, Quality 1 could be 6 times faster than Quality 5. For example, 4 thick Aluminum Q5 would be 0.72 ipm (18 mm/min) and Q1 would be 4.2 ipm (107 mm/min), 5.8 times faster.
Main article: Multiaxis machining
A 5-Axis Waterjet Cutting Head
A 5-Axis Waterjet Part
With recent advances in control and motion technology, 5-axis water jet cutting (abrasive and pure) has become a reality. Where the normal axes on a water jet are named X (back/forth), Y(left/right) and Z (up/down), a 5-axis system will typically add an A axis (angle from perpendicular) and C axes (rotation around the Z-axis). Depending on the cutting head, the maximum cutting angle for the A axis can be anywhere from 55, 60, or in some cases even 90 degrees from vertical. As such, 5-axis cutting opens up a wide range of applications that can be machined on a water jet cutting machine.
A 5-axis cutting head can be used to cut 4-axis parts, where the bottom surface geometries are shifted a certain amount to produce the appropriate angle and the Z-axis remains at one height. This can be useful for applications like weld preparation where a bevel angle needs to be cut on all sides of a part that will later be welded, or for taper compensation purposes where the kerf angle is transferred to the waste material - thus eliminating the taper commonly found on water jet-cut parts. A 5-axis head can cut parts where the Z-axis is also moving along with all the other axis. This full 5-axis cutting could be used for cutting contours on various surfaces of formed parts.
Because of the angles that can be cut, part programs may need to have additional cuts to free the part from the sheet. Attempting to slide a complex part at a severe angle from a plate can be difficult without appropriate relief cuts.
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^ a b "Company". Jet Edge. http://www.jetedge.com/content.cfm?fuseaction=dsp_applications_101. Retrieved 2009-06-11.
^ "Company | WARDJet". WARDJet.com. http://www.wardjet.com/learnmore.asp. Retrieved 2009-06-11.
^ "Jet Edge 90,000 PSI X-Stream Waterjet Intensifier Pump". 2009-01-25. http://www.jetedge.com/content.cfm?fuseaction=dsp_products_detail&product_ID=120. Retrieved 2009-01-25.
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How Water Jets Work, HowStuffWorks.com video
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