Waterjet Cutting

Exact elegance

By Gretchen Salois

A different cutting approach expands one job shop’s capabilities and customers

February 2013 - The Manhattan skyline consists of buildings each dreamed up by an architect’s inspired design. Moving from prototype to reality can seem daunting, but the right tools make it possible. 

When Mid-Am Metal Forming in Rogersville, Mo., took on a project for a 75-story building in Manhattan, it had to work with complex aluminum extrusions with wall thicknesses varying from 0.030 in. to 0.320 in. curved in multiple directions. They took a tremendous number of man-hours to mill, drill and cut because of length, curvature and cut away features, says Dave Johnson, president at Mid-Am Metal. “These parts were seeing high scrap rates and becoming a source of tension for the entire project.” 

ffj-0213-waterjet-image1The company used the Mach 4c waterjet from Kent, Wash.-based Flow Corp. to cut parts, including aluminum curtain wall extrusions. “We installed our Flow waterjet and made these parts for the project in the first run,” Johnson says. “After setting the machine up to index and hold parts, we were making what was previously a 11.2 man-hour part, with a high scrap rate, down to a finished part every 15 minutes without scrap.” 

With the same Mach 4c, Mid-Am Metal cut pieces from 4-in.-thick 4140 tool steel to use as a forming tool to make S-shaped curves for the façade of a neurological center. Waterjet cutting allowed Mid-Am Metal to cut identical pieces without heat-affected edges and without additional machining. A 12-in.-high form tool was then created by stacking and pinning three identical pieces, pinned to the table, and the material was stretch-bent around it.

Another project involved a church where the company used its waterjet to cut 4 1⁄2-in. by 1⁄8-in.-thick aluminum extrusions for the window where the contours intersect one another. Here, too, waterjet cutting was used to produce the forming tool from 4 1⁄2-in.-thick carbon steel.

Ample accomplishments

Two years ago, Mid-Am Metal needed a way to expand the materials it could cut for customers. The company cuts stainless steel, carbon steel, armored steel, Inconel, plastic and wood. It cuts aluminum ranging from extremely thin (0.005 in.) to 6 in. and thicker for applications including pressure tanks, armored troop transport, glass and glazing, automotive and aerospace. 

Launched in March 2012, Flow’s Mach 4c is the first waterjet designed from the tool tip back to handle the loads incurred during five-axis and HyperPressure (94,000 psi) cutting, says Brian Kent, global product manager at Flow. The Mach 4c also is completely modular and designed to be easily upgraded and expanded. 

“A customer can purchase a 2 m by 4 m to start their business and as their business grows and they take on new customers, they can easily expand the same system to match their needs,” Kent says. The system offers a variety of features including the ability to submerse the workpiece with the touch of a button, making the cutting process much quieter.

It took Flow three years to design and develop the Mach 4c and included interviewing more than 1,000 current waterjet users, as well as 350 trade show attendees and 90 customer-facing Flow staff members. “Through this feedback, we developed requests and incorporated them into the Mach 4c design,” Kent says.

Mid-Am Metal particularly appreciates the ease of importing drawings, as well as the variety of acceptable file types, including 3-D models. The company also found it now uses features it didn’t anticipate needing as much, including the dynamic cutting feature. “The dynamic cutting feature is something we did not see ourselves needing but have found it to be a constant asset,” Johnson says.

Mid-Am Metal’s most complex cuts have been brought to exacting tolerances, as close as 0.005 in. in some instances. Johnson adds Mid-Am Metal customers have increased tolerance requirements since the company purchased its waterjet. “The waterjet has increased our capabilities and customer expectations,” Johnson adds.

ffj-0213-waterjet-image5Expanding expertise

Prior to adding the Flow waterjet to its job shop, Mid-Am Metal was traditionally a metal curving company that “stepped into some complex fabrication,” Johnson says. “But having the Flow five-axis 10 ft. by 20 ft. bed has made us a well-rounded one-stop shop for cutting, forming, sheet metal/extrusion fabrication, as well as high performance painting.” Johnson adds that having such a large bed gives the job shop flexibility and the ability to meet the needs of customers who might require larger parts that could not be cut using smaller beds.

The Mach 4c comes with 12 in. of Z-axis motion, allowing customers to cut material up to 12 in. thick while also allowing for more complex five-axis cutting. Operators can switch from 0.25-in. steel to 5-in. aluminum without making any changes to the machine setup. “The operator simply tells the machine the material type and thickness,” Kent says. The machine’s FlowCUT software automatically changes all the settings, leaving little to no room for human error. 

“The Mach 4c was designed to move up to 1,400 ipm,” Kent adds. “This speed allows customers to reduce cycle time on all materials and efficiently cut soft materials.” It also was designed to reduce maintenance and increase productivity. The machine comes standard with an automatic lubrication system that eliminates the need to lubricate the motion system. A built-in VPN system allows Flow’s technical service staff to connect remotely to the machine and diagnose problems. “We can monitor a wide variety of sensors to help reduce downtime and make the maintenance of the system easier,” Kent says.

Safety was very much a concern for Mid-Am Metal when purchasing the Flow waterjet. “The Flow machine offered the most complete safety features of the machines we considered,” Johnson says. 

All three of Mid-Am Metal’s operators were new to the waterjet cutting process but were able to learn quickly. “Training was good both in Washington and on-site,” Johnson says. “Questions are answered quickly and yes, we had a lot at the onset. But we were brand new to waterjet cutting and those questions tapered off fast as we became familiar with the machine.” FFJ

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