Waterjet Cutting

Tactical game plan

By Gretchen Salois

Above: The MultiCam 3000 waterjet with a KMT NEOLine 40i allows Phoenix to cut large components for aerospace applications.

Feats of engineering are made possible using the right combination of tools

December 2014 - It takes some serious know-how to tackle a request for better nuclear waste disposal or for components to convert commercial aircraft into water tankers to fight forest fires. It isn’t just about providing parts cut to specification—it’s also about coming up with engineering ideas on how to best tackle a problem. 

“Customers often find us after realizing they can’t find anyone who wants to take on the challenge,” says Erick Martin, division manager of test nacelle equipment at Phoenix Composite Solutions LLC in Oscoda, Michigan. Phoenix cuts cross sections and puts together components or prototypes either by welding or by bonding the material. Prototypes are usually constructed from lower cost carbon steel. “We wouldn’t use ¾ in. stainless steel to test something—it’d be too expensive,” Martin explains.

“We’ll make our own ‘poor man’ tooling instead of going to someone for it—the waterjet allows us to make large structures that would otherwise be cost prohibitive,” Martin says. When a customer was working to convert DC-10 planes to water tankers, they needed to use a waterjet cut pattern to supply baffles and other components during the rebuild. The company purchased a MultiCam 3000 waterjet with a KMT NEOLine 40i. 


Water tankers are used to fight massive fires. “Tankers are carrying large amounts of water, and baffles in the water tanks limit the weight shift of the water during flight. If the baffle fails or the center of gravity shifts significantly, the plane will crash,” Martin explains. “We cut quite a few of those parts. We completed the order for our customers’ first plane conversion and now we are working on the kits for the next two planes.” 

Details of most projects Phoenix wins are confidential. “Most of our contracts and purchase orders have indemnification clauses so the parts we work on stay private. They paid for it,” Martin adds.

Productive prototyping

Phoenix also uses the waterjet cutter for tooling. The thrust reversers in the planes have specific airflow profiles to meet, so Phoenix designs what is similar to a high-tech erector set, with profiles every three to 5 in. “We create a sheet metal profile and those are stacked in a line using braces. It becomes the basis for a tool that can be screened over and that can be done relatively quickly—otherwise these tools would take six months to a year to manufacture, and the cost would be about 10 times higher,” Martin says. 

Phoenix works on prototypes but also churns out “about 10,000 parts a year,” explains John Scanlon, president. “We’re set up to be modular/flexible in how we approach each job.” 

There is no limit to tool size, says Scanlon. “We get to do some interesting prototyping and then the next job is rapid tooling to production,” he says. “We used to have our tools made externally when they were larger, but now there is no limit to the tools we can make and we control our schedule by doing it all in-house using a combination of the waterjet, 12 ft. Romer portable CMM with PolyWorks reverse engineering software and our proprietary custom machining center that was designed and built in-house by Manager of Manufacturing Engineering, Scott Phillips.” 

Phoenix heard about Dallas-based MultiCam after it purchased a used plasma cutter and router from a company going out of business. “Phoenix came to us after they found additional cutting needs they weren’t able to do cleanly with the equipment they had,” says Jamie Venlet, Michigan salesman at the Grand Rapids, Michigan, location. 


After demonstrating what could be done with a waterjet, Phoenix was convinced. “Our offerings are modular,” Venlet says. “We don’t just say this table goes with this pump and that’s it. We offer a wide range of pumps and machines.” MultiCam sized the pump with horsepower and pressure to fit Phoenix’s needs. 

Venlet has had customers come to him after visiting with other vendors and their biggest complaint is that when shopping between models, a machine would have everything they needed except one feature available only on a different model. “They get frustrated because if they’re looking at two machines and each one has a different combination of fixed options, they have to settle on one that doesn’t have everything they need.

“So we go in and assess and shape the machine to their needs,” Venlet continues. “When they decide which series of machines they’d like to choose from, we then figure out if they need a water tank, a five-axis head, the ability to lower and raise the height of the water on the fly and which type of pump to use. All those factors are things we set up and quote based on that criteria.”

Comparing cutting options

While there are other cutting options available in the marketplace, Martin says a waterjet factors out the best for Phoenix. “Laser is six times the cost upfront compared to a waterjet,” he says. “And in addition to metal, we can cut glass and other materials. It can cut up to 8-in.-thick aluminum, so that gives us a lot of flexibility, although we don’t cut that thick very often.” Even with higher operating costs when factoring in the cost of garnet and maintenance, the benefits of a waterjet stand out.

If material needs to be laser cut, Phoenix outsources the task. “The waterjet keeps us from secondary processing. The higher quality edge keeps the cut square so there’s very little finishing or deburring necessary,” says Martin. “But we can just as easily do a rough cut on a waterjet if we’re just trying to make something quick.”

Using the 90,000 psi KMT Streamline PRO 60 hp series UHP waterjet pump, Phoenix quickly achieves an accurate cut. “Phoenix integrated the MultiCam waterjet table with a five-axis cutting head which enhanced their product offering in the marketplace,” says Bob Pedrazas, marketing manager, KMT Waterjet, Baxter Springs, Kansas.

The value in upgrading to 90,000 psi is cutting parts significantly faster compared to cutting at 60,000 psi, while reducing the cost per finished part. “Fifty to 60 percent of the cost to run a waterjet is in the garnet or abrasive,” Pedrazas says. “The faster the waterjet cuts, the less abrasive is used, which over the course of a year is a tremendous savings.”


Martin notes that water quality is also a factor to consider. There’s a trade-off between using filtered and nonfiltered water. “Filtered/Deionized water helps the orifice last longer but you have to have more of an initial investment because of the need for filtering and deionized water tanks,” Martin explains. “Also, you can buy diamond orifices instead of ruby-tipped orifices to help extend the life of the nozzle when you’re using unfiltered water.” 

Phoenix originally opted out of purchasing a garnet removal system, but is considering it for the future. “We shut down a day or two every three months or so to manually remove the cutting bed and clean out the garnet,” Marin says.

The learning curve was easy since Phoenix purchased both a used MultiCam plasma cutter and router from a company that went out of business.“The interface was very similar and our guys were able to pick it up quickly,” Martin says. 

Operator knowledge is something Phoenix takes pride in and it shows when operating the waterjet. “What it comes down to is operator knowledge and keeping up with the maintenance of the machine,” Martin says. “We might have to buy finer or more expensive garnet or use a 0.01 in. orifice nozzle instead of a 0.03 in. orifice to get the cut we need from a certain material but our operator will be able to figure that out.”

The combination of equipment and operator knowledge equips Phoenix with the problem-solving skills to meet demand. Scanlon is confident, “With the tools and systems we have in house, there isn’t much we can’t do.” FFJ



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