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Cutting at 87,000 psi

By Russ Olexa

Tom Olsen, co-owner of T.R. Machine Inc., Davis, Ill., believes in waterjet cutters. Although his company is primarily a job shop that does machining, Olsen found that a waterjet cutting system can greatly add to the company's capabilities, especially when it cuts at 87,000 psi.

Located in the gently rolling hills of northwestern Illinois near Rockford, T.R. Machine uses about 20 machine tools to deliver parts primarily for government contracts in small lot sizes. These contracts were developed and are now managed by Olsen's wife, Jana, a co-owner of the company.

Olsen started his machining career in high school. Although he grew up on a dairy farm, his dad told every one of his sons that they had to go do something else before they could come back and farm. Olson left and never came back. He says, "I guess I wasn't cut out to milk cows."

While in high school, he worked at a small job shop in Wisconsin during the summers. After graduation, he worked at a machining company in Rockford. Olsen says, "They were sending out work, so within three months from the time I started there, I bought a Bridgeport and a lathe and put it in the garage at the farm and started working for the company on the side, along with working full time."

Later he went into the tool and die trade, and during a 10-year process, he went through several different learning curves. "I went from production to tool and die and then into fixture work. I also did some purchasing, went into supervision and got involved in a lot of different things in metalworking.

"In 1988, I got a phone call from my wife. She wanted me to make a decision. Either I was going to work full time in Rockford and come home at night or I was going to work full time at home. The same day she called, I brought my toolbox home. I've been on my own since. "Originally I built a 4,800-sq.-ft. building north of Davis and leased out the other half to another company. Then we grew into about two additions. Finally that company had to leave and build its own building and we absorbed that area. During that absorption we started building this new place in Davis. We went from 4,800 sq. ft. to 6,600 sq. ft. then to 12,500 sq. ft. and now to 33,000 sq. ft. with about 38 employees and three shifts."

Problem solved
T.R. Machine received a contract from a local company that required 4,000 pieces each month, laser cut from a 0.25-in. flat stainless steel plate that had to be done by a vendor. After being cut, the company machined the part's outside profile, but its tooling wasn't lasting because the part developed a hardened edge from heat transfer during laser cutting.

Coincidentally, Olsen received literature in the mail about a waterjet. He says, "I started thinking of this part and looking at this waterjet literature. I read about what it's capable of doing and started doing the math. I figured I could get more parts per sheet of stainless because I didn't have to worry about heat transfer [the laser required greater part spacing]. That resulted in 0.06 in. between the parts as opposed to 0.125 in. I could schedule my machines based on how I'm getting parts off the waterjet versus sending an order to my vendor and a week later getting my parts. If the vendor is busy, delivery might even be eight days. Whatever my vendor's schedule is controls my schedule. With the waterjet, I could also eliminate the part's hardening. So our tooling life increases. I bought our first waterjet three years ago, and it did a great job."

Olsen found that it enhanced his abilities not only for doing some fabrication work but also for offering capabilities for his machining. He adds, "The more we understood the waterjet and its concept, the more we saw its advantages. We were able to cut and profile parts, and for ones that we were profiling with an end mill, we just cut out from flat stock. It dramatically cut times off of our part costs."

Often the company would machine a part and finish it with the waterjet or cut it out to near-final shape and then do minor machining on it for finishing. If a part had any geometry profiling, Olsen could cut it on the waterjet, then locate the part on its profile and finish-machine it to save time.

The waterjet also opened new doors for Olsen. Although Olsen didn't go to his customers and tell them about the waterjet, he was able to quote different types of jobs. He says, "It just opened up a lot more avenues that we could pursue."

Along with the government contract work managed by Jana, T.R. Machine has used the waterjet to cut tool blanks and form tools, tool holders and many different parts that the company uses to manufacture other components. It's also used to cut ceramics and hardened steel for other customers. Olsen adds, "I know a lot of people that work in other shops. They'll call me up and say, "Hey, I've got this great big piece of aluminum that's got to have slots cut in it and it has this crazy configuration. Can you profile it for me?"

"So there have been opportunities gained by the equipment," he says. "But the biggest percentage of our growth has been understanding the capabilities and looking at the parts that we're given an opportunity to quote on. It's opened that window of what we're capable of doing as opposed to just flat and round stock.

"That's really where it's helped us," he notes. "The majority of work that we're getting includes parts that we're able to pursue now but couldn't before. If another company has a plasma or laser cutter, there's no way I can profile a part with an end mill as quickly as they can cut it out. But with a waterjet I can be competitive."

Cutting at 87,000 psi
Olsen's first waterjet only had a 4-ft.-by-8-ft. table size. He realized that at times this hampered his ability to do certain jobs. His son-in-law Mike Lawler, who operates the waterjet, visited the 2006 International Manufacturing Technology Show and saw a Flow International WMC2 waterjet that uses a cutting pressure of 87,000 psi.

Lawler told Olsen that he had to see the waterjet, saying, "We have to get one." Olsen notes that he went to the show with an open mind, but "I didn't go there thinking that I was going to spend a quarter of a million dollars on a machine. I had no intentions of doing that. But when we were looking at this machine and watching demos, we thought its capabilities might have merit. We thought we might be on to something here because our machine's 4-ft.-by-8-ft. table was restrictive.

"Flow has bigger machines," he says. "This one has a 6-ft.-by-12-ft. table. We're running three shifts, and it allows me to set up 4-ft.-by-8-ft. sheets of material on one end and then run them through second and third shifts for our production jobs. It gives me the ability to have another 4 ft. at the other end to set up fixtures for the one and two prototype parts we often do or lower-quantity parts. It also allows me to go to the other side of the machine for our second and third shifts and run plate material without losing locations on my fixtures. I didn't have this capability at the time. We had to pull a sheet out of the waterjet and put fixtures in to cut machined parts, and if we didn't get the work done, it sat for a shift or two until we finished the next day and put a sheet back in. This machine had a definite advantage. Then we're looking at the 87,000 psi for faster cutting and a straighter edge."

At 87,000 psi, water is faster, so it's not going to break down and give a cone-shaped kerf. Also, the articulating head on the Flow waterjet allows a user to control the taper within 10 degrees. When it comes to a corner, it's able to manipulate the head for a square cut.

"It's eliminated a lot of secondary profiling operations because now we can cut within one thousandth of an inch," says Olsen. "We're finding we've got a lot straighter edge. It allows us to do more complete work versus having to just profile the part and send it to a machining center for secondary cutting."

Olsen rigged up an overhead crane to bring material to the waterjet. He also added plexiglass guarding around the perimeter of the machine that stops water from being splashed all over if the cutting stream runs out of abrasive. One part that Olsen creatively cuts is a spider gear. It starts out as a turned blank then it's sent over to the waterjet to have a profile cut around it. Using an end mill would take a long time because of the small diameter end mills that would be needed to do the part's profiling.

Olsen says, "We're using cutters with 60 or 70 thousandths radii and we're in 0.25 in. deep at that base of the gear. In two or three minutes on the waterjet we can cut it out. Then we just finish-mill it after the waterjet cutting."

He also uses the waterjet to cut blanks from large-diameter steel round stock. If he was using a high-speed-steel saw blade and a tooth broke off in the cut, he would have to start all over. With the waterjet, the cut is fast and simple with no worries of breaking a blade.

He says, "We do a lot of flat part production from round stock because that's the only way we can get the material. So we'll blank out round stock, just cut it off in whatever increment is needed, face it off to the width we need on a lathe, then profile the part from that round slug as opposed to having to mill it out. The waterjet allows us to do certain jobs that someone without that technology wouldn't be able to accomplish because they'd never be able to compete by having to machine it. It has made a dramatic impression on our business as a whole. It's allowed us to go places that we wouldn't have been able to go." FFJ

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