Laser Cutting and Waterjet Cutting: Two Great Technologies Combining?Or are they best when they’re solo?As always, the answer depends on what jobs are on the shop floor, what materials are most often handled, the skill level of the operators, and ultimately the equipment budget available.
According to a survey of the major suppliers of each system, the short answer is that water jets are less expensive and more versatile than lasers in terms of materials that can be cut.From foam to food, water jets exhibit extraordinary flexibility.On the other hand, lasers offer unmatched speed and precision when producing large quantities of thinner metals up to 1 inch (25.4 mm) thick.
In terms of operating costs, water jet systems consume abrasive material and require pump modifications.Fiber lasers have higher initial costs, but lower operating costs than their older CO2 cousins; they may also require more operator training (though modern control interfaces shorten the learning curve).By far the most commonly used waterjet abrasive is garnet.In rare cases when using more abrasive substances like aluminum oxide, the mixing tube and nozzle will experience more wear.With garnet, waterjet components may cut for 125 hours; with alumina they may only last about 30 hours.
Ultimately, the two technologies should be seen as complementary, says Dustin Diehl, product manager for the laser division of Amada America Inc. in Buena Park, Calif.
“When customers have both technologies, they have a lot of flexibility in bidding,” Diehl explained.”They can bid on any type of work because they have these two different but similar tools and can bid on the entire project.”
For example, an Amada customer with two systems performs blanking on a laser.“Just next to the press brake is a water jet cutting heat-resistant insulation,” says Diehl.”Once the sheet is bent, they put the insulation in, bend it again and do the hemming or sealing. It’s a neat little assembly line.”
In other cases, Diehl continued, stores said they wanted to buy a laser cutting system but didn’t think they were taking on a lot of work to justify the spending.”If you’re making a hundred parts, and it takes a whole day, we’ll have them look at the laser. We can do sheet metal application in minutes instead of hours.”
Tim Holcomb, applications specialist at OMAX Corp. Kent, Wash., who runs a shop with about 14 lasers and a waterjet, recalls seeing a picture he saw years ago at a company using lasers, waterjets and wire EDM. poster.The poster lays out the best materials and thicknesses each type of machine can handle – the list of water jets dwarfs the others.
Ultimately, “I see lasers trying to compete in the waterjet world and vice versa, and they’re not going to win outside of their respective fields,” explains Holcomb.He also noted that since waterjet is a cold cutting system, “we can take advantage of more medical or defense applications because we don’t have a heat affected zone (HAZ) — we’re microjet technology. Minijet nozzle and microjet cutting” It really took off for us.”
While lasers dominate the cutting of mild black steel, waterjet technology is “truly the Swiss Army Knife of the machine tool industry,” asserts Tim Fabian, vice president of marketing and product management at Flow International Corp. in Kent, Washington.Member of Shape Technology Group.Its clients include Joe Gibbs Racing.
“If you think about it, a race car manufacturer like Joe Gibbs Racing has less access to laser machines because they often cut a limited number of parts from many different materials, including titanium, aluminum and carbon fiber,” Fabian explained road.“One of the needs they explained to us was that the machine they were using had to be very easy to program. Sometimes an operator might make a part out of ¼” [6.35 mm] aluminum and mount it on a race car, but then decide that the part should be made by Made of titanium, a thicker carbon fiber sheet, or a thinner aluminum sheet.”
On a traditional CNC machining center, he continued, “these changes are considerable.” Trying to change gears from material to material and from part to part means changing cutter heads, spindle speeds, feed rates and programs.
“One of the things they really pushed us to use waterjet was to create a library of the different materials they used, so all they had to do was perform a couple of mouse clicks and have them switch from ¼” aluminum to ½” [12.7 mm] carbon fiber ,” Fabian continued.”One more click, they go from ½” carbon fiber to 1/8″ [3.18 mm] titanium.” Joe Gibbs Racing is “using a lot of exotic alloys and stuff you don’t usually see regular customers using. So we A lot of time has been spent working with them to create libraries with these advanced materials. With hundreds of materials in our database, there is an easy process for clients to add to their own unique materials and expand this database further. ”
Another high-end user of the Flow waterjet is Elon Musk’s SpaceX.”We have quite a few machines at SpaceX to make parts for rocket ships,” Fabian said.Another aerospace exploration manufacturer, Blue Origin, also uses the Flow machine.”They’re not making 10,000 of anything; they’re making one of them, five of them, four of them.”
For the typical store, “Anytime you have a job and you need 5,000 ¼” of something made of steel, a laser is going to be hard to beat,” Fabian points out. “But if you need two steel parts, three aluminum parts Manufactured parts or four nylon parts, you probably wouldn’t consider using a laser instead of a waterjet.With the water jet, you can cut any material, from thin steel to 6″ to 8″ [15.24 to 20.32 cm] thick metal.
With its laser and machine tool divisions, Trumpf has a clear foothold in laser and conventional CNC.
In the narrow window where the waterjet and laser are most likely to overlap—the metal thickness is just over 1 inch [25.4 mm]—the waterjet maintains a sharp edge.
“For very, very thick metals — 1.5 inches [38.1 mm] or more — not only can a waterjet give you better quality, but a laser may not be able to process the metal,” said Brett Thompson, Manager of Laser Technology and Sales Consulting .After that, the difference is clear: non-metals are likely to be machined on a waterjet, while for any metal 1″ thick or thinner,” the laser is a no-brainer.Laser cutting is much faster, especially in thinner and/or harder materials – for example, stainless steel compared to aluminum.”
For part finish, especially edge quality, as the material becomes thicker and heat input becomes a factor, the waterjet again gains an advantage.
“This could be where the water jet might have an advantage,” Thompson admitted.“The range of thicknesses and materials exceeds that of a laser with a smaller heat affected zone. Although the process is slower than a laser, the waterjet also provides consistently good edge quality. You also tend to get very good squareness when using a waterjet — even thickness in inches, and no burrs at all.”
Thompson added that the advantage of automation in terms of integration into extended production lines is the laser.
“With a laser, full integration is possible: load material on one side, and output from the other side of the integrated cutting and bending system, and you get a finished cut and bent part. In this case, the water jet may still be is a poor choice – even with a good material management system – because the parts are cut much slower and obviously you have to deal with the water.”
Thompson asserts that lasers are less expensive to operate and maintain because “the consumables used are relatively limited, especially fiber lasers.” However, “the overall indirect cost of waterjets is likely to be lower due to the lower power and relative simplicity of the machine. It really depends on how well the two devices are designed and maintained.”
He recalls that when OMAX’s Holcomb was running a shop in the 1990s, “Whenever I had a part or blueprint on my desk, my initial thought was, ‘Can I do it on a laser?’” But before I knew Before, we were getting more and more projects dedicated to waterjets.Those are thicker materials and certain types of parts, we can’t get into a very tight corner because of the laser’s heat affected zone; it blows out of the corner, so we’d be leaning towards water jets – even what lasers usually do The same goes for material thickness.”
While single sheets are faster on the laser, sheets stacked to four layers are faster on the waterjet.
“If I were to cut a 3″ x 1″ [76.2 x 25.4 mm] circle from 1/4″ [6.35mm] mild steel, I would probably prefer the laser because of its speed and accuracy. Finish – side cut Contour – will be more of a glass-like finish, very smooth.”
But to get a laser to operate at this level of precision, he added, “you have to be an expert in frequency and power. We’re very good at it, but you have to dial it very tightly; with water jets, for the first time, First try. Now, all of our machines have a CAD system built in. I can design a part directly on the machine.” This is great for prototyping, he adds.“I can program directly on the waterjet, making it easier to change material thicknesses and settings.” The job settings and transitions are “comparable; I’ve seen some transitions for waterjets that are very similar to lasers.”
Now, for smaller jobs, prototyping or educational use – even for a hobby shop or garage – OMAX’s ProtoMAX comes with a pump and caster table for easy relocation.Workpiece material is submerged underwater for quiet cutting.
Regarding maintenance, “Usually I can waterjet train someone in a day or two and send them out into the field very quickly,” asserts Holcomb.
OMAX’s EnduroMAX pumps are designed to reduce water usage and allow for quick rebuilds.The current version has three dynamic seals.”I still tell people to be careful about maintaining any pump, not just mine. It’s a high pressure pump, so take your time and get proper training.”
“Water jets are a great stepping stone into blanking and fabrication, and maybe your next step will be a laser,” he suggests.”It lets people cut parts. And the press brakes are pretty affordable, so they can cut and bend them. In a production environment, you might be inclined to use a laser.”
While fiber lasers offer the flexibility to cut non-steel (copper, brass, titanium), water jets can cut gasket materials and plastics due to the lack of a HAZ.
Operating the current generation of fiber laser cutting systems “is now very intuitive, and the location of production can be determined by program,” Diehl said.“The operator just loads the workpiece and hits start. I’m from the shop and in the CO2 era optics start to age and deteriorate, cut quality suffers, and if you can diagnose those issues, you’re considered a Excellent operator. Today’s fiber systems are cookie-cutter cutters, they don’t have those consumables, so they can be turned on or off – cutting parts or not. It takes a little bit of a skilled operator demand. That is Said, I think the transition from water jet to laser will be a smooth and easy one.”
Diehl estimates that a typical fiber laser system can run $2 to $3 per hour, while waterjets run about $50 to $75 per hour, taking into account abrasive consumption (eg, garnet) and planned pump retrofits.
As the kilowatt power of laser cutting systems continues to increase, they are increasingly becoming an alternative to water jets in materials such as aluminum.
“In the past, if thick aluminum was used, the waterjet would have [the] advantage,” explains Diehl.”The laser doesn’t have the ability to go through something like 1″ aluminum.In the laser world, we didn’t screw up in that world for very long, but now with higher wattage fiber optics and advances in laser technology, 1″ aluminum is no longer an issue. If you did a cost comparison, for The initial investment in the machine, water jets may be cheaper. Laser cut parts may be 10 times as many, but you have to be in this high-volume environment to drive up costs. As you run more mixed low-volume parts, There may be some advantages to water jetting, but certainly not in a production environment. If you’re in any type of environment where you need to run hundreds or thousands of parts, it’s not a waterjet application.”
Illustrating the increase in available laser power, Amada’s ENSIS technology has increased from 2 kW to 12 kW when it was launched in 2013.At the other end of the scale, Amada’s VENTIS machine (introduced at Fabtech 2019) enables a wider range of material processing with a beam that moves along the diameter of the nozzle.
“We can perform different techniques by moving back and forth, up and down, side to side, or figure-eight,” Diehl said of VENTIS.“One of the things we’ve learned from ENSIS technology is that every material has a sweet spot – a way it likes to cut. We do this using different types of patterns and beam shaping. With VENTIS, we It goes back and forth almost like a saw; as the head moves, the beam moves back and forth, so you get very smooth streaks, great edge quality, and sometimes speed.”
Like OMAX’s small ProtoMAX waterjet system, Amada is preparing a “very small footprint fiber system” for small workshops or “R&D prototyping workshops” that don’t want to break into their production department when they only need to make a few prototypes.part.”
Post time: Feb-09-2022