Showcase for waterjet capabilities

01 February 2013

Over 100 manufacturers visited the University of Sheffield AMRC with Boeing in January to find out about the capabilities of its giant new waterjet machine.

The two-day open house was organised in partnership with WardJet, a tier one member of the AMRC with Boeing, which has provided its world-leading waterjet technology to the centre.

Waterjet machines use a precisely controlled stream of extremely high-pressure water, containing a small amount of abrasive particles, to rapidly cut metals and other materials.

The AMRC's GCM-series machine is a giant gantry-style composite milling centre combining WardJet's proven waterjet technology with high-speed five-axis machining, providing highly efficient and flexible cutting of composites and metals. With over 1.5 metres of vertical travel for the cutting head and four metres of cross-beam travel, it is one of the world's largest combined waterjet-machining centres.

To show the abilities of the five-axis waterjet cutter, Adam Carder of WardJet used the GCM to cut the two partners' logos into a large cylinder made of carbon fibre composite. The design was then finished using the centre's milling head.

"The cylinder had a two-and-a-half foot vertical wall, which made it a challenge - you can't do that with the usual five-axis machine," commented Carder. "It shows the unique capabilities of this five-axis, and the sophistication of the software to programme it."

The GCM was tailor-made by WardJet to fit the available space at the AMRC Factory of the Future, and to showcase the state of the art in waterjet machining.

"This machine combines CNC milling and waterjet, so we can put a part down and get the best of both worlds," Rich Ward, president and founder of WardJet, told delegates at the event. "We're also looking at putting metrology onto that machine, so we can carry out 3D imaging of the part and compare that to the model, cut and measure the part, then compare that to what we had before."

The AMRC's GCM boasts an array of advanced features that extend the capabilities of waterjet machining, and is particularly suited for shaping large composite parts. The five-axis waterjet head can rotate an unlimited number of times without having to unwind pipes or cables.

"When you are rotating the cutting head, you have high-pressure water, abrasive and air, and all the controls and power needed at the head," Ward noted. "What we've done is come up with a method that lets us bring all that through a system with unlimited rotation and no need to unwind. To do that with water at up to 90,000 PSI is quite some achievement."

WardJet joined the AMRC with Boeing in 2009, and recently renewed its membership for another three years.

"We believe that in the next three years we're going to see a phenomenal amount of opportunities in waterjet," Ward said. "There's some fantastic technologies in nozzle design, and incredible work in increasing cutting power. Imagine if you can cut five times faster with waterjet - it would be the only way to do things."

AMRC researchers will use the GCM to explore innovative applications for waterjet cutting of metal and composite parts for aerospace and other industries, and new techniques to improve performance and productivity.

"We are exploring different processes such as waterjet cleaning, milling and drilling, and also investigating ways to increase the power of the waterjet," says Dr Gustavo Escobar, waterjet project manager at the AMRC with Boeing. "This will increase productivity, and allow precision cutting to accuracies of a few microns. We want to bring the waterjet process closer, in terms of accuracy and surface quality, to competing technologies such as conventional machining and wire EDM."

The AMRC with Boeing is currently engaged in several international collaborative projects, funded under the European Commission's Seventh Framework Programe (FP7), to extend the capabilities of waterjet machining. The Reform and Eneplan projects are exploring the environmental benefits of waterjets for machining aerospace parts and composite components. Admap-Gas meanwhile investigated the use of waterjet cutting for fir-tree profiles in jet turbine disks.

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