Cutting Straight to the Facts 10 Things to Know About Water Jet Cutting

Travel to the Grand Canyon or the fjords of Norway and instantly you’ll see the capability of water. Through millennia of erosion by rivers and glaciers, these famous landmarks are awe-striking reminders of the patient power of water.

It wasn’t long ago that coal miners of the early 19th century were pressurizing water to use as a dislodging tool for loose coal. Similarly, miners of the late 19th century’s Gold Rush used this to separate gold from soft rock for easier collection. 

Although water’s ability to be used as a shaping tool has been well-known throughout the centuries, the technology to harness it into an incredibly accurate, industrial-strength tool has only come about in relatively recent times. 

Its use as such in water jet cutting machines is what we are going to be considering here. Whether you’re looking to make a more informed business decision or are simply curious, this article is for you. 

1. What Water Jet Cutting Actually Is

What once was a crude dislodging tool in the form of pressurized water is now essential for machinists working with precise applications. 

The practice of taking the concept of water erosion as we see it in nature, concentrating it, and then amplifying it through the use of technology is today called water jet cutting.

Water jet cutting is the technique of using highly pressurized water, usually mixed with an abrasive, to quickly erode a small line in a variety of materials. This allows for the making of a narrow, precise cut.

2. How Does It Work?

To harness the power of water and channel it in a way that is accurate and predictable, water jet cutting machines incorporate several different components that work together.

Firstly, you need a high-pressure water pump to get the water to a strength that allows it to quickly erode through even tough materials.

From there you’ll need a way to rapidly and accurately make sharp, precise movements. That’s where the multi-axis cutting head attached to an x-y axis style traverse system comes in. This allows for a great diversity of quick maneuvers.

Attach this to a CNC (computer numerical control) capable software, and you have the beginnings of a highly accurate water jet machining cutting system.

3. What Effect Does Adding an Abrasive Have?

Water alone is a powerful erosive force.

Head to a nearby river and pull out a rock from the streambed and you’ll see the effects of abrasion erosion. Likely, the rock you’ve pulled out is extremely smooth. This is from many years of other rocks and sedimentary particles scraping over it, creating a sandpaper effect.

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This is another force that water jet cutters have harnessed and concentrated. By incorporating small abrasive particles into the jet stream, the erosive force in these machines is further intensified.

4. What Do Water Jet Cutters Use as an Abrasive?

To harness and amplify the force of abrasion erosion, similar materials are used as you would find producing this effect in nature.  

Most popularly, the class of rock-forming minerals called garnets are used. These are utilized because they are very hard minerals by nature. This combined with the fact that, upon fracture, they fragment into pieces with sharp edges.

5. Precision is Key

For a machinist, precision is a must. This is especially considering some of the industries and products that employ the water jet cutting process (more on that in a bit).

What sort of accuracy can one who utilizes water jet machining hope to achieve? This is going to differ depending on a number of factors, such as type of material being cut, thickness of material, and quality of machine being used.

However, accurate cuts can be made even down to tolerances as low as 0.001 inches (0.025 mm). 

6. Power Harnessed With Technology 

The erosive power of water in nature is often a crude force. Glaciers continue to flow forward and scrape a path at random, unconcerned with what’s in the way or the direction they’re going.

With the advances in machining technology, the effects of water and abrasion erosion are no longer this way. Today, the right computer program employed as part of your water jet cutting system will allow you great precision and versatility of operation. 

Computer programs today will allow you to create or import both 2D and 3D designs to be read by your software and translated to the water jet machine to cut out a detailed creation. Another great advantage of the right program is the ability of it to create the best path of cutting for added efficiency and precision.

7. It’s an Incredibly Eco-Friendly Process

Often, positive environmental impact is sacrificed in order to achieve greater efficiency. This is not the case with a high-pressure water cutter. 

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Many other methods of machine cutting that employ a thermal process to cut, such as plasma cutting can create by-products that have a negative environmental impact. Some of these cutting methods produce waste in the form of slag as well as harmful vapors, depending on the material being cut.

Whereas in the process of water jet cutting, both the water and abrasives used are recyclable. No surprise here as these are two of nature’s most abundant resources–water and land.

8. Versatility of Materials

Other than the already mentioned benefits of this machining style is the great versatility of materials it can be used on. Just some of the materials that a waterjet machine can accurately cut and shape are:

  • Glass
  • Metals, such and titanium and steel
  • Stone and tile, made up of such materials as marble and granite
  • Ceramics
  • Carbon fiber
  • Paper products
  • Plastics
  • Food products (without the use of added abrasives to the cutting stream)

9. Versatility of Material Sizes

Not only can water jet machines be utilized with a range of material applications, but they can also be used on a range of material sizes.

As seen above, water jet cutters can be used on paper products, which are…well…paper-thin. From this incredibly thin to thicknesses as much as four inches, water jet cutters can maintain a high level of accuracy. Even cuts in applications greater than four inches can be achieved with a close approximation of the desired shape. 

10. Versatility of Industries and Applications

Considering the versatility of materials and material sizes water jet cutters can be used on, it’s no wonder so many different industries also employ this type of machine cutting. Some of the industries that require extremely precise products which currently use this method include:

  • Aerospace industry
  • Medical industry
  • Military and defense
  • Precision tools
  • Architecture

A Crude Power Turned Into a Versatile Tool

With their great versatility of applications, eco-friendliness, and extremely precise nature, it’s no wonder so many industries have turned to the water jet cutting method for their machining needs.

It’s also interesting to consider the ways humanity continues to employ advances in science and technology to harness the powerful effects of nature. 

If these are the types of interesting facts you enjoy reading about, check out our many other great reads to add to your knowledge base.