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Waterjet Cutting

Unique waterworks

Waterjet technology helps a fountain design firm bring fabrication in-house

By Lynn Stanley

April 2011 - The Dubai Fountain in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, the Fountains of Bellagio at the Bellagio hotel and casino in Las Vegas and more than 200 other water features around the world are the unique creations of Water Entertainment Technologies Design, Sun Valley, Calif.

The company's original handiwork ranges from water streams that rise artfully from pools to laminar flow fountains that spring from the pavement powered by compressed air. The design firm also uses underwater robots to orchestrate its novel water formations.

Initially, the company outsourced fabrication of its components, but the inability to control quality and limited design freedom caused it to look at technology that would help it bring production in-house.

"Imagine being a painter or sculptor and outsourcing your production work," says Mark Fuller, company CEO and co-founder of WET. "It's in making the design and production processes seamlessly integrated that you perfect ideas and techniques. If you aren't getting smarter and if your designs don't reflect increasing knowledge, you can't lead the world."

After considering different equipment manufacturers, the firm chose an ultra-high-pressure Mach 3 waterjet with a 60,000 psi intensifier developed by Flow International Corp., Kent, Wash. The company supports the manufacturing and industrial cleaning markets in the development and manufacture of ultra-high-pressure waterjet technology and robotics equipment.

In-house fabrication
"We not only wanted the best equipment available but also the best support to go with it," says Chuck Schmitz, production manager for WET. "We haven't been disappointed." The user-friendly technology was installed in 2003, and within a week, WET was producing parts for a project. Using FlowMaster software, an operator enters the material type and thickness to be cut along with the required edge quality.

WET develops water features for architecture, landscape and urban design with installation contexts that can include municipal, commercial or institutional applications. The firm's water expressions are hallmarked by the lack of boundaries between the fountains and viewers and the way in which water forms take on a life of their own in a precise choreography that engages lights, music and sometimes fire.

In addition to bringing fabrication in-house, the Mach 3 waterjet allowed WET to first cut models from plastic or plywood to determine how the end product would look and function. "A drawing is one thing, but to actually have the piece to work with and see exactly how it looks from a three-dimensional perspective is extremely important," says Schmitz. The capability to produce models allows WET designers to continue innovating and making changes throughout the production process with minimal cost or delays. Once designers are satisfied with the look and performance of the end product, final pieces are cut out on the waterjet.

"By cutting out test parts using inexpensive materials, we are able to keep costs down so we can use richer, more expensive materials for the final product, improving what we provide to our clients and enriching the whole visual experience," Fuller says. Because each design is unique, WET must innovate continually and develop new concepts. The firm starts by listening to its customer, gaining an understanding of the type of environment that will house the water feature and how it will look in relation to surrounding architectural elements. Concepts begin with several drawings then move to final design, renderings and models that demonstrate the workings of the water feature. As the work progresses, the team refines its ideas and gains an understanding of how the feature will function and the maintenance required. The waterjet is used to cut flat stock with some pieces going to installation while others undergo additional manufacturing to create components such as oarsmen, shooters and holding tanks.

While the Flow machine can operate as a pure or abrasive waterjet, WET primarily uses abrasive cutting. In 2007, WET upgraded its system to a Dynamic Waterjet to minimize stream lag and taper. "Flow invented and patented the Dynamic Waterjet with active tolerance control to counter taper and stream lag while ensuring the waterjet cuts at top speed. The Dynamic Waterjet provides the capability to create finished parts at a level of precision that previously could not be achieved," says Tim Fabian, global product manager for Flow.

To support its growing business, WET purchased a second Flow waterjet in 2008 with HyperJet, Dynamic Waterjet and UltraPierce features. "We were impressed with the part accuracy we achieved when we upgraded to the Dynamic Waterjet and wanted to enhance that accuracy," says Fuller. With the higher pressure HyperJet pump on the new system, WET was able to produce parts 50 percent faster.

Faster cutting capability also allowed designers to make project improvements up to the last minute. "The combination of Dynamic Waterjet with the HyperJet pump reduced secondary processing because parts were more accurate," says Fuller. "Scrap was also minimized because parts could be tightly nested, increasing overall cost savings."

WET uses the waterjet to cut decorative elements and make the initial rough cuts on parts that will be machined during secondary processes. "We are constantly cutting shapes out of stainless steel 1/4 in. thick to 1 in. thick that are used to complete assemblies," says Schmitz. "When a vendor could not make the delivery date for some castings, we cut 2-in.-thick 304 stainless plate and performed the finish machining operations ourselves. We've cut composites, glass and wood as well as shims and gaskets. The waterjet is extremely versatile."

Abrasive cutting
The abrasive waterjet cuts materials using an erosion process. Once pressurized, water moves through the cutting head at four times the speed of sound. With some systems, a small amount of pure water hits the material just before the abrasive-filled water, an occurrence that is called a delay of the entrainment. While not a problem for tougher metals, this delay can create cracks or divots in materials like granite, marble or glass and delamination in composites. "Our patented UltraPierce system draws the abrasive media, usually garnet, into the water stream so that it is immediately combined, allowing the erosion process to occur right at the beginning of the cut," says Fabian. "Instead of starting the cut off to the side of the material, this method allows the operator to select the design's true starting point, reducing time, material waste and operating costs. In addition, operators can cut a wide range of decorative patterns without fear of damaging a large slab of expensive material," he says.

In-house production combined with the HyperJet's versatility and accuracy allows WET to evolve its design capabilities by trying out new ideas. The machine also is helping the company grow in other ways. WET is providing job shop services to other businesses ranging from aerospace to theme parks with its ability to cut Inconel (a family of austenitic nickel-chromium-based superalloys), titanium and stainless steel as well as plastic, rubber, acrylic, stone, glass and 6-in. concrete cinderblocks. "With the waterjet, we can bring in work during slower times," says Fuller. "It's another weapon in our arsenal. If a material can be cut, this machine can do it. Having the Flow waterjet with the HyperJet pump made sense because it allows us to do everything much faster." FFJ

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