Monday, September 12, 2016

The Small Manufacturing Revolution Gets a New Tool

Over the years, I've written several times of the new industrial revolution.  It's called convergence
With the advance of personal fabrication - the intersection of home CNC, 3D printing, continually more powerful digital electronics, what's called the Maker movement, it is literally getting to the point where you will be able to buy anything you need to make any gun you want. To use the cliche' again, "you can't stop the signal".
Just substitute "anything" for "any gun" in that paragraph because it really is that big.  For a new capability to add to that list of home CNC machine tools, and 3D printing, I'd like to direct your attention to Kickstarter, to the first desktop waterjet cutting machine, called the Wazer.  I don't usually link to Kickstarter, and no, I have no connection to the folks producing this, but the machine is revolutionary, and the project is completely funded (430% as of tonight) with 59 days to go.  Waterjet cutting machines have been known for being the province of major manufacturing companies, like the aerospace industry: large and expensive machines that require significant infrastructure and high maintenance.  This machine holds the promise of bringing waterjet cutting to the small shop and the hobbyist shop. 

What is a waterjet cutting and why would one want it?  As the name implies, the cutting is done with a very fine, very high pressure jet of water.  Water, while erosive, isn't much of a cutting tool, so its charged with abrasive particles.  They use the term "garnet" for it: garnet is a moderately hard stone that has historically been used as an abrasive - you can still buy garnet paper.  It's a non-toxic, safe abrasive, just a harder version of the silicon dioxide sand in sandpaper. 

The abrasive particles allow the waterjet to cut anything from common metals like steel or aluminum, to titanium, glass, ceramics, carbon fiber sheets, and more.  Because it's a computer controlled machine (CNC), it can cut any shape outline you might want.  There are several interesting examples to look at on the Kickstarter page.  For metals, you might compare this to a plasma cutting machine, and there are home CNC plasma cutters, too.  The plasma cutters don't cut the materials like carbon fiber, fiberglass, glass or tile. 

While this isn't directly up my alley, it's yet another example of how manufacturing is becoming more democratized.  Today, someone looking to start a home business that makes one-of, specialized, or personalized items, like the Studio Neat stand, has their choice of 3D printers in a bewildering array of sizes and capabilities, CNC machine tools or routers in a similarly bewildering array, small laser cutters or engravers for under $100, (or more capable versions that cost more, of course), plasma cutters and more.  This adds yet another tool to the small shop's domain.  It's the convergence of the digital revolution with improvements in motor manufacturing, and half a dozen other things.  It is the future.


  1. I saw a demo of a large waterjet at a trade show in Seattle 20 years ago. They were cutting a sheet-cake and giving pieces away. The pieces of cake were completely dry with no grit on it. Perfect example of cutting without introducing any stresses in the material.

    1. Now that's just cool! A really impressive demo.

      I think it was 20 years ago, maybe a bit farther back, was when I first heard of it. ISTRC it was at my "second to last" job, which I left 20 years ago in April.

  2. Some years back there were rental garages that offered tools, and a few lifts, for an hourly fee so people who wanted/needed to perform their own maintenance/repairs/modifications had both a place to work and stuff with which to perform the work for a reasonable fee. Haven't heard about them in quite some time, so I'm guessing The Lawyers killed them off.

    This, however, seems like a lawyer-resistant business opportunity for what really isn't much money; a few grand in space and equipment, some stock of on-hand materials, and design/cut/make/etc. almost anything of small to medium size for whomever wants/needs it done, for what will probably be a reasonable rate for one-offs or very limited volume.

    And, thanks to Al Gore's Intertubes and FedEx such a business wouldn't be geographically limited by just walk-in trade. Who woulda thunk telecommuting would involve making gizmos and widgets.


    1. They might have morphed into Makerspaces. Makerspaces are places that are sort of tool rental shops crossed with clubs. The ones I'm aware of usually have a membership fee that keeps the lights on the electricity running, and once you're checked out, you can use the various machines.

      There are usually classes in a mix of both programming and safe tool use. They're springing up everywhere, even in this place, which isn't that big an area.

      Not to be confused with Hackerspaces which are much less hardware and tool oriented, but seem to get folks programming.

  3. I looked at the Kickstarter link and the cut speeds and thickness numbers look respectable, the accuracy and kerf width look respectable, the software requirement seems minimal, and the only consumables are electricity, water, and the abrasive.
    I noticed that the abrasive/water feed line does not seem very high pressure. The maker states that the Wazer uses less pressure than industrial water jet cutters. One of the FAQs asks about the pressure, and the maker declines to answer.
    The FAQ also states that the abrasive is not reusable and if we look at the consumption rate of abrasive of 1 pound every three minutes, (0.33 lb/min) that is a lot of abrasive.

    I was also intrigued that one of the cut file formats is SVG.

    I also wonder what small scale waterjet cutting will look like 5 or 10 years from now. Competition and the economies of scale will drive the cost down.

    1. One of the things I noticed is that they are early in the design process. Their schedule says they'll finalize the design in December, and the earliest prototypes won't ship until next August (call it a year from now).

      I get the impression that design details like exactly what pressure they're going to use aren't completely settled yet.

      I was surprised that they're using garnet and not the much harder alumina (aluminum oxide), like most abrasive papers use. My first thought was that the way garnet crystals fracture in use is part of why the process works, but it could simply be that alumina isn't needed.

      I'm pretty sure alumina would wear out their equipment faster, especially the nozzle. With garnet, they could get a synthetic sapphire nozzle and it'll never wear out, while if they used alumina (the chemical name for synthetic sapphire is aluminum oxide), it would wear out the nozzle and make it a consumable.

      I just don't think there are many materials people would want to cut that require alumina.

      Your last paragraph aligns with exactly what I was thinking. I imagine this will be the first small shop waterjet, but that if it's successful there will be more. I wonder what the market will look like.

  4. I worked as a CAD technician for a water jet cutting company in the UK about 20 years ago.

    The abrasive we used for general cutting was Olivine and we used Garnet for finer cutting (though we did cut meat with plain water as an experiment). The pressures used, I'm not sure of, but the jet came out at something like 2.5 to 3 times the speed of sound.

    The jet was produced by a drilled sapphire crystal and the jet was directed into a nozzle made from tungsten carbide. The nozzle had a working life of about 24 hours, the sapphire about 48. It was NOISY though and the white noise of the jet was something to behold.

    Keep WELL away from the jet as it can sometimes deflect (think of a bullet ricocheting) and cut whatever is near it.

    The sludge that accumulated in the bottom of the tank below the grid that held the material being cut was classified as toxic waste - mostly the olivine dust but mixed in with the debris of whatever was being cut. You'd be surprised just how many people took leave or called in sick when it happened to need emptying ...

    So notthe "plug and go" that is assumed. Waterjet cutting is more versatile than laser (you can cut glass for example, which a laser just passes through) but is more expensive - laser cutting is cheaper - but there is no heat damage with waterjet (thats why the Aerospace industry prefer it - the aluminium alloys aren't affected).

    In short, it is a tool like any other and is not a universal panacea.

    Phil B

    1. Thanks for the input. Olivine is another stone that's used as a gem when it's clear enough, like garnet. When it's clear enough, it's called peridot. I personally wouldn't think of it as dangerous, but invoke my universal disclaimer: Don't listen to me, I'm just some dude with a blog.

      Seriously, I think that rock dust shouldn't be inhaled but would think the water would carry any dust away from the operators. I wouldn't call it dangerous waste, it's like the dust you'd find on a dirt road, but would rather dump it in a hole in the ground than let it dry out on the ground and blow away.

      They imply in some additional videos (which I found a couple of hours ago) that the pressures are on the order of 10,000 PSI. Most of what you say agrees with what the original source said, waterjet cutters tend to require lots of maintenance and infrastructure to support them. Supposedly until now. We'll see. Maybe.

  5. I too looked at the cut speeds if it and it put me off. I get commercial water jet cutting done fairly regularly and the machine times for that are much much faster than the Wazer.

    For that kind of cash, I would just invest in a good quality 6090 router with a big spindle and good bits.