Abrasive sizing

By Dr. David A. Summers, Curators’ Professor at Missouri University of Science & Technology

KMT Waterjet Systems Weekly Waterjet Blog

KMT Waterjet Systems Weekly Waterjet Blog

Over the past 30 years, abrasive waterjet cutting has become an increasingly useful tool for cutting a wide range of materials of varying thickness and strength. However, as the range of applications for the tool has grown, so the requirements for improved performance have also risen. Before being able to make a better quality cut, there had to be a better understanding of how abrasive waterjet cutting works so that the improvements could be made.

Parameters controlling AWJ

Figure 1. Some factors that affect the cutting performance of an abrasive waterjet (Hashish, Mohamed, “The effect of pressure on performance of Abrasive-Waterjet (AWJ) Machining”, Proceedings of Manufacturing International, April, 1988, Atlanta, GA, pp 255 – 263)

This understanding has not been easy to develop since there are many different factors that all affect how well the cutting process takes place. Consider, first of all, the process of getting the abrasive up to the fastest speed possible. And for the purpose of discussion, I am going to use a “generic” mixing chamber and focusing tube nozzle for the following discussion.

Simplified nozzle design

Figure 2. Simplified sketch of a mixing chamber and focusing tube nozzle used in adding abrasive to a high pressure waterjet

As high-pressure water flows through the small orifice (which in the sketch was historically made of sapphire), it enters a larger mixing chamber and creates a suction that will pull abrasive into the mixing chamber through the side passage. That side passage is connected through a tube to a form of abrasive feed mechanism that I will not discuss in detail today.

However, the abrasive does not flow into the mixing chamber by itself. Rather it is transported into the mixing chamber using a fluid carrier. In the some of the earliest models of abrasive waterjet systems, water was used as the carrier fluid to bring the abrasive into the mixing chamber. This, as a general rule, turned out to be a mistake.

The problem is that, within the mixing chamber, the energy that comes into the chamber with the high-pressure water has to mix not only with the abrasive but also with the fluid that carried the abrasive into the chamber. Water is heavier than air, and so if water is the carrier fluid, then it will absorb more of the energy that is available with the result that there is less for the abrasive, which – as a result – does not move as quickly and therefore does not cut as well. The principle was first discussed by John Griffiths at the 2nd U.S. Waterjet Conference, although he was discussing abrasive use in cleaning at the time.

Wet v dry feed

Figure 3. Difference in performance of water acting to carry the abrasive to the mixing chamber (wet feed) in contrast with the use of air as the carrier fluid. (Griffiths, J.J., “Abrasive Injection Usage in the United Kingdom,” 2nd U.S. Waterjet Conference, May, 1983, Rolla, MO, pp. 423 – 432.)

Note that this is not the same as directly mixing the abrasive into the waterjet stream under pressure – abrasive slurry jetting – which I will discuss in later posts.

The difference between the two ways of bringing the abrasive to the mixing chamber is clear enough that almost from the beginning, only air has been considered as the carrier to bring the abrasive into the mixing chamber. However, there is the question as to how much air is enough, how much abrasive should be added and how effectively the mixing process takes place.

In the earlier developments, the equipment available restricted the range of pressures and flow rates at which the high pressure water could be supplied, and these limits bounded early work on the subject.

One early observation, however, was that the size of the abrasive that was being fed into the mixing chamber was not the average size of the abrasive after cutting was over. (At that time steel was not normally used as a cutting abrasive). Because the fracture of the abrasive into smaller pieces might mean that the cutting process became less effective, Greg Galecki and Marian Mazurkiewicz began to measure particle sizes at different points in the process. (Galecki, G., Mazurkiewicz, M., Jordan, R., “Abrasive Grain Disintegration Effect During Jet Injection,” International Water Jet Symposium,Beijing, China, September, 1987, pp. 4-71 – 4-77.)

For example, by firing the abrasive-laden jet along the axis of a larger plastic tube (here opened to show the construction) the abrasive would, after leaving the nozzle, decelerate and settle into the bottom of the tube, without further break-up and without damage to the tube. Among other results, this allowed a measure of how fast the particles leave the nozzle, since the faster they were moving, the further they would carry down the pipe.

Green tube test

Figure 4. Test to examine particle size and travel distance, after leaving the AWJ nozzle at the left of the picture. The containing tube has divisions every foot, and small holes over blue containers, so that the amount caught in every foot could be collected and measured.

For one particular test, the abrasive going into the system was carefully screened to lie in the size range between 170 and 210 microns. It was then fed into a 30,000 psi waterjet at a feed rate of 0.6 lb/minute. The particles were captured after passing through the mixing chamber but before they could cut anything by using the tube shown in Figure 4. The size of the particles was then measured and plotted as a cumulative percentage adding the percentages found at each sieve size over the range to the 210 micron size of the starting particles.

After mixing sizing

Figure 5. Average size of particles after passing through a mixing chamber and exiting into a capture tube without further damaging impact

The horizontal line shows the point where 50% of the abrasive (by weight) had accumulated, and the vertical line shows that this is at a particle size of 140 microns. Thus, just in the mixing process alone, energy is lost in mixing the very fast moving water with the initially much slower moving abrasive.

And, as an aside, this is where the proper choice of abrasive becomes an important part of an effective cutting operation because the distribution of the curve shown in figure 5 will change with abrasive type, size, concentration added as well as the pressure and flow rate of the nozzle through which the water enters the mixing chamber.

I will have more to discuss on this in the next post but will leave you with the following result. After we had run the tests which I just mentioned, we collected the abrasive in the different size ranges. Then we used those different size ranges to see how well the abrasive cut. This was one of the results that we found.

Effect of particle size

Figure 6. The effect of the size of the feed particles into the abrasive cutting system on the depth of cut which the AWJ achieved

You will note that down to a size of around 100 microns the particle size did not make any significant difference, but that once the particle size falls below that range, then the cutting performance degrades considerably. (And if you go back to figure 5, you will note that about 30% of the abrasive fell into that size range, after the jet had left the mixing chamber).

Waterjet Cutting – Introduction to Abrasive Waterjet

By Dr. David A. Summers, Curators’ Professor at Missouri University of Science & Technology

KMT Waterjet Systems Weekly Waterjet Blog

KMT Waterjet Systems Weekly Waterjet Blog

In recent articles in this series, I have written about the processes that occur as a high-pressure waterjet impacts on a surface and then begins to penetrate and cut into it. However, as I noted in the last post, one of the problems with using plain water as the cutting medium is that it can pressurize within the cut and exploit any surrounding cracks to the point that the edges of the cut are cracked and fractured, often back up to the top surface of the material.

Cut along plexiglas

Figure 1. High-pressure waterjet cut along a sheet of Plexiglas, note the fracturing along the sides of the cut.

This is not usually desirable, and what is needed is a way of cutting into these materials, so that the cut edges remain smooth and the risk of shattering around the cut line is much diminished. The way that is usually used for this is to add small amounts of a fine cutting abrasive into the waterjet stream and use this to cut the slots in the material with the water there to add cutting power.

Cut through safety glass

Figure 2. Abrasive waterjet (AWJ) cuts through safety glass. Note that there are two sheets of glass with a thin plastic sheet attached between the two.

This can be of particular advantage if you are faced with trimming, for example, safety glass (as shown in Figure 2). Cutting and shaping this glass used to be a significant problem in the industry, since the presence of the plastic sheet between the two glass layers meant that it was not always possible to get both to break to the same plane if scribed with a glass cutter. Failure rates of up to 30% were described as common when the technology switch to AWJ took place. And with the abrasive in the water, the jet cuts through both layers without really seeing that there was a problem. (And complex contours can also be cut).

The combination of abrasive and high-pressure water has many advantages over existing tools. Among other things, it removes the majority of the heat from the cut zone, so that in almost all cases, the Heat Affected Zone (HAZ) along the edges of the cut disappears and the quality of the cut surface becomes, when properly cut, sufficient to require no further processing. This can lead to a significant savings in certain forms of fabrication.

There are many different ways in which abrasive can be added to a high speed stream of water, and Dr. Hashish illustrated some of these in the introductory lecture he gave at an early WJTA Short Course, as follows:

Means of adding abrasive

Figure 3. Some different ways of introducing abrasive into the cutting stream of a high-pressure waterjet (After Hashish, WJTA Short Course Notes).

The top three (a, b, c) involve mixing the abrasive and the water streams at the nozzle, while the fourth (d) is a relatively uncommon design that is used in cleaning surface applications and the fifth (e) has never been very effective in any trial that we have run. The sixth (e) technique has become known by a number of different names, but for now to distinguish it from the more widely used Abrasive Water Jet cutting (AWJ) I will give it the acronym ASJ, for Abrasive Slurry Jetting. It has a number of benefits in different circumstances, and I will write more about it in future posts. In more recent alternative designs to that shown by Dr. Hashish the flow to the abrasive holding tank is more commonly through a diverted fraction of the total flow from the pump or intensifier.

Abrasive Slurry Jetting Circuit

Figure 4. Very simplified illustration of the circuit where abrasive is added to the flow from the pump/intensifier before the nozzle. Obviously the abrasive is held in a pressurized holding vessel – the optimal design of which is not immediately obvious.

When fine abrasive is added to a narrow waterjet stream and that jet is moving at thousands of feet a second, there are a number of considerations in the design of the mixing chamber, and those will be discussed in future posts. But one early conclusion is that, if the jet is going to be small, then the abrasive that will be mixed with it will also have to be quite small, though – as will be noted in a future post – not too small.

Cutaway view of a cutting head for abrasive waterjet cutting

Figure 5. Cutaway view of a cutting head for abrasive waterjet cutting (ACTIVE AUTOLINE II by KMT Waterjet)

There have been a number of different abrasives used over the years, and it depends on the needs of the job as to which is the most suitable in a given case. In some cases, discriminate cutting is required and so an abrasive can be chosen that will cut the desired layer on the surface but not the material behind it. In other cases, the target material is extremely tough and so abrasive may be selected that will rapidly erode the supply lines and nozzle but which can still prove economically viable in certain cases.

Types of abrasive

Figure 6. Various types of abrasive that can include (from bottom left going clockwise) blasting sand, copper slag, garnet and olivine.

There are many different properties of the cutting system and the abrasive which control the quality and speed of the resulting cut. Some of these will be the topic of the next few posts, others will be discussed in further posts at a more distant time when we discuss different cutting applications and the changes in a conventional system that might be made to get the best results in those cases.

Abrasive properties are not just a case of knowing what the material is. There is a difference, for example, in cutting ability between alluvially mined garnet and that mined from solid rock. There is a difference between different types of the nominally same abrasive when it comes from different parts of the world, and there are differences when the shapes of the abrasive differ. Glass beads and steel shot cut in a different way that glass and steel grit, for example. So there is plenty to discuss as we turn to a deeper discussion of abrasive waterjet cutting.

Parameters controlling Abrasive Waterjet Cutting

Figure 7. Parameters controlling the cutting by an abrasive waterjet system. (After Mazurkiewicz)