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)

Waterjetting 1d – Not quite that simple!

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

When I first began the research on the applications of high-pressure water that was to be one of the major parts of my professional life, I must confess to a certain naïve innocence in regard to other folk’s work. One assumed that other folk had made similar mistakes to mine and then corrected them, so that when different systems were compared that the early, obvious, mistakes had not been made.

One of the first times I found that this wasn’t the case was when we were asked to go and demonstrate that high-pressure waterjet technology could economically cut granite, in quarries located in the heart of the Granite industry, in Elberton, Georgia. We were working with Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) at the time and were asked if we could, at very short notice, go down to a couple of quarries and run a demonstration.

Back during my graduate studies I had found that Russian claims were true that said that it was possible, with a 10,000 psi jet pressure to cut through a rock with a compressive strength of 30,000 psi. (I’ll tell you how later)

9-inch thick block of granite drilled through by a 10,000 psi waterjet

Figure 1. 9-inch thick block of granite drilled through by a 10,000 psi waterjet at Leeds University. It took over 30 minutes. (Summers, D.A., Disintegration of Rock by High Pressure Jets, Ph.D. Thesis, Mining Engineering, University of Leeds, U.K., 1968.)

Knowing this, and having a suitable pump at The University of Missouri-Rolla (now Missouri University of Science and Technology), our group ran some tests at the RMERC (Rock Mechanics and Explosives Research Center) to get the angles right between the two jets that we were to use, and then, about a week later, we went down to Elberton and set up a system in the quarry.

Starting to cut a 1-inch wide slot in granite

Figure 2. Starting to cut a 1-inch wide slot in granite, pressure 14,000 psi, 90 rpm, linear cutting speed around 9 ft/min, areal cutting rate around 20 sq. ft./hour.( Raether, R.J., Robison, R.G., Summers, D.A., “Use of High Pressure Water Jets for Cutting Granite,” 2nd US Water Jet Conference, Rolla, MO., April, 1983, pp. 203 – 209.)

The trials demonstrated that high-pressure water could cut granite at commercial rates, we cut a slot some 11 ft long and about 2-ft deep, and, after a couple of days of work, we went home. Georgia Tech then went to one of our competitors who set up to run a similar test. We had been done in 2 days, it took them two weeks to cut a slot about 2 ft long and 6-ft deep. They were running a jet system at 45,000 psi, roughly 3 times the pressure of our system. Why did they do so badly?

Well it turned out that they connected their pumps to the nozzle through a very narrow length of high-pressure tubing, and we calculated (as later did they) that of the 45,000 psi being supplied at the pump, some 35,000 psi had been lost in overcoming friction between the pump and the nozzle, As a result they were trying to cut the granite with jets at a pressure of 10,000 psi effective pressure, and it was much slower than our system which retained most of the 14,000 psi from the pump to the nozzle. (Hilaris, J.A., Bortz, S.A., “Quarrying Granite and Marble using High Pressure Water Jet,” paper D3, 5th International Symposium on Jet Cutting Technology, Hanover, FRG, June, 1980, pp. 229 – 236.)

Now you may note that I said something about mistakes – it turns out that we had made an identical mistake a few years earlier and had added a second 10-ft length of narrow diameter tubing to the nozzle, and suddenly a system that had cut adequately with 10-ft of tubing did not work with 20-ft. The reason was that the pressure loss in the tubing was too great at the longer length, and the pressure fell below that required to cut into the rock. (But at the shorter length we were drilling the hard sandstone at 12-ft/minute).

It is a very simple mistake, and many folks have made it over the years. The system has to be designed from one end to the other to ensure that all the parts are properly sized for the systems that are to be used. (And I will refer to other cases such as that above as we go through this series.)

It is not just the diameter of the feed lines that is important. In 1972 it took, on average, 150 man-hours and about $2,000 for the U.S. Navy to clean a single ship boiler using chemicals and mechanical scrubbing and cleaning. An enterprising company showed the Navy that it was possible to use waterjet lances to clean the tubes. In the demonstration they cleaned a boiler in 10 hours, and it cost around $700. This being Government work, the Navy then arranged a competition to find the most effective contractor. Based on the performance of the system that had been used in the first demonstration they asked 5 companies to compete in cleaning boilers. The operating equipment was designated as having to operate at 20 gpm, at a pressure of 10,000 psi. The results were not even close, even with systems nominally the same.

Relative cleaning efficiency in areal percentage cleaned, of five competing systems in cleaning heat exchanger tubes in Navy boilers

Figure 3. Relative cleaning efficiency in areal percentage cleaned, of five competing systems in cleaning heat exchanger tubes in Navy boilers. (Tursi, T.P. Jr., & Deleece, R.J. Jr, (1975) Development of Very High Pressure Waterjet for Cleaning Naval Boiler Tubes, Naval Ship Engineering Center, Philadelphia Division, Philadelphia, PA., 1975, pp. 18.)

One of the differences between the competing systems, you won’t be surprised to hear, was that some had smaller feed hoses than others.

There are many different reasons that the various systems performed as they did. One of the aims of this series is to ensure that, should you be asked to engage in such a competition, you will know enough to follow the path of company A, rather than company E.

As systems have become more sophisticated the different factors that control the performance of the jets have increased in number. As a simple example, when abrasive particles are mixed with high-pressure water in streams of abrasive-laden waterjets at pressures that can run up to 90,000 psi in pressure, for high precision cutting of material, the factors controlling performance now include not only the delivery system for the water, but also that for the abrasive, the type of abrasive and the configuration of the nozzle through which that final cutting jet is created.

Again, when we were asked to compare the performance of these different systems we set up nominally identical test conditions under which to determine which nozzle system would perform better. If I were honest I would tell you that before the tests began I expected that the variation in performance of the systems would vary by perhaps 10% between the best and the worst. We were quite surprised by the result.

Comparative performance between 12 nominally similar abrasive waterjet cutting nozzles

Figure 4. Comparative performance between 12 nominally similar abrasive waterjet cutting nozzles in cutting through steel at a standard speed, pump pressure, and abrasive concentration.

I use these last two figures to show that all the details of a high-pressure waterjet system are important, when it comes to optimizing performance. One of the reasons to write this series is to ensure that folk that use these systems in the future do not make the mistakes that we made, as we learned how to tune the systems from getting poor performance to the commercially viable rates that are achieved today.

Unfortunately much of the early research and tests that are the basis for this knowledge were performed before the Internet existed. As a result I will have to use references to books and papers (as above) rather than using the electronic references that are the more common habit now.

This concludes the basic introduction to the series, which will now focus on more specific subjects.