Water vs. Steel: Understanding How a Water Jet Works

    Hydro-cutting is a rapidly growing industry, slated to reach over $1.4 billion dollars globally by 2023.

    The use of water jet cutting has rapidly become a staple for precision part manufacturing and intricate artwork.

    But how does a water jet work? Are they really that big of a game changer?

    Read on and we’ll show you how water jets work and discuss some of the advantages of using a high-pressure water cutter when compared to similar processes.

    How Does a Water Jet Cut?

    A water jet is essentially a pump and a nozzle. There are two primary kinds of cutting which is performed with these machines.

    The first is pure water jet cutting. In this process, extremely high pressures are used to cut through softer materials. Non-ferrous metals, textiles, and wood can all be cut thanks to a special nozzle which can reach pressures as high as 60,000-90,000 PSI.

    The thin stream of water, combined with the extreme pressures involved, allow for precise cutting of many materials.

    Where these tools really become special is abrasive cutting. A modified nozzle and an abrasive material are used in order to cut through harder materials than unmodified water can cut through.

    The abrasive is combined with the stream of flowing water in the nozzle. In practice the process is remarkably similar to natural erosion at a high speed, the abrasive compound removes small particles while the water washes them away.

    The most common abrasive material used is known as almandine garnet, but pretty much everything has been tried at one point or another. It remains the “standard” for generally cutting, although some materials will require a harder abrasive.

    Abrasive water jets can be used to cut hardened steel, ceramics, and even stone. Materials which are virtually untouchable to many other cutting processes, such as titanium, can be precision machined with specialized controls.

    Of course, running such an intense process has lead to a lot of changes over the years. You can learn more about the types of heads currently available through manufacturers.

    What Benefits Does Hydro Cutting Offer?

    Water jets offer some stark advantages when compared to other industrial cutting processes.

    The extremely thin stream of water, for instance, reduces material waste. In industries where exotic materials are used often, like the aerospace industry, this can help reduce the cost of building individual parts over time.

    Post-cutting finishing is also minimized. Hydro-cutting produces almost no warping of material during the cutting process and leaves an edge which requires minimal finishing.

    Abrasive water jets can be used to cut through almost any material as long as the correct abrasive compound is used. They’re also capable of cutting much thicker material than you’d be able to with most forms of cutting.

    Modern water jets are also environmentally friendly. They don’t use as much water as you’d think and there’s no hazardous waste created during the cutting process. They may have a larger place in the future as governments and companies increasingly move towards greener energy goals.

    Are There Disadvantages?

    There are two disadvantages that come with using a water jet cutter.

    The first is time. Water jets cut slower than laser or plasma cutters since they have to wear through the material. While not a huge concern for one-off pieces it can be a concern for those who want to utilize water jet cutting for mass production.

    They’re also¬†hard on their components, as you’d expect. Water jets require frequent maintenance and need parts replaced often, raising the operating cost for companies who use them.

    A previous problem was a lack of 3D capabilities, but modern technology has come a long way towards fixing this with the use of movable jets. 3D cutters operate like most CnC machines: a file is fed to the cutter which then uses computerized controls to make the cutting as precise as possible.

    There are still some limitations on that end, but they’re rapidly becoming less of a concern.

    How is Hydro Cutting Used?

    Due to the expense and additional time required, water jets are often used only when completely necessary. This includes both artistic applications and parts which require extreme precision.

    It’s also the only process available which can allow you to CnC some materials. Stone, for instance, simply can’t be cut with the majority of industrial cutting techniques.

    Instead, it finds a lot of use in the aerospace and automotive industries where precision is the name-of-the-game.

    The bulk cutting of exotic materials like titanium also has a large place in the industry. With a minimal kerf and the ability to nest parts closely together on the material, with only 1/16th of an inch separating parts in some cases, the valuable feedstock can be saved.

    They’re also increasingly used for artistic purposes, allowing designers to form their artwork digitally before it’s made a reality in the cutting process.

    While still a niche process, recent developments have begun to expand the use of water jets and the initial expense has begun to fall for those who are looking to invest in the machines.

    A Clean Cut Future

    A water jet takes a known long-term process, erosion, and brings it up to speed. With the ability to cut virtually any material when used properly and constant improvement to the cutters themselves, they’re sure to remain a vital piece of industrial technology.

    The future outlook for the industry is bright, growth rates are up across the board, and niche services now offer the ability for artists and machinists to get their parts and artwork turned into a reality.

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