ASK THE EXPERT:  Waterjet, laser or both?

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It’s emblematic of a fiercely competitive manufacturing industry that state-of-the-art technologies are often pitted against each other. This certainly is the case when it comes to waterjet and fibre laser cutting. In an exclusive interview, we spoke with Tim Fabian, vice president marketing, product management, for Flow, about how it got this way and if there is a better way forward.

SHOP: In your view, when fabricators are looking to invest in new equipment, is there too much focus on whether waterjet or laser is the better cutting option and not enough focus on understanding how the two technologies can be complementary to each other?

FABIAN: I do. It’s not always intuitive for people to understand that. There is a misconception that waterjet and laser are competing technologies. While there is some crossover in what they do, it’s not really the case. Sometimes when we have customers who talk about these things, the analogy I like to give them is to think about the employees in their own shop. You might have one person who is really good at one machine. They have run that machine forever and know everything about it and they’re just exceptional at it. And then you also have one employee who is good with all the machines. In many ways the laser and the waterjet can be thought of in a similar way, with the laser being the person who is exceptional in what they do in a relatively narrow area and the waterjet being the “good at everything” person. You have to understand what your business is and what your shop does to determine the best fit. In most cases though, companies would like to utilize both of those people in their business.

SHOP: Why do you think industry thinking got that way and what are shops potentially missing out on by continuing to think they need to choose one technology over the other?

FABIAN: I think a lot of it is that both of these technologies came into their own around the same time. Shops, which may had been using oxyfuel or plasma to do rough metal cutting, all of a sudden had two different machine tools that could cut precision metal parts relatively quickly. People saw two different technologies they could use without perhaps understanding the nuances of the technologies and the differences between them. While the laser was exceptional in some ways, waterjet was exceptional in others.

Like anything, you need some experience to understand what makes a machine tool excellent at some applications and not in others. Everyone is going to be advertising that they can cut metal parts but often times manufacturers don’t readily consider what kind of training their operators need to run that equipment.  For example, do they have to automate the process or how easy is it to make changes on the fly if a customer calls and asks to change the material thickness in the middle of the job? It’s not until you go through the experiences of actually operating the equipment that you understand where these different technologies really shine. On the surface even if these two technologies had only a 20% difference between them, that difference could still be the margin between getting a job and not getting a job, making a profit and not making a profit. So, you really have to understand the technologies to a greater level to appreciate where they excel.

SHOP: What would you say are the two most common misconceptions about waterjet technology?

FABIAN: One misconception is that the maintenance might be more difficult for waterjet. There was a time when that may have been the case. Early on with waterjets, customers did all their own maintenance, but they weren’t used to changing seals and working with high pressure pumps. This has changed considerably from 10 years ago. Most customers now are on a maintenance program where the OEM handles all that so the customer can focus on what they’re good at, which is producing parts. Modern day waterjets require very little maintenance from the customer standpoint to keep going.

Because the waterjet can cut virtually anything and any material, it’s also a very popular machine for hobbyists. There is wide range of waterjet equipment, some of them used in a small shop or garage for hobby level work versus some that are in the most challenging manufacturing environments in the world, producing parts 24/7. Not all waterjets are the same. You have a hobbyist level systems and production level systems. Too often folks are a little too quick to take a hobbyist level system and put it in a production level environment and find out the hard way it isn’t up to the task.

A waterject can be a very versatile addition to a fabricating shop. PHOTO courtesy FLOW.

SHOP: What are the unique capabilities that waterjet provides?

FABIAN: The waterjet is the Swiss Army Knife of the shop that can cut virtually any material and any thickness. I would challenge anyone to show me another machine tool that has that kind of capability.  From cutting paper and foam to cutting 12” thick titanium and doing both jobs very well – nothing else comes close. Whatever job comes through your front door you can handle it with a waterjet.

SHOP: Do you see a trend towards more customized work with smaller volumes and greater variability? Does that open up opportunities for a “Swiss Army Knife” type of machine?

FABIAN: I am seeing a polarization of work. What you’re seeing is two unique customers. One is looking at producing tens of thousands of common metal parts.  Maybe they’re mass-producing lawn mowers or relatively thin steek weldments, where they need to produce 30,000 metal parts a day in a production line facility environment….and that’s where laser has done a good job. On the flip side, there are manufacturers running JIT, running lean, and they don’t want to have a lot of inventory. They’re wanting to cut four of these with this material and three of those of a different type of material and thickness and they may not know what their production schedule will be until the evening before. It’s very customized, it’s very one-off and there is a lot of it but for a wide range of things. If you have to run those small jobs on a highly automated $2 million laser system, you’re likely going to lose money as you waste time loading different material types to cut just a few parts. Likewise, a waterjet will have a tough time keeping up trying to cut 30,000 of those quarter inch metal parts competitively against someone who may have a 20,000 kW laser. That’s where it gets into the nuances of understanding the strengths and weaknesses of those technologies. The ideal business has both of those types of work coming in. Sometimes that job where you are starting out by cutting three or five or 10 pieces for somebody, turns out that customer was looking for a prototype run and now they want 30,000 of those pieces cut.

SHOP: Is waterjet a better initial investment for a new fabrication business? If so, why?

FABIAN: I think ultimately you want to have an idea about where your business is going to go but the reality is most new business owners don’t know how their business will grow. A lot of times new businesses work to find their niche and don’t know what their next job is going to be. They work across a wide variety of industries, different material types, and that might change from one day to the next. If they have that Swiss Army knife of machines, they are uniquely positioned to find that.  A shop with a waterjet will virtually never have to tell a customer they can’t do the job. In a new environment where you are looking to create relationships, waterjet is uniquely positioned to give you the ability to be able to take on just about any type of work and does so with a much lower initial investment than other competing manufacturing technologies.

Tim Fabian, vice president marketing, product management, Flow


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