Can’t decide between fibre laser and waterjet?

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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. 

When fabricators are looking to invest in new equipment the focus seems to be on which of the two technologies provides the better cutting option and thus is most deserving of the valuable floor space in their fabricating shop. It’s not hard to see how things got this way. 

The first commercially available abrasive waterjets were introduced in the early 80s and quickly caught on. Aerospace was one of the first industries to gravitate to the technology, recognizing its versatility in cutting stainless steel, titanium, high-strength lightweight composites used in military aircraft, and carbon fibre composites in civilian aircraft. Commercial versions of fibre laser technology came along a couple of decades later, but huge steps have been made in power and efficiency over the past decade. 

“With any large capital piece of equipment, where it’s a big expense for companies right out front, I think the natural tendency is to try and find that one solution that’s going to work for all your business needs,” says Arion Vandergon, product marketing manager, waterjet, for OMAX. “Also, if you look at the manufacturers, there really isn’t a large manufacturer who produces all of the technologies. Most manufacturers are either focused on laser, or plasma, or waterjet. So, you also get that competitive input from each company wanting to push the technology they’re selling.”

But is selecting between two state-of-the art technologies the best way to approach investment in new equipment? Does the fabricating shop really win in this zero-sum game? Is it perhaps better to consider a different way of thinking, where fibre laser and waterjet cutting technologies actually provide cutting solutions that complement one another and bring valuable versatility
to a shop?

Tim Fabian, vice president of marketing & product management for Flow, certainly thinks so. He believes there is too much focus on which of the two technologies is better and not enough focus on understanding how the two technologies can work together on the shop floor. It’s not always intuitive, however, for people to understand that waterjet and laser should not be viewed as competing technologies. 

“People see two different technologies they could use without perhaps understanding the nuances of the technologies and the differences between them. While the laser is exceptional in some aspects, waterjet is exceptional in some other aspects,” Fabian explains. “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 cut metal parts but often shops 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.”

 IMAGE: Prima Power

Fibre laser’s unequaled speed, precision, and automated operation make it a solid solution for cutting thin metals in high-volume production runs. As Vandergon acknowledges, there is an area of the market that is really well suited to laser’s offerings. Waterjet’s unique capabilities are versatility—Fabian refers to it as the Swiss Army knife of the shop—and the lack of a heat affected zone. Waterjet can be used to cut pretty much any material from Inconel to high strength alloys, composites, glass, and rubber and from very thin material all the way through 300 mm or greater thicknesses. Vandergon says once waterjet is set up with five-axis capability and taper compensating software it can be used to essentially cut a finished part without need of any secondary finishing.

“You can do weld prep, without needing to grind. It can go straight from the waterjet to the weld centre,” he emphasizes. “Waterjets are very suited to high-complexity, low-volume runs whereas lasers are much more suited to those really high volume runs with auto loading. If you ever need to cut a sample part or some type of prototype, or you’re cutting thick materials periodically or reflective materials, that’s where the waterjet can really be complementary. You can add in the waterjet and service a broader customer base with it.”

The versatility consideration is particularly important for new shops. 

“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,” Fabian says. “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.”

Technology innovations evolve in response to market trends, so what does that mean for the two technologies in the future? 

Waterjet’s unique capabilities are its versatility and the lack of a heat affected zone. IMAGES: OMAX 

Fabian sees a polarization of work creating two distinct customer types. One is looking at producing tens of thousands of common metal parts. Maybe they’re mass-producing lawn mowers or thin steel 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.

“If you have to run those small jobs on a highly automated $2 million laser system, you’re 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,” Fabian says. “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.” 

But perhaps the most salient point is that the ideal shop will have both of those types of jobs—high volume, mass-production runs and low-volume, customized runs—coming in.

“We have quite a few customers who go one route first and then as their business grows and they want to take on new opportunities they realize one technology isn’t going to be able to meet the full needs of the business and they end up expanding into multi technology cutting,” Vandergon says. SMT

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