Why abrasive waterjet is a viable option for automotive prototyping

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The term “protype” may be derived from the Greek word “prototypon”, meaning “primitive form” but there is nothing primitive about the way prototyping is being used in today’s automotive manufacturing. 

The automotive sector is extremely competitive, with large and global players vying for a share of a lucrative and growing market. When you consider the number of vehicle manufacturers and the number of models each brings to market, consumers have a breadth of choice when it comes to selecting a car. This is even more the case now as traditional internal combustion engine vehicle, electric vehicle, and hybrid vehicle models are in direct competition. In such a crowded marketplace, automotive manufacturers must somehow find a way to stand out by regularly introducing new innovations and design features.

Prototyping – whether it’s a working prototype, which represents all or close to all the functionality of the final product, or a functional prototype, which accurately captures both function and appearance but can still be produced on a different scale to the final product – is crucial to doing so. It provides an economical way for automotive manufacturers to validate the design of new parts and features, which increasingly requires experimenting with new materials, before committing to their manufacture. Without successful prototyping, manufacturers would have to commit to actual production of new parts before being able to test their efficiency, performance, and safety.

The variety of materials that could be used in prototyping, however, places a real challenge on the fabrication shops tasked with working on them and the machines deployed to make them. Just because you’re cutting prototypes out of mild steel today doesn’t mean you will be asked to do the same tomorrow. When automotive prototyping can involve materials that range from inches-thick steel wherever high strength is required and aluminum where light weight is desired, to plastic, foam, rubber, and exotic new materials such as carbon fiber, traditional methods such as sawing and routing are hard pressed to keep up and even more technologically advanced technologies such as laser may lack the flexibility required. For fabrication shops in the prototyping business, single-purpose machines and the limits they impose are a distinct liability.

A technology that shines in such a challenging environment is abrasive waterjet. It thrives in applications that don’t use metal all the time.

“The reason why waterjet tends to blend well with prototyping operations is its
ease of use and flexibility,” asserts Nick Jaffurs, OMAX territory manager, Eastern Canada and Michigan. “One of the beauties of the waterjet is that it frankly doesn’t care what the material is. It can cut all of these materials” 

Leveraging waterjet’s versatility, switching between materials can literally be as fast as placing a new material on the cutting bed. An abrasive waterjet is capable of cutting aluminum one minute then switching out to cut foam rubber the next. What if a fabrication shop client asks for a prototyped part in titanium, then also asks for a gasket to accompany it? Depending on the programming time of the part needed, it isn’t out of the question to have the entire project wrapped up in one day, employing one person, on one abrasive waterjet. 

With abrasive waterjet, the cut product has no heat affected zones or material distortion, often removing the need for secondary machining, Jaffurs adds.

The flexibility of waterjet technology is particularly being put to the test with prototyping in the electric vehicle market. While EVs may lack the traditional bulk of internal-combustion engines and transmissions, their battery cells add considerable heft. The batteries are heavy, and manufacturers need to use alternative materials wherever they can to make up for that weight. 

Aluminum is the go-to material for the frame and body of the automobile, along with some engine components. 

“Even intricate aluminum engine components can be crafted with a waterjet cutter. This technology can cut all types of automobile aluminum, including 5083, 5754, and 5052,” asserts Jonathan Schlick, Techni Waterjet manufacturing manager.

A material gaining prominence is carbon fiber. Automotive manufacturers are replacing metal exterior panels with carbon fiber to reduce weight, improve aesthetics and lower cost. But the material presents fabricating challenges.

“The challenge with cutting carbon fiber is the ability to pierce it because it can delaminate when you pierce it. Working with carbon fiber is something we’ve honed with our OMAX waterjets and we have several different features that we offer to prevent delamination. We even offer drill heads to basically drill the pierce point initially before you start cutting to prevent delamination from occurring,” Jaffurs says. “Once you’ve created the starting point, it’s very easy to process.”

The automotive industry uses many different types of glass and glass laminated materials in areas such as windshields, windows, and instrument clusters. Waterjet cutting can cut all different types of glass except for tempered glass. This is because tempered glass is designed to shatter whenever it is punctured due to an impact.

There are also many different types of plastics used in the interior components of vehicles, such as the dashboard, filter casing, vents, pipes, and many other areas. 

“This includes plastics such as ABS, PP, SMA, PPE, PC, and more. Waterjet technology can cut all these plastics even without using abrasive materials, says Schlick.

Another challenge can stem from the different sizing of parts. Vehicle exterior parts – windshields, door panels, body panels, car hoods, boot covers – require high-strength materials for crashworthiness and the size of them is quite large compared to other vehicle components. 

“Abrasive waterjet, being a scalable solution, can cut out every exterior part of the vehicle,” says Schlick.

The versatility of waterjet technology is directly linked to the integration of software that has been greatly enhanced over the past two decades. For example, with OMAX’s IntelliMAX software, the operator enters the material type and thickness, then the software calculates and controls the cutting. The machinability is already factored in. If an operator entered in a new design into the Intelli-MAX MAKE program (the program that controls the waterjet), they will be prompted by a screen with a dropdown for the type of material. This dropdown list contains over sixty different materials ranging from red oak to Inconel to PVC and everything in between. Additional materials can be entered in manually. After an operator enters the material and thickness, they are ready to cut. At any time, an operator can reset the material by a simple click of a button.

Flexibility and ease of use aside, abrasive waterjet technology is also starting to push the extremes in terms of micromachining. 

“We’ve had a machine for some time now called the MicroMAX waterjet. It is our solution for ultra-precision abrasive waterjet cutting and it is really pushing the envelope in terms of accuracy. We are talking ±0.0001” (±2.5 micron) linear position accuracy,” Jaffurs says.

Which raises the question: given the flexibility of abrasive waterjet technology, are fabricating shops taking full advantage of all the technology can do? Should they be placing greater emphasis on their abrasive waterjets when it comes to cutting more complex, 5-axis, 3D parts?

“I visit over 100 shops a year and that’s an interesting question. From the newer customers who aren’t as familiar with waterjet this is something that happens routinely. They tend to focus on producing a specific part that justifies the purchase of the waterjet and don’t initially think beyond that. I have customers who cut 7.5 inch-thick Inconel and then customers who do signage and don’t go past a quarter inch and they are using the same machine,” says Jaffurs. “But once they get the machine in place and start using it, they start to realize they could be using their waterjet to cut many other types of parts and materials and the floodgates open.” SMT

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