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Waterjet machining finds its spot in manufacturing

Rob Sabo

A technology that uses a focused high-pressure stream of water to cut materials ranging from steel to denim is gaining acceptance among northern Nevada manufacturers.

Several regional companies are using waterjet cutting services to broaden their manufacturing capabilities and capture market share. Much of the work comes from regional machine shops that outsource to companies with waterjet capabilities.

Waterjet Machine Inc. in Reno, for instance, added a milling line to offer manufacturing customers a finished product rather than just pre-cut pieces.

Waterjet cutting machines force water at extremely high pressure through a tiny nozzle and use powdered garnet as an abrasive to cut a wide variety of materials. This is no high-tech squirt gun the tiny stream of water travels at half again the speed of sound and can cut solid steel more than three inches thick, albeit slowly.

“It is the most versatile machining method ever devised,” says Fred Burtt of Waterjet Machine. “The only things it can’t cut are tempered glass and water-soluble stuff.”

Kurt Huntoon, owner of ProtoFab Inc. of Sparks, last week brought online a waterjet cutter and hired an operator with more than 11 years experience.

With a background in full fabrication and industrial construction, ProtoFab historically hasn’t dabbled in production-type manufacturing, Huntoon says. But offering a broad range of services has helped the company stay busy during the economic downturn, and the new capabilities add yet another potential revenue stream.

Huntoon says small-scale waterjet manufacturing could boost revenues 5 to 7 percent.

“Diversification has been one the keys to our success,” he says.

Jim Beares, owner of JRB Machine in Minden, has used the waterjet technology for nearly a dozen years and says says he’s cut products for “everybody and anybody.”

A major sales pitch: Waterjet technology can cut just about anything without the problems associated with plasma or laser cutters.

“It doesn’t care if it is a piece of meteorite that fell out of the sky,” Beares says. “You could take a waterjet and cut a hole in a diamond.”

Uncommon uses for the machines are to cut cloth for jeans, and using hand-held water wands for butchering beef and poultry, Beares says.

One of Waterjet Machine’s more intricate jobs was cutting a series of 6-foot tall by 4-foot wide screens featuring a highly detailed and intricate seahorse design for the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

But Waterjet Machine’s primarily avenue of sales is cutting parts for other machine shops and manufacturers.

“At one time or another we’ve done something for almost all of them,” Burtt says.

Waterjet Machine has three employees and seeks another machinist. Burtt says running the machine doesn’t take too much training but servicing it is another story altogether. It took production manager Bob Forgette more than two years to understand how to troubleshoot and fix the waterjet cutter. Most projects are set up on the machines through CAD files.