Pushing the Limits of Waterjet Technology

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A coordinated effort to optimize business practices extends the reach of a company's advances in waterjet processing.

Launched in 1979 in Westminster, Maryland, LAI Companies focused its efforts initially on job shop laser machining. When abrasive waterjet technology emerged commercially a few years later, LAI was one of the first job shops in the United States to adopt it.

LAI's then President Robert Ulrich (now deceased) recognized similarities between laser machining and abrasive waterjet technology, and believed that the two processes would complement one another on the shop floor. For some applications, he saw lasers as more effective tools. But when material types and thicknesses vary, "there are more situations where waterjet technology is the better choice," says Stewart Cramer, president. "Mr. Ulrich felt that if we were to offer both technologies, we could present our customers with a much wider, more inclusive spectrum of capabilities," says Cramer.

The company opened its Minneapolis facility in 1992, handling both waterjet and laser machining for aerospace giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing. LAI's Phoenix facility, which uses waterjet technology exclusively, opened in 1996. The Maryland plant's production mix is 70% laser machining, 30% waterjet.

As a tier-one supplier to Lockheed Martin and Boeing, and a Corporate STAR Supplier to Lockheed Martin, LAI is called upon for more than waterjet projects. Besides providing finished parts and components, the company offers extensive program management, including subcontractor management. The firm is often involved in collaborative engineering, through which it ensures that customer projects "fit" LAI processes. The result: significant cost and performance advantages for customers not only in LAI's bread-and-butter aerospace market, but also in its power generation, medical products, pulp and paper, defense, automotive, and petrochemical markets.

Problems & Solutions

LAI aggressively pursues business from companies that have tried waterjet and non-waterjet processes and achieved less-than-ideal results, according to Cramer. "We are leaders in this space and we can often do things that competitors haven't yet tried," he says.

In one case, a client wanted a five-axis trim executed on a titanium part. "We worked with them through reverse engineering to develop a new three-dimensional solid model, and we told them how they could refine the part in certain ways to optimize it for waterjet processing," Cramer says. "Those changes also expedited and simplified their other downstream processing." As a result, LAI reduced its customer's costs considerably; the part has been in production for more than a year, and the customer has become an important source of new business.

In another case, a prospect gave LAI hand-made rough sketches. "We quietly went out and cut parts, testing design theories and manufacturability," Cramer says. "A day later, in a meeting here in Phoenix, they were giving us an overview of their problem and how tough it had been for them. After discussing it for more than two hours, I pulled our prototypes out from under the table and asked, 'Are these what they should look like?' That was quite a surprise to them. Their eyes bugged out."

That part also is now in production.

Is Waterjet the Right Process?

To evaluate whether waterjet cutting technology is the right fit for prospective projects, LAI uses an internally developed analytical software program. The company freely recommends other processes when it concludes that waterjet technology "just doesn't offer clear advantages," Cramer says. Among the parameters analyzed by LAI's software are part thickness, surface finish, tolerances, the degree of taper that waterjet technology would impose on the workpiece, requirements for tolerances, and material.

Beyond waterjet, LAI often recommends EDM, laser cutting, stamping, plasma cutting, flame cutting, and saw cutting, among other machining technologies. "We determine whether and where our process offers value to the customer, and we go from there," Cramer says.

LAI builds a proposal based on its findings. Once the proposal has been accepted, the LAI customer service team member becomes the lead customer advocate, providing a standard "marching orders" document to manufacturing. This handoff includes the essentials of who the customer is and what they do; what the part will do and what the part should look like; key characteristics of the part; and required tolerances. It also contains information on scrap allocation, the cost of each blank, packaging requirements, and the promised delivery date.

"Mistakes can happen when there is a lack of coordination," Cramer explains. "The effort here is to enhance communication between people and among all three of our plants, which helps ensure better coordination." The elements of that coordination are a process that LAI internally calls Relentless Customer Service, which, he adds, the company is "constantly tweaking."

On one large aerospace project, LAI cut lead times by 58% over the previous process. As the prime contractor, LAI mapped the process and contacted all of its vendors, focusing on several parts—but particularly one that was taking 80 weeks to produce. The result: LAI cut production to three months. Explains Cramer: "When you have true visibility into the supply chain, you can make major changes in efficiency and delivery performance."

Ensuring quality also is critical. LAI does a first-article "heading check" to compare quotes to actual production, and to ensure that what was promised is being delivered—from all perspectives.

A Major Turnaround

Cramer says that LAI today is strongly focused on customer satisfaction and business process optimization, a pro-customer commitment that has steadily intensified over the last few years. "We've become intent on capturing lessons we've learned," he says, "to see what we can do better, faster, and at less cost to us and to our customers."

Until a few years ago, the firm's three locations operated essentially as separate companies. "It made us less efficient, and it made us smaller than we really were," says Cramer. "We needed to collaborate for our customers, not compete plant-against-plant."

Today, LAI is ISO-certified at all three plants. It has standardized its processes, procedures, and forms, and has taken the best of the best from each facility to roll out best practices nationally.

"We have a single culture, a single computer backbone, a single method for doing things now," says David Mauch, V.P. of Operations and CFO. "If we pluck people from one plant and have them work at another, they become productive in a heartbeat because each plant works identically. That's a change for us. Working as one company makes it much easier to get things done. Combined, we're the largest waterjet-laser cutting company in the country.

"The commonality of our processes and technology has made it possible for LAI Companies to move jobs across sites when necessary," Mauch says. "This has helped us in some critical development projects when there have been some machine failures at one site and we were able to rapidly transfer the job to an alternative location to meet customer requirements."

From here, where?

Years ago, LAI was an early adopter of the then-new waterjet technology. The adoption proved highly successful for the company and, consequently, LAI still watches for—and sometimes adopts—cutting-edge technology.

"LAI's stated mission—to provide superior service by continuously improving our technologies and systems—is based on Kaizen and customer service excellence," says Mauch. "We test ourselves daily to solve tough manufacturing challenges and meet customers' demands."

In one case, LAI tripled the speed of abrasive waterjetting finned copper rods through process refinements to the waterjet parameters. One of the most challenging technical aspects of waterjet processing that part was simply dealing with the softness of the material. Since the copper blank was nearly two inches thick, typical waterjet machining would have eroded too wide a slot. Manufacturing engineers and technicians experimented with the variables and properties of the fixture, nozzle, orifice, grit type, and flow of garnet to improve the process.

In another application, LAI analyzed and improved the waterjet process for a part that it has been manufacturing for five years—a turbine component that required drilling more than 4,000 angled, 0.023-inch-diameter holes in 0.0625-inch- thick Hastelloy. The result: higher quality holes and improved consistency in hole size, as well as significantly faster hole-to-hole times. "In this case, waterjet drilling is superior to laser drilling because there is no micro-cracking or heat-affected zone," says Mauch. The customer preferred LAI's waterjet process because laser drilling caused warping and required heat-treating for stress relieving. Both of those problems were eliminated by waterjet, saving time and money.

In another waterjet drilling application, manufacturing engineers at LAI worked to improve the processing of a 39-inch-diameter titanium skin used for noise abatement on commercial aircraft. Their efforts improved the hole quality and drilling speeds on the 0.018-inch-thick titanium skins, which have 54,000 holes measuring 0.063 inches in diameter at 90 degrees to the surface. One of the biggest challenges was to build a special fixture to keep the flexible material rigid while achieving ±0.002 inch on hole size. The other challenge was to build a CNC program capable of following the contour of the three-dimensional shape, a difficult prospect considering the high variability of the part surface. Through continuous improvements over the life of these jobs, LAI was able to lower the cost of the parts, passing a portion of the savings on to the end user.

In addition to Kaizen, LAI applies other progressive manufacturing theories to the shop floor, including lean manufacturing, just-in-time (JIT) and 5-S's. "If a company does not continue to move forward, it fails," Mauch says. "LAI pushes the constant improvement of every employee and process in the company."

The company also is developing new waterjet processing applications, such as narrow-kerf cutting, five-axis machining, and shaped hole drilling. It's also moving toward becoming an integrated services house with on-site board engineering talent and alliances with other companies with supporting technology. LAI recently began to use High-Definition Waterjet MachiningTM, a suite of proprietary components and software that enables the firm to increase feed rates by two to three times over the industry standard. The technology reduces taper, improves surface finish, and improves geometric accuracy on tight corners, Stewart Cramer says. "We're seeing improvements of 40 to 50% in taper at given feed rates, which lets us cut faster," he says.

"We're a technology-based company recognized for superior technology," says Cramer. "Some companies with a strong technological focus allow customer care to slide downhill in importance and in execution. We maintain a strong focus on meeting our customer needs. We know we have to offer value to customers—value from their perspective."

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