The use of water to erode our environment via natural disaster has been used since far before man roamed the earth.  However, the contemporary use of water to erode materials is a relatively new concept and certainly new when it comes to commercial manufacturing.  Original prototypes date back only to the early to mid 20th century.  The good news is that improvements in recent decades have been both notable and remarkable.  To look properly at both developments and the history of water jets for cutting, we believe it’s essential to distinguish the types of high-pressure cutting machines available and what they are used for. 

Both abrasive and non-abrasive based water jet cutting machinery use a very highly pressurized stream of water and nozzle to cut various materials of size, shape, thickness, and hardness.  Depending on the needs of the product, they may use an added abrasive.  Abrasive based water cutting systems are a relatively new concept developed only within the last century.  In addition to the pressurized water, an abrasive, usually, garnet is added to the stream to allow for the cutting of harder materials. Other abrasives have been used as well; however, garnet is a clear winner in terms of precision and ability to cut harder metals and stones.  This can be anything for granite to titanium.  Nonabrasive based waterjet cutters are as described.  They do not contain the added abrasive that is needed to cut harder metals and stones so, therefore, they are generally used in softer materials such as food items, rubber, and foam.  While nonabrasive based water cutting has been around longer than abrasive added cutting, research finds that precision is less and limits exist on harder metals and stones when the abrasive is not added.

Advantages of waterjet cutting

Water jet cutting has emerged in recent years as a leader for many reasons over its competitors. The use of water jet cutting has helped to make significant advancements in the aviation and manufacturing industries.  As new technology emerges, so do the advantages of using water cutting versus other more traditional options.  Because it does not use heat to cut, the intrinsic properties of (usually metal) remain after being cut and no deburring is required.  Water jet cutting is the first of it’s kind in this space.  Additionally, the ability of water jet cutters to cut many different textures and types of materials, in many different thicknesses, with a near-net product, and very low kerf (.040”), with little need for re-tooling, water jet cutting allows for companies to streamline their manufacturing capabilities significantly. And as the focus in all industries moves towards a more environmentally sustainable approach, water jet cutting continues to be the clear winner as well as being the most ecologically friendly option among manufacturing machinery available. 

History of water cutting

From its first use as a hydraulic mining tool in the mid to late 1800s to the advanced technology today, water cutting has come a long way in a short time.  Most of the research available shows the use of nonabrasive water cutting in mining starting around the mid to late 1800s.  History shows that its first uses are in New Zealand and Russia with coal and in California, using hydraulic water to strip away rock to access gold and precious metals.  It’s not until around the 1930s, that we see the use of water being used to cut new materials.  It’s here that we see the use of water cutters introduced for the use of cutting paper and other soft items. At this time, however, it is limited to horizontal cutting.  This is also around the time that we see an abrasive idea introduced as a means to cut metals and stones.  When garnet is added to the pressurized water, the ability to cut metal and stones then becomes available. In the post-war years, additional progress made, but not nearly as fast as one would think. 

It’s not until the 1970s that things really start to pick up. At this time a patent is issued for the nozzle and intensifier that we know today (with some refinements!) for water cutting. And in the 1980’s we see the addition of the abrasives coming back to the newly refined nozzles and intensifiers. The early 1990’s-control systems then introduced us to the precision that we see today via computer-based control bringing water jet cutting to the manufacturing world.  The 2000s brought the addition of a multi-head axis for 3-d capabilities and the abilities of water jet cutting open up significantly. 

Water cutting today

These days the future is bright for water jet cutting.  Cutters range in size from a few square feet to hundreds of square feet, and PSi can be adjusted from 40,000 to 100,000 depending on need.  Additionally,  items can be made from individual pieces to hundreds of thousands at a time.  While water cutting still focuses mostly on manufacturing, the ability to scale down for personal use is becoming less of a dream and more of a reality as years and technology progress. 

The last 30 years have been crucial in the advancement of water cutting as we know it.  Between the refinement of the systems themselves, the refinement of pressure to cut items of different hardness, and the addition of CNC to be able to cut on a large scale quickly made huge advancements.  So what does the future hold?  We believe that the ability to scale down water cutting to home use is in the near future.  Secondly, we believe that increased reliability increasing uptime for machinery and lower overhead costs via barriers to entry also exist in the future as well.  Lastly, as improvements to 3-d technology, and technology, in general, are made, we anticipate a significant increase in the overall ability of water cutting technology.  Combining these factors with the fact that water cutting is the most environmentally friendly of all of the manufacturing options for cutting, and we believe that water cutting will continue to emerge as the clear leader in the cutting industry as others fall away. 

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