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Aerospace waterjet cutting for parts production

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The aerospace and defense supply chain produces highly engineered and tightly manufactured parts to support civilian and military applications.  Delivering complex aircraft, such as the F-35 advanced fighter or Orion space capsule, requires the transformation of raw materials into finished parts.  Aerospace waterjet cutting is one capability that contributes to this value chain.

 

What is waterjet cutting?

Cutting materials by waterjet utilizes a high-pressure nozzle to direct water and abrasive against a material to be cut.  The material sits in a ‘bath’ (also known as the waterjet table) where the sprayed water drains off into.  A high-pressure pump feeds a nozzle, that’s controlled by a PC-based controller, to blast water and abrasive through material.  Similar to a CNC mill or lathe, a programmer creates a repeatable, exact process on a computer and utilizes that program to make ultra-precise cuts with the cutting center.

How long has waterjet cutting been around?

Waterjet cutting was first invested in the 1930s, with low pressure systems capable of cutting paper.  By the 1960s, early waterjet units were capable of 100,000 PSI and could cut aerospace metal parts / shapes.  These processes were generally standardized by the 1970s for aerospace and defense part manufacturing.  Boeing was one of the first companies to adopt abrasive waterjet cutting for harder materials and deeper cuts.

Why is waterjet cutting important to aerospace part production?

Waterjet cutting is an important part of the aerospace supply chain because it provides a method to cut / rough intricate parts out of large bars of raw material.  This process significantly decreases the costly machining portion of part production, decreasing cost to both the manufacturer and customer.  Additionally, waterjet technology allows metals with high thermal conductivity (such as aluminum and streel) to be cut with minimal heat transfer.

What can be cut with a water jet?

Primus waterjet cutting center

  • Aluminum
  • Titanium
  • Stainless steel
  • Cast iron
  • Copper
  • Alloys
  • Glass

What waterjet cutting equipment does Primus use?

Primus Aerospace uses an Omax 120X JetMachining Center for its waterjet cutting needs.  This allows a cutting envelop of 20 feet long by 10 feet wide by 8 inches deep. Omax machines are known for their high precision and repeatability across a variety of materials.  The Omax 120X is a 5-axis waterjet cutting center.

What advantages does waterjet cutting have over traditional machining?

  • No heat transfer – modern waterjet systems utilize cold water and do not create the same heat transfer profile as laser or plasma cutters
  • Capable of cutting from large bars / plates – waterjet systems can often handle large blocks of raw material to begin cutting roughed parts from. For example, Primus’s cutting center can handle blocks that are up to 200 sqf.
  • Minimizes wear on machine tools – roughing unique geometry parts for larger parts allows machine shops to decrease the amount of wear and tear on expensive machine tools. This allows the machine shop to focus on finishing operations, especially then the part contains difficult GD&T.
  • No tool wear – Waterjet systems use only high-pressure water and an abrasive additive to perform cutting, meaning there are no tools to wear out during the cutting process.
  • Capable of cutting variety of materials – Water-jet systems can cut a large variety of material types (see above) with minimal changes to the cutting center.
  • Precision cuts – the computer controlled cutting nozzle of modern cutting centers, such as those from CMS or Omax, enable accuracy down to ±0.0010″
  • Maximize yield from large blocks of material – When a skilled operator plans out parts to be cut from the raw material billet, minimal scrap material can be achieved through the use of planning software. The decreases the amount of material that is sent to the scrap yard and increases the yield of good parts.

What materials does Primus generally cut? 

As a contract parts manufacturer for the aerospace and defense industries, Primus Aerospace uses waterjet cutting to transform large blocks of raw material into roughed parts for further machining.  As part of the company’s support to commercial and government space programs, Primus uses it’s abrasive waterjet center to rough large blocks of titanium.

 

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Post-internship thoughts: Josh Trujillo

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My name is Josh Trujillo and I am a rising senior in the Colorado School of Mines Mechanical Engineering Department.  I recently completed an internship with Primus Aerospace’s Paradigm Division as a Process Engineer.  

My story with Primus Aerospace started when Gary Vallencourt, the Vice President of Primus Aerospace Paradigm Division, was bitten by a rattlesnake while paragliding. My stepmom, who owns Tonic Trails – a massage therapy and holistic medicine practice in Golden, Colorado, treated his swelling on short notice. Following the treatment, she got me in touch with Gary, helped me secure an engineering internship for summer 2021. That rattle snake unknowingly gave me a huge opportunity that I was not about to let slip through my fingers.

I was initially drawn to the field of mechanical engineering from my love of solving mechanical problems. I grew up riding mountain bikes and wanted to better understand what went into making such a complex system so I could fix my bike more effectively. My high school physics class further reinforced my desire to become a mechanical engineer as I found the study of motion extremely interesting (and I seem to have natural ability in the field). Since childhood, I’ve had a nascent interest in aerospace, but seeing a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch from Kennedy Space Center inspired me to chase my dream. 

Going into the summer, I was excited to gain hands-on experience as a process engineer. I also had no idea what exactly my job was going to entail. In my head, I would either be making meaningful contributions to the company or getting Narate, my boss, coffee all summer. On my first day, I quickly realized that even though I was qualified to work there, I had a lot to learn. I expected to jump right in and be on par with the other engineers because I had extensive experience with CAD (Computer Automated Design) and was machine shop certified through the Colorado School of Mines. Primus Intern titanium 3D printer

In reality, I was quite novice at most of my daily tasks, when compared to Narate, a professional process engineer, and the machinists.  Most of these skilled workers had spent at least 10 years mastering CNC programming, set up, and operation. I was playing well above my weight class, but I would not let this discourage me. To learn the nuances of advanced aerospace manufacturing, I shadowed Narate for my first week. He gave me simple tasks at first, like renaming files, running a gas line, and ordering and installing a gas regulator for Primus’s new Velo3D Sapphire titanium 3D printer

I then moved on to deburring intake manifolds for an in-use rocket engine, which would be used on an upcoming space mission. Deburring machined parts is an important, yet tedious task, that removes small nicks and imperfections from a completed part. As I demonstrated my ability to read engineering plans and complete final finishing tasks, I earned the team’s trust to move on to higher level tasks.  This let me begin setting up and operating CNC machines, learning basic CAM (Computer Automated Machining), and modifying CAD designed parts for 3D printing. 

Here is a short list of a few things I accomplished during this stage of my internship:

  • Designed and CNC machined a bracket to mount the argon regulator I previously ordered to the wall of the shop.
  • Operated a 5-axis CNC machine to create ballasts for a satellite.
  • Made modifications to parts to allow them to be printed in a metal powder bed fusion 3D printer.
  • Performed basic set-up and calibration for the 3D printer.
  • Basic CNC set up and operation for facing operations in support of the 3D printer.
  • Modified, sliced, and printed several components for a mid-air airplane refueling station.
  • Designed and 3D printed a custom bottle opener.
  • Designed several fixtures for testing and manufacturing of various components.

Before I knew it, I was performing the daily operations of a process engineer by planning the top-to-bottom production of several space satellite components and aerospace 3D printed parts. This was not only a great experience, but also extremely rewarding – considering my skill set at the beginning of the summer. This progression would not have been possible without the guidance of my summer mentor, Narate. He greatly improved my design, engineering, CAD, and machining skills throughout the summer. Andy, the lead machinist, and the rest of the machinists in the shop also helped me a lot when it came to CNC operation and machining. These guys are all extremely skilled and I learned a great deal just by watching them work. John and Antonio, Primus’s quality inspectors, showed me some of the measuring and quality inspection techniques that allow machinists to feel confident in their machined aerospace parts. I felt as if everyone at Primus had my back and went out of their way to make me a part of the team. They included me in company potlucks, took me go-carting, and got to know me during down periods in the shop. I am very grateful to Gary and the Primus team for this opportunity, and look forward to future full-time opportunities at Primus!

Josh Trujillo is a Mechanical Engineering Student at the Colorado School of Mines.