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What Are the Benefits of Waterjet Cutting for the Aerospace Industry

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    Waterjet cutting is a highly utilitarian cutting process for the aerospace industry. Engineers prefer it due to its ability to meet aerospace industry requirements like tight tolerance, cutting precision, and smooth surface finish. It is also a cold-cutting process that does not thermally damage parts.  

    In this article, we will explore why waterjet cutting enjoys widespread application in the aerospace manufacturing industry. The discussion will cover its process, and advantages, and also talk about some specific applications. Keep reading for an interesting take on waterjet cutting in the aerospace industry!

    What Is Waterjet Cutting

    Waterjet cutting is a manufacturing process that utilizes a high-pressure, targeted jet of water to cut materials. The main source of energy is the water pressure, which produces a high enough force to cut through the workpiece. The waterjet is extremely thin to maximize the cutting force. Typically, the nozzle size ranges from 0.075-0.4 mm.

    The water jet moves along a pre-planned path to cut the material into specific, precise shapes. Generally, waterjet cutting technology can cut metals and other softer materials (rubber, polymers, and plastics) up to depths of 12+ inches.

    While water is the primary cutting media for waterjet cutting, its cutting capacity may be augmented by abrasive additives like silicon carbide, sand, and garnet.

    waterjet cutting diagram

    Why Choose Waterjet Cutting for Aerospace Industry

    Waterjet cutting is a popular technique to cut a variety of tough aerospace-grade metals and polymers. In the discussion ahead, we highlight the main reasons why engineers choose waterjet cutting over alternative methods like plasma cutting and laser cutting.

    Cut Various Aerospace Materials

    Waterjet cutting can cut through any aerospace metal like aluminum, stainless steel, and even titanium alloys. Moreover, it also performs remarkably well on non-metals like glass, rubber, and foam-like materials.

    Owing to this diverse aerospace material capability, it is a popular method for manufacturing different aircraft components like body panels, and windows, as well as polymer and rubber components. A small fleet of waterjet cutting machines can produce a large number of parts, which has huge financial benefits.

    High Precision and Repeatability

    A core advantage of waterjet cutting in the aerospace industry is its manufacturing accuracy of +/- 0.003 inches. Modern waterjet cutting machines come with CNC technology, enabling precise, high-speed cutting.

    Additionally, CNC machines have high repeatability as well due to the highly standardized manufacturing routine. A single CAM program, cutting media, and platform for each part leave little room for errors.

    waterjet accuracy

    Fine Surface Finish

    Aerospace components often have tight surface quality requirements for better air resistance, safety concerns, and aesthetics. Waterjet cutting boasts an extremely smooth surface roughness of up to 0.8 µm Ra, making it preferable for aerospace manufacturing.

    To begin with, waterjet cutting does not involve any aggressive shearing action, like machining operations, for example. This saves the material from micro-cracks and stresses.

    Moreover, the process does not produce high temperatures while cutting, preventing thermal damage to the workpiece. Cutting methods like laser cutting generate a lot of heat, raising the temperature to the point that it heat treats the workpiece, inducing undesirable material properties on its surface. This damaged surface, known as the recast layer, has to be removed later on via secondary surface finishing processes.

    Cut Complex Surface

    Aerospace parts can have incredibly complex geometries. For instance, wing truss structures have a lot of contours and irregular features. Waterjet cutting machines have 5-axis cutting capabilities that allow them to cut complex features like tapers, bevels, and contours.

    Moreover, these machines boast precision control systems, enabling them to accurately deal with delicate operations on narrow sections, holes, and thin metal sheets. Resultantly, waterjet cutting technology is highly suitable for aerospace applications.

    multi axis waterjet cutting

    Suitable for Small Production Runs

    Its fast setup and operation are not that costly compared to methods like laser cutting. Furthermore, its procedure is easy to standardize via CNC programs, making it economically viable for short-run production.

    That’s why companies opt for waterjet cutting to manufacture a few of their components. This decision makes financial sense as waterjet cutting incurs low costs for small production runs.

    No Heat-Affected Zones

    One of the biggest advantages of waterjet cutting in the aerospace industry is that does not produce excessive heat while cutting. Cutting technologies like plasma and laser cutting work with a high-energy source that melts the workpiece. This creates effective cuts but the high temperatures also cause damage to the parts.

    The heat-affected zone has a multitude of unwanted problems like heat treatments, burning, blemishes, etc. But waterjet cutting does not use heat as an energy source. Consequently, it has no heat-affected zone and avoids such damage. Moreover, the small amount of heat that is present in the cutting zone (due to shearing) is also carried away by the water, which is a natural coolant.

    No Abrasive Edges

    The high-pressure water beam in aerospace waterjet cutting does a great job of rounding off the edges of the cuts. Cutting technologies like mechanical shearing or laser cutting often leave rough, jagged edges that require smoothing.  

    Since there are no abrasive edges, matters like worker safety and transportation are also more convenient for parts cut with waterjet cutting.

    Environment Friendly

    The cutting media in waterjet cutting technology is water, which is completely safe for the environment. After cutting, small amounts of abrasive particles that mix inside the water are easily removed via a strainer or filter. Consequently, the waste product is safely disposable without water contamination.

    Waterjet cutting also produces a very small amount of waste material as only a short section of the workpiece is cut. Moreover, this waste amount is further optimizable through the use of software, which achieves this by fine-tuning cutting parameters.

    Durable Parts

    Aerospace parts bear high, cyclic loading during operation. Thus, they must be durable and strong. Since aerospace waterjet cutting does not cause any thermal damage, it produces parts with high stress-bearing and fatigue-strength capabilities.

    Common Aerospace Parts Made by Waterjet Cutting

    Aerospace waterjet cutting is a great method to manufacture various aerospace components. In this section, we will highlight some of these components.

    • Chassis/Body Panels: Aircraft body panels have standardized shapes that are suitable for automatic 2D cutting technologies. Waterjet cutting is the ideal process to manufacture them precisely for low costs.
    • Turbine Blade Contouring: Turbine blades have complex contours that require tight manufacturing tolerances for maximum performance. Waterjet cutting, with its high accuracy, is a great method to manufacture them. They preserve the durability of turbine blades by not causing any thermal damage. Furthermore, turbine blade airfoils require smooth edges to maximize their operational efficiency, which is another advantage of waterjet cutting.  
    • Valve Components: Valves need a high surface finish along with high accuracy to provide adequate sealing. Additionally, with the benefit of no jagged edges, manufacturers can ensure leak-proof sealing.
    • Polymer Insulators: Polymers are sensitive to heat and deform quite easily under thermal loads. Also, they get rough edges when cut with tools. Therefore, waterjet cutting is a great process to manufacture polymer components as it does not generate excessive heat.
    plasma cutting setup

    Make Your Aerospace Waterjet Cut Parts

    Now that we know all about waterjet cutting. Are you looking for a precision aerospace parts manufacturer?

    RapidDirect is your best partner for manufacturing aerospace parts, offering top-of-the-class waterjet cutting services to a diverse clientele. We have produced high precision, high tolerance aerospace parts for our valued customers, which is a testament to the superior quality of our waterjet cutting services.

    Our state-of-the-art CNC waterjet cutting machines include both pure water and abrasive waterjet facilities. Moreover, with our experienced quality inspection team and 24/7 engineering support, our customers are guaranteed to enjoy unparalleled services.

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    This brings us to the end of this article. We hope it was an insightful read that illuminated the ins and outs of waterjet cutting in the aerospace industry.

    The discussion started with a short introduction to the waterjet cutting process, which is quite simple to grasp. The most important section focuses on the numerous advantages this process has. For example, high precision, smooth surface finish, and diverse material capabilities. Additionally, a major benefit of it is that it does not produce heat during cutting. Consequently, it does not thermally damage the workpiece.

    Finally, we discuss some of the important applications of waterjet cutting in aerospace manufacturing. It is vital in producing both metal and non-metal parts.

    RapidDirect is an excellent manufacturing partner for all your rapid prototyping and industrial manufacturing projects. To discuss your manufacturing needs with our team, contact us.

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