Waterjets: Cutting It Real Wet

By K. Schipper

For many stone-fabrication shops, a bridge saw is almost always the first major equipment purchase in a move to grow their business.
However, the old standby is getting some competition these days in the cutting realm: waterjets. The ability to do radius curves – whether for corners or sink cutouts – is making a waterjet an attractive addition to many shops.
Not only is the accuracy impressive, but – depending on the edge – an abrasive waterjet may reduce the amount of time spent on finishing. And, with the right software, it can nest cuts, reducing waste.
Does this mean the bridge saw will eventually go the way of rotary-dial telephones and eight-track players? Probably not, but more shop owners say their next major slab cutter will be doing the job with water rather than diamonds.


MULTIPLE NEEDS
The reasons shops invest in waterjet technology for cutting are about as varied as the businesses themselves. For some, it’s a matter of saving money; for others, it’s a ticket to other markets.
Darrin Mikk, owner of Mount Airy, Md.-based Creative In Counters, is fairly typical in that he was simply looking for a better way to cut parts for countertops.  To that end, he purchased a SawJET™ from Northwood Machine Manufacturing Co. about a year ago.
As for finding a better solution to his cutting needs, he believes he’s struck pay dirt with the machine, which includes a patent-pending technology in using both a diamond saw and waterjet for cutting.
“The waterjets are pretty fast compared to cutting blanks on the bridge saw,” he says. “But, we have the saw in there, and between the saw and the waterjet it’s saved us a lot of time. We can definitely cut more slabs in a day.”
On the other hand, Steve Bowker, owner of Ball Ground, Ga.-based Bowstone Inc., was looking for flexibility when he purchased a machine from WARDJet Inc. last summer.
“We’re cutting everything imaginable,” he says. “We do countertops, vanities, tables, inlays, wall pieces and table bases.”
He’s even cut a boulder that was used as a sign, and, because of his shop’s location in an industrial park, neighbors have come to him for metal fabrication, including aluminum and steel.
“It’s wonderful,” Bowker notes.
Rich Mirch, general manager of Hancock, N.Y.-based Tompkins Bluestone Company Inc., says that firm added a Jet Edge machine five years ago to address a common industry problem.
“We have a very limited workforce in this area,” Mirch explains. “We also bought it to cut radiuses. The majority of the cutting we do is radius materials for walls, pool copings and things like that.”
As with Bowker, Mirch says he’s found himself cutting other things as well, from shop wrenches to machine parts to an airplane dashboard. However, he’s found he likes it for another reason: saving money.
“Garnet is 28 cents a pound, as opposed to a diamond blade, which can cost $300 for a hand saw,” he says. “We were spending $30,000 a year on saws and saw maintenance. This has paid for itself in the saw repairs we’re not doing.”
Brian Lynch, general manager of Stone Systems of New England in Slatesville, R.I., also mentions cost savings with his Flow International Corp. machine. He’s coming at it from a different perspective, though.
As a company whose majority owner is a subsidiary of Cosentino USA, the manufacturer of Silestone®, Lynch says there’s a definite mandate to maximize slab usage and minimize scrap.
“We knew people were utilizing a waterjet and nesting software for wood, glass, metal and carpet, so we finally said we’d be the guinea pig for natural quartz,” he explains. “We were the first Silestone shop to utilize a waterjet in our fabrication process, and it works great because natural quartz is such a consistent material.”

PLEASANT SURPRISES
One of the scariest parts of running a business is the need to make major capital investments on equipment. Buying into a misleading sales presentation or making a poor decision can cost you in time, manpower and profits for years.
Perhaps surprisingly, all these waterjet buyers felt that what they saw during the sales pitch was pretty much what they ended up with, and getting into waterjet cutting wasn’t as difficult as expected – although there might be a bug or two.
Ken Harrington, general manager of Detroit-based Michigan Tile and Marble, added an OMAX Corp. machine to his shop early this year. He says that not only has the company lived up to everything it promised, but there’s no comparing it with the 10-year-old model the company previously used.
“It’s turned out to be much easier with the new software,” Harrington says. “We thought there’d be more of a learning curve, but our waterjet operator picked it right up. It’s certainly much quicker than our existing machine.”
Of all its features, he adds that the best is probably the machine’s ability to handle a full-sized slab on its table.
Tim Lunt, owner of TL Custom Countertops in Linden, Utah, added both a Northwood SawJET and one of that company’s CNC routers in mid-2006. As with Harrington, he says the company’s sales pitch wasn’t just hype, the two machines work well together and it was easy to get into using them.
“It was also easier than we thought,” Lunt says. “Some of it is our programmer had experience running these machines, but we were cutting things the first day he came back from training.”
Creative In Counters’ Mikk agrees that having someone with a CNC background made adding the waterjet a little easier.
“It might not be as easy a learning curve for someone who’s never used a computer before,” says Mikk. “However, Northwood’s software is pretty easy and it’s definitely user-friendly; that helps a lot.”
Tompkins' Mirch is witness to the other side of that. Although he’s computer-literate, he’s had to teach operators on the Jet Edge who weren’t.
“Training the operator has been the biggest thing for me,” Mirch says. “Sometimes, you have to fool the computer to make it do what you want it to do, and that’s a challenge.”
There can be related nuances to the machine’s operation that add to that impact. Stone Systems’ Lynch says for his shop, most of the learning curve focused on the nesting software it runs with its Flow waterjet.
“A lot of it had to do with how we utilize the nesting software and how to avoid slabs cracking,” he says. “There were certainly things we learned through trial-and-error. And, some of that is the fact that these waterjets weren’t targeted initially to the stone industry.”
Not that there hasn’t been a surprise or two that have popped up along the way – besides those unexpected requests to cut materials other than stone. For instance, Mikk says the one thing he wasn’t anticipating about adding a waterjet to his operation was the importance of having clean water.
“It’s not real complicated, but it is sensitive,” he says. “We had to replace some of our filters, because you can’t just think that clean-looking water is good enough. With those high-pressure lines, you have to make sure you have the right water going in there.”
And, Bowstone’s Bowker says he’s been pleasantly surprised by how quietly his WardJet runs.
“It isn’t noisy,” he says. “I just thought it would be a lot louder. If we’re cutting something like steel and there’s air under it, it sounds like a jet engine. But, if we’re cutting a piece of stone and we’ve got the water up, it’s unbelievably quiet.”

QUALITY’S THE THING
There’s actually some debate as to whether the waterjet is a faster-cutting device than a bridge saw. However, speed isn’t all these buyers are seeking; for many, it’s the quality of the cut.
“It’s really not quicker than using a saw,” says Bowker. “If you’re cutting a square piece, you can whip that out on a saw in a minute. The waterjet will take 30 minutes, but you can absolutely cut any contour on it.”
It’s that ability that makes waterjets so attractive to these shop owners, who say the real savings come with finishing.
“If you’ve cut a piece properly, you can really reduce your finishing time,” says Mirch. “Plus, the operator can be finishing one piece while the program can go on and cut the next piece. Your production time is bound to be much faster.”
“As far as countertops, it cuts them the way you want them to be cut,” echoes TL’s Lunt. “If you need a 6” radius on the outside and a 2” or 3” radius on the inside, that’s the way it comes out. The router can put the edge on it, but it spends a lot less time milling.”
Stone Systems’ Lynch says his shop has gone so far as to cut the CNC totally out of the process on parts of some jobs.
“If a job has a flat edge, or what some people call a pencil edge, we’re able to take a diamond cup wheel to it, smooth the edges out, and send it straight to polish,” says Lynch. “By completely avoiding the CNC machine, it reduces the amount of time a job will sit in queue.”
Additionally, Lynch says his company has a sink library of more than 800 designs, so 100 percent of its sinkholes are cut from manufacturer-supplied .DXF files.
“It plays hand-in-hand with the digital templating equipment we have in the field,” he adds. “It’s an absolute dream to be able to take the digital template, employ it with our nesting software, and then cut it on the waterjet.”
Quality is also measured by accuracy, and all these machines cut to unbelievable tolerances.
“It’s significantly more-accurate,” says Lynch. “It’s all digital – all ones and zeros. When I show it to someone in the shop I explain it’s like comparing the quality you get from a VHS player versus a DVD player.”
That’s one of the main reasons people who begin cutting with waterjets start to think of expanding into the sorts of inlay and medallion work that once were the specialty of large suppliers.
“We’re getting into inlays,” says Bowstone’s Bowker. “For instance, we’ve done some Japanese characters that went in a table.”
“We cut a lot of patterns in tile,” echoes Michigan Tile’s Harrington. “We’re doing a lot of smaller jobs like that right now, including one cutting tiles for a Boys and Girls Club the NFL (National Football League) is building here in Detroit.”
If there’s one problem that Bowker has run into in doing work of this type, he says it’s possible to cut pieces of natural stone so small that they really can’t be handled easily without breaking.
“You have to be careful how small you go,” he says.
With the ability to make cuts that delicate, and the possibility of adding that type of profit center to what they’re already doing, it’s probably no wonder waterjets will play a bigger role in these shops futures.
TL’s Lunt doesn’t even have a standard bridge saw, and he says his SawJET is a great cutting machine.
“It fits very nicely in our operation,” he says. “I just wish we would have bought a double table.”
Bowker’s already in the process of buying another WardJet; while neither Lynch nor Harrington is quite ready to make that commitment yet, they can see waterjets replacing their bridge saws in the future.
For Tompkins’ Mirch, adding a machine is definitely tied up in how big the company can grow, although he, too, says, “It’s crossed our minds.”
For Creative In Counters’ Mikk, the best thing about adding the SawJET is that it’s ramped up production.
“Right now, we’re keeping up with what we need to do,” he says. “But, if we need another one, I wouldn’t hesitate. It’s a great tool.”