Job diversity through a waterjet

Pacific Metal Cutting knows saws, but learns to love waterjet and the new business it brings

The FABRICATOR June 2006
June 13, 2006
By: Dan Davis

Pacific Metal Cutting of Placentia, Calif., wasn't struggling when it bought its first waterjet in May 2004. After two years of waterjet ownership and the addition of a second table, the metal cutter is struggling to keep up with new business.

This tale from the O.C. doesn't involve beautiful people and cutting-edge music. It's about Orange County's very own Pacific Metal Cutting—in Placentia, Calif., to be more exact—and it's a 24-person team dedicated to cutting a variety of specialty metals for its metals distributor and machine shop customer base.

Mark McWhirter is the company's president and owner. His favorite sound usually is the high-pitched wail of his many horizontal and vertical band saws cutting edges on huge billets and bars inside the 20,000-square-foot facility his business has called home since August 2004. Uptime on the saws means good times for the business.

But McWhirter has learned to appreciate a new sound. It's the sound of new customers calling him and booking time on his two waterjets. For example, as 2005 came to a close, one customer had committed to 100 hours of waterjet cutting jobs per week.

McWhirter is finding out his business decision to invest in waterjets is proving to be quite sound.

See Saws Work

Pacific Metal Cutting wasn't struggling before the arrival of the first Flow International waterjet in May 2004. In fact, the company was growing in such a way that plans were already under way to leave its cramped, 9,000-sq.-ft. shop for something roomier.

The company's reputation for cutting nontraditional metals—stainless steel, high-strength steel, titanium, and exotic alloys—and fast turnaround in getting the cut plate back to its customer fueled the company's growth. It built its reputation on the skills of its shop floor employees and its saws—the culmination of three businesses bought and consolidated under McWhirter's guidance.

Pacific Metal Cutting has:

  • 18 Amada horizontal cutoff saws to cut bar and tube and to strip plate down. It is not unusual for these saws to be used to cut plate down to meet thickness specs or to remove mill scale that might be as thick as 0.006 inch. In this equipment mix is a 54-in.-diameter saw, which McWhirter called the biggest on the West Coast.

  • An Amada CM100 CNC circular carbide cold saw to cut ferrous and nonferrous bars up to 4 in. OD with a tolerance of ± 0.005 in.

  • Nine Amada vertical plate saws to strip plate and billet. McWhirter said these saws are used for "creative" material removal. As an example, he recounted how the saws were used to make about 120, 6-in. by 8-in. by 8.5- in., T-shaped parts out of huge billets of 15-5 stainless steel. After stripping down the billets to block shapes and notching out the pieces to form the T, the company ships the final parts that are destined to become machined giant hinges.
Pacific Metal Cutting owns two waterjets from Flow International Corp. The waterjets have opened the doors to new business opportunities as the metal cutter is now able to offer closer tolerances and quicker turnarounds. In one example, the company's skilled operators and forklift drivers were able to cut holes out of 29-foot-long sections of stainless steel on the 6-ft. by 12-ft. waterjet cutting area and turn the project around in 24 hours.

"Most of the metal that we process is our customer's material," he said. "Our customer base is probably 50 percent distributors that send the work to us either because we can do it faster or we have the capability that they don't. A lot of these guys bring in large plates, and we cut them into little pieces."

The other half of the company's customer base are machine shops needing large pieces of metal to be cut down into blocks that will fit into their machining centers.

"Whatever the dimension is [for the cut], our customers demand consistency, so that when they have a setup on a program on their CNC machines, they can take this block, put it in setup clamps, fire up the program, and go," McWhirter said. "They don't want to have to adjust their setup or the program."

In both instances, customers demand very tight tolerances. Pacific Metal Cutting is able to deliver that thanks to skilled operators and forklift drivers with a golden touch when it comes to setup of the giant pieces of raw stock.

"My philosophy is that most of the cutting shops that you go to are niche-oriented," McWhirter said. "One guy is going to do small diameter. Another guy is going to do small diameter with lathe cutoffs so that he can do end finishing. Other guys have one or two small plate saws. They are all good people and good businesses, but they have elected to focus on what they know—their niche.

"I wanted to diversify our capabilities," he added.

That's where the waterjets come into the picture.

The Active Tolerance Control on the Dynamic Waterjet guides the cutting head so that no taper is found on the final cuts.

Winning With Waterjets

McWhirter entertained the thought of getting a waterjet for a couple of years before purchasing his first table. A Flow International representative had been contacting McWhirter since taking over one of the businesses, and he now began to think heavily about waterjet cutting, which his previous employer, Jorgensen Steel, had done successfully with three of its own waterjets. In early 2004, McWhirter began to run the numbers, and by summer Pacific Metal Cutting was running a dual-head waterjet with a 6-ft. by 12-ft. cutting area.

"When Mark got his first waterjet, he wasn't sure what he was going to do with it," said Fred Mooneyham, vice president, Flow International.

"I didn't have the business. I had no contacts. No leads. Nothing but the belief that we would be able to sell that service to our customer base because we had a good customer base," McWhirter added.

McWhirter was right. The company now could offer cutting jobs with tolerances as tight as 0.005 in., and on jobs that didn't require such precision, the cutting time was faster and better in many instances.

He pointed to a part with a straight bottom and sides and an arched top to illustrate the efficiency achieved with the waterjet. To fabricate 120 such parts, an operator would need three days on a band saw to cut all of the contours.

"Now I take three of these 3/8-inch plates, stack them up, turn on the machine, run the program, and walk away. Four hours later, I'm taking them off the table," McWhirter said.

Pacific Metal Cutting made its name on the West Coast cutting specialty metals in a quality manner with quick turnaround. For example, this Amada H-1300 band saw is used to make intricate cuts on long pieces of stainless steel plate that other shops would have difficulty handling.

Pacific Metal Cutting enhanced its cutting capabilities with the addition of a second table—a Flow International Integrated Flying Bridge 6-ft. by 12-ft. table with patented Dynamic Waterjet® and Active Tolerance Control™—installed in November 2005.

Dynamic Action

Copper is just one of the many metals Pacific Metal Cutting cuts. The shop also cuts aluminum, titanium, and several specialty alloys. Most of the parts that are machined from the metal blocks the company cuts are destined for aerospace applications.

The new control technology on the Dynamic Waterjet guides a small, articulated wrist attached to the cutting head. The wrist tilts the cutting head during the cutting process so that taper is eliminated. More traditional waterjets that rely on straight-ahead cutting heads struggle with taper, especially as speeds are increased.

"We have seen a big difference with the Dynamic Waterjet in removing the taper off the cut," said Flow's Mooneyham. "People were taking parts for machining, but when the waterjet parts had a lot of taper to them, they had a hard time fixturing. The Dynamic Waterjet really helped them because it gave them a square edge that they could put in a fixture and locate the parts much more easily."

The new waterjet also has Flow International's Dynamic Contour Follower™ that ensures a consistent standoff distance between the mixing tube tip and the material being cut. Sensors transmit height variations in cutting material and feed the changes in the X and Y plane to the Z-axis control, which makes immediate adjustments in the standoff height.

McWhirter said the Dynamic Contour Follower comes in handy because Pacific Metal Cutting often deals with less-than-perfect material.

Pacific Metal Cutting doesn't just handle large projects. The steel bar being cut to very close tolerances on this Amada CM100 CNC cold saw is an example of some of its smaller-sized jobs.

"Some of our customers are all about material utilization. They are not going to give you a bright, shiny, 48-inch by 144-inch plate if they have a bunch of junk laying there that you can fit these parts in," McWhirter said. "That's just the way it is."

In the meantime the company's customers love the parts cut on the Dynamic Waterjet, according to McWhirter.

"We did some parts out of 5.5-inch or 6-inch-thick titanium blocks. They were beautiful. We cut them on the new machine," he said. "The customer loved them."

Love at First Cut

McWhirter is loving his waterjets. As of late 2005 the waterjet accounted for 15 percent of his total sales. Pacific Metal Cutting has balled three older vertical band saws that had been used for contour cutting. The waterjets now handle most of those cutting chores.

McWhirter said one of the biggest advantages of the waterjet is that it doesn't need a full-time operator. He estimated that the one full-time operator spends about 60 percent of his time tending to both machines.

What's next for Pacific Metal Cutting? McWhirter said he's buying a large milling machine to fly-cut materials for customers. The purchase of a lathe or a third waterjet might be in the cards as well.

"Our customers are demanding because their customers are demanding," McWhirter said. "We can't provide them that service if the machines aren't running all the time. The key for me is that we are adequately manned, that we have the right number of people coming in, and that they are working on the right machines or the right cells at the right time."

Overall, that sounds like a pretty good business plan.

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8281

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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