Smooth Cut, Sharp Design - Waterjet Technology

Iowa Architect - 1993

by Christina Ladd Campbell

glass sculpture at Monsanto headquarters

A 15-foot high glass sculpture at Monsanto headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri.

light tower

Shooting a stream of light into the neighborhood's night skies, two luminaries installed at the top and bottom of the Forest Avenue Library tower structure create a steady light column that illuminates words of wisdom selected by area school children. Says project coordinator Roger Spears of Baldwin White Architects, "There was always an idea that the tower would be about the importance of education and reading, that It would be about light and learning."

Equally liberating in terms of design is the fact that abrasive waterjet cutting handles intricate shapes with ease. Aalto says, "With this technology, anything that can be drawn can be cut. Stone and metal have become graphic media, just like paper and pencil used to be. Now we take stone, for example, and use it almost like paint."

Continued

You can cut through five-inch-thick granite or slice twenty-foot lengths of metal that will not warp. These advances come from the development of abrasive waterjet cutting. This new technology will allow architectural design options to open like wind hitting high sails.

Companies such as the Fairfield-based Creative Edge Corporation are demonstrating the versatile applications of this relatively new technology, which takes materials cutting out of the Stone and Bronze Ages and into the twenty-first century. Five years ago, businessman Jim Belilove and sculptor Harri Aalto purchased Creative Edge from Creative Glassworks International, a Rock Island, Illinois, firm that manufactures waterjet equipment. Building on years of expertise and technical know-how, Creative Edge's custom waterjet cutting business has carved itself a unique niche in the industry.

The shop, which Aalto describes as "both a factory and an art studio," operates 24 hours a day, with three shifts of workers and seven machines. Belilove says, "This helps drive down the costs of waterjet so that more applications become available." The technology is decidedly modern: with the combined power of garnet abrasive and water under pressures up to 55,000 psi, abrasive waterjet cutting involves forcing water through the tiny orifice of a sapphire jewel, then blasting it out at 2.5 times the speed of sound.

The specifications of the process are exacting, the results, extremely precise. Using CAD/CAM (computer-assisted design/computer-assisted manufacturing), parameters such as water pressure feed rate and the size of nozzle, grit and cutting jewel interact with cutting speed and tolerances to determine the actual finished edge on a given material.

Currently Creative Edge strikes a fifty-fifty mix of architectural design work and industrial applications. On the industrial end, use of abrasive waterjet eliminates tool and dye costs; its cold process sidesteps typical problems of slag, burrs, delamination and metal contamination associated with heat-related processes. Milling costs, as well as production time, are also dramatically reduced with this technology.

From a design standpoint, abrasive waterjet technology opens up an exciting degree of design freedom. The vanishing skilled craftsman reappears in the form of this precision cutting technology. A wide palette of materials can be cut: granite, marble, metals and alloys, glass, plastics, acrylics, rubber, and high-pressure laminates, to name a few.