Monday | 30 September, 2013 | 9:52 am

The army’s waterjet workhorse

Written by By Nick Wright

Defense contractor cuts armor panels for combat vehicles, while helping outfit a home for veterans in North Carolina

September 2013 - Even the American taxpayer will agree there are few greater testimonials for a product than using it to support our armed forces. One Massachusetts company, Carapace Armor Technology, is among the hives of activity across the country that grind, cut and shape materials designed to fortify vehicles deployed in combat zones. The defense contractor, based in North Andover, with manufacturing operations near Fort Bragg in North Carolina, is a direct supplier of the Strykshield product line, which is Carapace’s proprietary line of ballistic driver protection systems.

Its most identifiable application is for the Stryker—the stout, eight-wheeled armored vehicles virtually impervious to any terrain. They’ve earned their stripes with proven durability in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Strykshield is such an effective system that Carapace produces a commercial version for trucks, SUVs and commercial armored vehicles. The company says Stryker drivers can navigate around roadside barriers, as well as have increased operational awareness to spot roadside IEDs and otherwise unseen attacks. With such a product description, it’s a wonder you don’t have a Strykshield-laden SUV in your garage.

But the armor only is as effective as the machinery used to manufacture it. To that end, Carapace operates an Omax 55100 JetMachining Center, the largest cantilever waterjet offered by Kent, Wash.-based Omax Corp.

Carapace uses the 55100 in the center of its research and development shop, says Peter Hamann, the company’s executive vice president of North American operations. Carapace has two shops in North Carolina totaling 150,000 square feet. When designing parts for armored vehicles, the company usually parks the truck to be outfitted next to the waterjet. It measures the vehicles with Faro Arm technology to reverse engineer the vehicle, then cuts prototypes from wood because many of its customers don’t have original vehicle blueprints to replicate components.

“Then finally, we’ll use proper armored plate material for the final fit and function testing,” he says.

Photo: U.S. Army

Tough machine for tough metal

The Omax 55100 is a formidable machine. It features an 8 foot 4 inch by 4 foot 7 inch cutting capacity upon a table interlined with 4 inch by 1⁄8 inch galvanized steel material support slats that can hold 400 pounds of material. Carapace cuts an array of material, including 46-100 armor plate up to 1 inch thick, titanium armor, 6061 T6 aluminum up to 4 inches thick, stainless steel up to 3.5 inches thick, as well as glass, ceramics, wood, brass and copper.

One benefit of waterjet technology is the elimination of heat-affected zones or mechanical stresses on the workpiece. The cutting leaves behind a smooth edge requiring no additional finishing. Hamann is no stranger to waterjets because he ran a machine shop for the Army’s Special Operations Command prior to Carapace. His first rodeo with Omax was the 80160 waterjet machine, which has been in use since 2004 at the company.

“When I retired from the Army, it was a simple decision to purchase the 55100 machine as it was a multifaceted workhorse,” he says.

Among the tough material Carapace’s 55100 cuts is ATI 500-MIL armor steel, manufactured by specialty metals firm Allegheny Technologies Inc., based in Pittsburgh. It’s the first new, high-hard steel armor developed in the United States since the Vietnam War. With good blast-resistance, it meets the U.S. MIL-DTL-46100E high-hard specification for ballistic performance, protecting against ordnance such as armor-piercing rounds. The ATI 500-MIL boasts minimal distortion after cutting, improved flatness and auto-tempering capability, according to ATI.  

Although the metal reassuringly holds up to explosions, it’s no match for the Omax 55100’s beam of water. Powered by a 50-horsepower high-efficiency Generation 4 EnduroMax pump system, the machine carves through metal with up to 60,000 psi of pressure. Omax recommends Barton’s 80-grit garnet abrasive for the 55100 because it can rip through the harder alloys Carapace fabricates.


Extreme pressure

Aside from armoring vehicles operating abroad, Carapace’s services suit local needs, too. In 2011, Carapace teamed up with the ABC show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” to help fabricate furniture for the StepsNStages Jubilee House, a free housing facility in nearby Fayetteville, N.C., for female veterans returning to civilian life.

The tight deadlines and demands of the show’s timetable required a quick turnaround on furniture for the home, for which the 55100 was ideal. One project was a large dining room table for the Jubilee House’s first Thanksgiving dinner. As it would with armor, Carapace cut out a prototype from 3⁄4-inch poplar plywood. Once a design was nailed down, it cut out the final table base from 3⁄4-inch 6061 aluminum plate with the 55100. The Omax Tilt-A-Jet cutting head, an accessory that offsets any taper from the jet by positioning the nozzle at an angle determined by the Intelli-Max software, made quick work of the straight, accurate table base pieces.

The evening before the Jubilee House was to be complete, the original company  selected to create a tabletop couldn’t meet the delivery deadline. So, the designers changed the table layout and turned to Carapace to cut wood panels in time. Carapace also cut 

1,200 aluminum and brass assembly pieces for the Jubilee House’s Wall of Honor, a fixture of 600 personalized plaques installed in the dining room wall. On the plaques are the names and messages from members of the military connected to the house.

“Extreme Makeover was an interesting project as we were asked to do numerous projects,” Hamann adds. “We actually ran the machine for four days without stopping. This was a lot of fun for our team but very tiring. At the end of the project knowing we were helping other veterans was a great experience, and we would certainly do it again if asked.”

The Intelli-Max software is the same controller across each Omax product. Built into it is Intelli-Nest, which adeptly optimizes the tool path, part layout, even tool rotation when running a single nozzle head. The software ensured the accuracy of the Wall of Honor’s pieces.

“The Omax Intelli-Max platform has been great,” Hamann says. “We are able to make immediate changes at the machining center as needed, which makes part fit and design extremely easy.”

MM-0913-waterjet-image3Omax maintains its software-controller combination is the easiest to use the industry. Some in higher education agree, says Steve Brown, director of government and educational solutions at Omax. Recently, an instructor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology called to ask if it could use Omax’s Intelli-Max in a community college classroom to teach manufacturing technology, he says. 

“He said ours is easier to use than anyone else’s,” Brown says.

Reliable machine

By no means is the 55100 a new machine—Omax began selling it in 1997. But its years of use, refinement and upgrades have made it one of the most reliable waterjets in the field.

“I’d say we have more 55100s in the field than any other machine; it’s been so popular,” says Brown. The Air Force bought into the 55100 when it first came out, and it’s so widely used that it has a national stocking number associated with it for parts. Brown estimates the military has 100 of them. Job shops and other fabricators are the other primary users.

Omax’s maintenance schedule for its newer pumps suggests checking it at 1,000-hour intervals. Brown has confidence that Carapace’s machine will last indefinitely because of the experienced users behind them. Operators tend to be resourceful and keep waterjets up and running because military budgets are tight for new equipment. Free software upgrades for the life of the machine keeps the military, as well as other waterjet customers, on the cutting edge. Those upgrades can be downloaded to the machine remotely.

At Carapace, Hamann says Omax has a recommended repair parts inventory that customers should keep on hand. If Carapace doesn’t have the part, Omax’s part department sends next-day, without fail. Omax’s technical guides, much like its software, are easy to understand so operators can work on the machines.

“I have always just been a call away from Omax’s tech support. Their training is above reproach and is free for life,” he says. With such support, the 55100 is hard pressed to be overtaken in esteem by other machines in its class. MM

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