Wednesday | 27 May, 2009 | 7:57 am

All systems go

Written by By John Loos

May 2009 - When business as usual becomes business unusual, such as in an economic downturn or a shift in a company’s market focus, diversification becomes essential. In terms of expanding a company’s arsenal of products and processes, little comes close to a waterjet. And few technologies have advanced as rapidly.

Flow International Corp., Kent, Wash., a waterjet and robotics specialist, understands the speed at which waterjet technology evolves. Established in 1974, Flow invented and patented the first abrasive waterjet system, bringing it to market in 1983. Since then, the company has continued to focus on research and development, as it must accommodate ever-diversifying companies and applications, from the small gasket manufacturer to the mighty Boeings and Airbuses of the world.

"You have to reinvest a tremendous amount of money back into the research and development aspect," says Tim Fabian, market manager for Flow. "Fortunately, we’re using our size and our revenue to keep driving that research and development. We know that’s what’s going to keep us at the forefront of technology and keep us at the head of our competition."

Fabian sees this loyalty to research and development as especially crucial in difficult economic times, adding that Flow isn’t "falling into the pattern where that’s the first area to be cut during tough times. And we’re making sure that we’re still moving forward with many amazing projects that will certainly have a major impact on the waterjet industry."

The full monty
Technology, technology, technology. It’s almost a mantra for a company like Flow that has made its name by expanding the capabilities of its machines, as well as the idea of what a waterjet can do.

For starters, the company offers a 87,000-psi HyperJet pump, allowing a 45 percent increase in waterjet velocity--faster than Mach 3. Also, Flow designs its waterjets so that the motion is separate from the work holding area, preserving the integrity of the table, which traditionally gets abused by the rigors of running the machine. On top of this, Flow manufactures complete systems, meaning every component is crafted in-house.

"For many years, there was always a piecemeal approach to putting together a waterjet system," says Fabian. "The pump would be separate from the motion, and all the ancillary equipment was on its own and running separately. What we’ve learned through the years is to make the complete system and manufacture the whole system. By doing this, we’re able to offer a more advanced, affordable system by making everything communicate to the controller."

"We’re not an integrator," he adds. "We have control of everything in-house from a manufacturing process standpoint."

That level of engineering control has given rise to some unexpected advances. Case in point: lights-out capabilities. What once seemed far-fetched is now a reality for some Flow customers.

"The concept of running lights out on a waterjet, even a year or two ago, was something that nobody was considering," says Fabian. "We’re now to that point where we have customers who are able to do it. We have software now where they can remotely monitor their machine. It’ll page their cell phone if there’s a problem. They can go online anywhere in the world and restart their machine or see if there’s an issue."

The software in question, FlowMaster, is Windows-based and designed with simplicity in mind. The software suite sets acceleration, speed and piercing parameters, controlling all machine pump functions. It also has an integrated database and responds to any standard drawing format, whether it’s imported or created with the built-in CAD technology. Flow wanted to create a program that workers of all skill levels could use, not just waterjet experts, thus increasing productivity and uptime.

"With every machine, from our smallest to our largest and most advanced, one of our greatest focuses is on making it the most easy-to-use waterjet in the industry," says Fabian. "And we believe we’ve achieved that. We strive with our controls and our programming software for somebody to be able to take a part drawing or DXF file and be able to have a piece of material on the table and cutting in two minutes. That’s an internal goal of ours."

Big benefits
Klein Steel Service Inc., Rochester, N.Y., a steel supplier specializing in plate processing and sawing of steel and stainless steel, has a reputation for pushing the envelope in terms of value-added operations. When the company decided to purchase a waterjet to expand its processing capabilities for customers, there was no toe-dipping into the technology. The company dived right in--with impressive results.

"The natural way they do things here is to buy the biggest and the best the first time out," says Brad Cooper, project engineer for Klein. "Klein understands if you spend a little bit more upfront, the payback comes quicker and your break-even point is quicker and you just start doing better all the way around. That being said, we looked for the No. 1 waterjet company that’s out there."

Klein purchased a Flow waterjet with an 87,000-psi pump and two 6-foot-by-12-foot cutting zone tables, placed side by side and running off the same cutting head. By having a single ball-screw drive running the entire length of the two tables, the company has 30 feet of drive space, allowing it to cut material on one table while unloading a finished job and loading fresh material on the second table. This is ideal for a company like Klein that specializes in short runs and rarely works with quantities of more than 10.

"Having the twin tables is fantastic for efficiency," says Cooper. "The one thing I’ve really been able to tell our sales force is, ‘Yes, we can do that.’ In the past, they’ve asked, ‘Can we do this? Can we hold these tolerances?’ Now my answer is always yes."

The success of integrating a Flow waterjet into Klein’s operations led to the purchase of a second machine, this time with a standard 6-foot-by-12-foot bed and an 87,000-psi pump. Within six days of purchasing the machine, it was up and running on Klein’s facility floor. Part of this was due to the diligence of the company’s designated Flow applications representative, who checks in with Klein every four to six weeks and was even there to help unload the truck when the second waterjet arrived.

"We’re not just getting an educated sales guy, we’re getting a guy who can run the machine," says Cooper. "He knows what he’s doing. He’s educated about the software end of things, he knows what’s coming up in the market."

In some industries, this kind of personal touch is inversely proportional to the size of a company. But for Flow, a secret to its enduring success has been its attentive, detailed and personalized customer service.

Along with 24-hour phone and tech support, Flow has a network of applications specialists across the country to field machine issues and programming questions and provide specialized training. In an economy where diversification is often a key to survival, being able to attend to customers’ needs with a diverse line of products and service options is a notable advantage.

"That’s real testimony to the depth of the company," says Fabian. "We truly have a product offering for everyone." MM

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