We’re a few months down the road with the Wazer waterjet cutter. I thought an update was due but–apologies–we are nowhere near as far along with learning/using this machine as I thought we’d be.
Thank unrealistic expectations for the lapse: I tend to shoehorn 40 hours worth of work into a 24-hour day that includes cleaning up the studio, learning enamel and metal clay, and doing unimportant stuff like dayjobs and doctors’ appointments. The Wazer kinda fell by the Wayzide, heh-heh.
Still, we are getting a better handle on the Wazer’s strengths and weaknesses. I’ve concluded (can’t speak for Bob) that the Wazer is a good choice for PERSONAL, small-job waterjet cutting, but anyone considering purchasing it for making a small waterjet services business–or even for your own, industrial-scale projects–should look elsewhere.
So far all we’d cut were tests; the real story is where the abrasive meets the metal, cutting an actual, gotta-get-it-right-first-time project. I tried making knife blanks, i.e., knife-shaped pieces of steel for subsequent grinding and polishing into utilitarian knives.
It started when I visited the Resident Carpenter’s blacksmithing school, Oaks Bottom Forge.* I’d spied a sheet of 1/8th-inch thick steel full of knife-shaped cutouts, artistically hung over one of the anvils.
“Was that made with a waterjet cutter?” I asked innocently (knowing full well it was). “I’d like to try that with MY waterjet cutter.”
“Wait,” said Pat-the-owner, cautiously, “YOU have a WATERJET CUTTER? It could cut knife blanks like this?”
“Sure,” I said confidently, and he looked at me with sudden interest. That sheet of cutouts had cost Oaks Bottom about $800 at a commercial waterjet cutter. I winced on Pat’s behalf; the forge was looking to reduce cutting costs. Could my little personal waterjet handle the job for less, and still make a profit?
If it could, Oaks Bottom would have a new source for creating production runs of hand-made knives, and I could help make the Wazer pay for itself. I agreed to run some test cuts of knife blanks, and get a handle on the Wazer’s production capabilities and job-costing.
I first drew up some inventive knife designs in Adobe Illustrator and showed them to The RC. “Uhm,” he offered hopefully, “Let me help you with that?” This is Nathan-speak for “Eeeeeeeuuuwwww…that sucks,” so between us we came up with a more utilitarian design.
I converted it into an SVG file that the Wazer could recognize. Just for yocks, I also exported Wazer’s other supported format, DXF. Either will produce the gcode needed to actually start the cutting program.
I logged into Wazer’s online set up software, WAM, and uploaded the file. Then I started the process of setting up the file on WAM’s simulated cutbed and generating gcode that would be used to guide the cuts.
The Wazer lives in my friend Bob’s incredible studio–I suspect, when we finally move it into the coldworking shed, it will think it’s slumming–and Bob’s careful engineering skills have really eased the process of learning to use it. We’re both getting a little more comfortable with the machine–I’ll admit I found it pretty daunting in the beginning.
If you haven’t seen it, we posted a video showing our first test drive of the machine:
Room(s) for improvement
That’s not to say Wazer is exactly easy to use–its online app will have to go quite a way to get to “no-brainer” status. I’d emailed the SVG and DXF cutting files to Bob; he saved them and uploaded them to WAM, and we started the layout and cutting process. I noted six areas that would need some serious attention to make WAM/Wazer more user-friendly.
The Wazer can’t directly connect to your network or computer, so you can’t send a cutfile directly to Wazer as you would to a printer. Instead, you download everything onto a smart card and physically insert it into the Wazer’s card slot, then choose the correct file on its tiny LCD screen.
That’s fine, I suppose, if others are bringing finished gcode files to you to cut. They simply offload onto the card and physically hand it to you, avoiding the need to email a too-large file. But for personal, onsite jobs, or jobs where you’re creating gcode from a file already on your computer, it’s a bit of a pain that will cost you extra time. (And if you’re using this for a business, time is money)
More to the point, the Wazer’s limited abrasive capacity and water runoff tends to shut down the cutting job while it awaits refills, without much notification (other than the machine is suddenly much quieter because it’s stopped cutting). If the Wazer lived on the network, it could more readily send alerts when it needed attention.
2) Scale and rotation
I carefully sized my 3 knife blanks to be 7 inches long, but they wound up about 5 inches in WAM. WAM emphasizes scale and rotation of your model–it’s the second step in the conversion process–so I should have checked. Instead, I simply assumed that an imported 7-inch file would cut to 7 inches.
Nope. WAM shrunk the file about 30 percent, and I was halfway through the cut before I noticed. The file printout was correctly sized, so I’m not sure what happened.
The completed blanks were cute as can be, but child-sized, with a handle too short for adults. Lesson learned: Recheck dimensions in WAM before you generate the gcode.
3) Model handling
I’d ganged three copies of the knife blank for the test but discovered that WAM allows you to break models apart and reposition them as needed. So you have the option of building out the entire cut in your drawing program (Illustrator, in my case), or you can take the simpler path for repetitive cuts: Import one model, then duplicate and place as needed.
Unfortunately, WAM lacks most of the image manipulation tools you’d expect, so don’t expect to make a lot of modifications or quickly pull everything into position. You can’t “nudge” a model into place with the arrow keys, for example, and as we’ve said before, you can’t zoom in on an image to ensure correct placement of tabs or fix potential overlaps. WAM will tell you if your model(s) lie outside the cutbed boundaries, but it won’t tell you where, and it can sometimes be difficult to find the overlap.
You also can’t drag a selection box across multiple models to select everything in a zone, and there is no “Select All” command. You must individually select each model, while holding down the shift key.
Once you’ve selected a bunch of models, you can’t scale/rotate the group, or drag the selection box to resize. WAM will allow you to copy just the item you’ve selected, but that’s about all the shortcuts you’re gonna get.
I tested filling up the simulated cutbed with copies of my original 5-inch model; WAM could fit in 37 of them. I couldn’t copy and paste each model, however; I clicked up a counter on the File Import menu to add duplicates.
Nor does there appear to be a way to batch-process all the models at once. When I tried to resize my original to the correct 7-inch length and then duplicate that size, WAM simply produced copies of the original size.
4) Material selection
Wazer offers a large selection of presets for different materials and thicknesses; one MUST be selected to proceed with gcode generation. That’s fine, but what if the material you have isn’t on the list?
WAM provides a tool for adding your own materials to the library, a nice little form you fill out with custom titles, measurements, and cutting parameters. Unfortunately, there’s not much information available to tell you what to put in those blanks.
It’s certainly possible to extrapolate from existing materials in the library, but I’m not knowledgeable about how waterjets manage cuts to really understand how I’d change from, say, eighth-inch 440C stainless to quarter-inch 314 stainless steel.
You CAN import your own materials library as well, but it will overwrite the one in your WAM account, so you’ll want to export the existing library to your computer first, add your materials, and then import the whole thing.
There’s a LOT more work that needs to be done to the WAM app to make it user-friendly; so far it’s the single most obstacle-ridden piece of the Wazer puzzle.
5) Cutting speed
Cutting speeds vary widely depending on the material and thickness to be cut on any waterjet cutter, but if you’re expecting Wazer to have the speed of a commercial, $100K-plus waterjet cutter, you’ll be disappointed. Cutting three of my knife models took about an hour. If I’d known to resize the file back to its original 7-inch length, those cuts would have taken 90 minutes.
My knife has a circumference (the full-sized 7-inch model) of 49.125 inches and the Wazer promises to cut it out of eighth-inch steel in 32 minutes: 40 seconds (so far, the Wazer is pretty accurate in its estimates). That works out to about 1.5 linear inches per minute, not counting travel time to the cutting path. Using the calculators supplied by big commercial waterjet manufacturers, looks like the same steel cuts on a 60,000 psi would be about 20 times faster.
Update: The numbers in the above paragraph were correct…but referenced the wrong model. When I made my calculations, I once again neglected to ensure that the model in WAM’s simulated cutbed was actually the 7-inch model. Nope; WAM was calculating for the shrunken, 5.25 inch model, which obviously has a smaller cutting path. I should have used the true 11.625-inch circumference, not 49.125 inches as I stated above.
Taking that into account, the cutting speed (linear inches per minute) worked out to 0.47 IPM, or about a third of that original calculation. Whew.
My test model of 37 knife blanks, filling up the entire Wazer cutbed, would take an estimated 15 hours 20 minutes, or 45-90 minutes on big commercial machines.
Bottom line: If you’re trying to make money with a waterjet cutter, it’s obviously better to process the cuts quickly and get onto the next job. The Wazer’s performance would make that difficult.
6) Abrasive usage and hopper size
My 37-blank sheet will require about 304 pounds of 80-mesh garnet abrasive. So, in addition to tying up my Wazer for a full day with this one sheet of cuts, I’ll also be using a LOT of abrasive, which isn’t cheap.
Moreover, that much abrasive must be IN the Wazer to make the cuts, but the Wazer abrasive hopper holds only 40 pounds. During cutting, the machine will stop every time the hopper approaches empty (or at least, when enough time has passed in cutting that the machine ASSUMES the hopper is nearly empty–it looked about half-full when it stopped for refills last time).
So I can’t just set up the cutfile, press the start button, and go do something else for 16 hours while the Wazer cuts away. I’ve got to babysit the machine, checking every 45 minutes or so to see if it’s stopped to ask for a fill-up of abrasive and a top-off of water.
Refreshing consumables and restarting the machine takes 10-15 minutes. For my 37 baby knives, that’d take a couple of additional hours, or nearly 18 hours to complete the project.
No complaints here. My 3 test knife blank cuts were jo-block perfect; I only needed to grind off a tiny bump where the Wazer placed stabilization tabs. The tabs keep the cutout attached to the main sheet; if you don’t have them the pieces will break free and start migrating to new positions, a perfect way to ruin the cut. WAM can insert them automatically, or you can place them yourself.
Many Wazer backers on Kickstarter indicated an interest in selling waterjet services, and I’ve already gotten requests to commission cuts in metal, glass, etc., on mine. Being, well, me, I had to drill down and analyze just how profitable such a venture might be.
Let’s assume the following (full transparency here, so you can correct this with your own numbers if you don’t like mine):
- Initial cost of the Wazer: $4,394 (note that if you buy one today, you’ll pay $7,849 with shipping)
- Estimated lifespan: 7 years
- Estimated hours of use per year: 1,000 (and this is probably conservative)
- Estimated maintenance cost per year ($1,270, or about $1.27/hour):**
- 100-hour maintenance (at 100, 200, 400, 500, 600, 700, 900, and 1,000 hours): $712
- 300-hour maintenance (obviously, at 300 hours): $358
- 1,000-hour maintenance: Unknown, so I’m just giving it $200
- Estimated operating cost (amortization, electrical, water, maintenance): $1.92/hour
- Total abrasive use over 1,000 hours: 19,613 lbs @ 30 cents per pound or $5,884
Maintenance schedule includes replacing the cutbed (at $79 each) every 100 hours. The cutbed, a thick, double-sided and honeycombed block with measured grids for placement, gets pretty chopped up during the cutting process. Since you screw down your material to secure it to the cutbed, you need enough bed left to hold the screws and keep the work flat to the cutting head.
From what I’ve seen so far, we’ll probably need more than one new bed every 100 hours, but I’ll keep it conservative.
Assumptions in hand, I can figure out how much it will cost me to do my 37-knife sheet, which will take 15 hours and 20 minutes. Add abrasive and water replenishment steps, and I’ll have a total operating time of about 18 hours, eating roughly $34.56 in operating costs.
I’ll need 304 lbs of abrasive for this cut, and at 30 cents per pound (about the cheapest I’ve found it so far), that’s $91.20 for garnet. So:
- Operating cost: $34.56
- Garnet: $91.20
- Total cost of this cut (not counting the price of the steel): $125.76
So…if I simply ask someone to pay my expenses when making that cut, forgetting about profit and assuming they bring the material to be cut, they’ll pay $125.76.
But what about labor costs? It might take me an hour to set up the cutfile and generate the gcode I need (more if they don’t have a prepared SVG or DXF file). And then I’ll be tending the Wazer for 18 hours and can do no other work on the machine except this file.
If I charge $20/hour, add $400, making the total cost of that cut about $626. If I need to make a profit, or pay for additional overhead such as advertising, office maintenance, etc…well, suddenly, charging $800 is probably conservative.
If I operate the Wazer for 1,000 hours/year, I can make 55 of those 37-knife cuts. At $400 per cut for my time, that gives me a yearly wage of $22,000.
I could, of course, add more hours to that time (there are 8,760 hours in a year, after all). But given the downtime necessary to service the machines, the vicissitudes of drumming up business to fill the Wazer’s dance card, and the fact that I do need to sleep/eat/whatever SOMEtime, I doubt I could do much more than 2,000 hours. That’s enough to double my maintenance costs.
Potentially, it might save me a bit on abrasive, since I’d now be purchasing somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 TONS of garnet in a single year. (Memo: I also need somewhere to store that much abrasive and keep it dry for pouring into those hoppers…not a simple task.)
One other consideration: The Wazer can tackle cuts up to 12×18 inches; anything larger must be broken into smaller jobs to fit the space (assuming you can do that), which means you’re cycling through multiple cutting sessions, increasing the time it takes to turn out a job.
Commercial waterjet cutters have a much larger cutbed, making it possible to do much larger pieces and gang up multiple jobs, reducing costs. Given that you’ll likely have to charge about the same rates as commercial outfits, for slower services with smaller footprints, there’s not much competitive advantage there.
Unless you’re a charitable organization, willing to give away a couple hundred bucks with every job, I’m not sure the Wazer’s performance characteristics would ever be cost-effective and practical enough to be a commercial cutting-services machine.
So…IMHO, the Wazer truly IS a personal waterjet cutter, not a cheaper way to break into waterjet services. Doesn’t change my mind about its capabilities–it really is a wonderful addition to a home studio–but let’s not expect miracles.
*Almost said “forging school,” but figured The RC wouldn’t appreciate a visit from the Treasury Department seeking fugitive counterfeiters
** I suspect maintenance costs will be higher; I contacted Wazer to ask about the 800-hour service costs, which include “pump box overhaul.” They wouldn’t tell me after two different email requests, which is a bit disturbing. In fact, the Wazer’s technical support is still a bit iffy, in my opinion. It’s hard to find a working phone number for Wazer tech support (not even sure there IS one), although you can have the sales team call you.
Even by email, communication with Wazer support seems to be a rare beast. I sent my original query with a clear question: How much does the pump rebuild cost, since I can’t find a mention of it on your website, and the only reference I’ve discovered suggested a private call to discuss. I got back a form letter offering to sell me a new Wazer; when I explained that, no, I already had one, I got this in return:
Thank you for following up on maintaining your WAZER. The pump box rebuild is still being worked on in terms of necessary steps and equipment. The web site and user manual will be updated when more information is available in the near future. Sorry I don’t have a more definitive answer than we are working on it currently.
For now, I’m assuming a nominal charge of $200 but from all the obfuscation coming from Wazer, I’m thinking it’ll be much higher.