Small-scale cutting: The next frontier

In recent years, micromachining technology and small-scale cutting have captured the imagination of almost every industry segment, from medical appliances to aerospace and even commercial products. Waterjet and laser cutting techniques have long been some of the most preferred for many industries, thanks to their accuracy and precision and the ability to produce components without damage, heat, and other problems.

Some of the newest innovations to take place in laser and waterjet cutting have focused on the resources required to cut smaller, intricate parts. The potential for product miniaturization is continuing to draw interest, while posing a number of technical challenges. Fortunately, companies have begun to develop new technologies to meet the unique problems posed by micromanufacturing. As the world of small-scale cutting continues to grow larger, waterjet and laser cutting machines could have an even greater impact on the manufacturing industry.

Waterjet Microcutting Applications
Various companies and scientific experts have begun to address the issues with small-scale manufacturing using waterjet technology. This means that abrasive waterjet systems have continued to advance with precision and speed. Today’s waterjets can quickly and accurately shape various parts, ranging from aerospace metal components to parts with tiny features used in implants, tools, and medical devices.

The microabrasive waterjet comprises a cold-cutting process that uses high-speed garnet particles to rapidly erode material while cooling to prevent a change in material properties.

The use of a high-pressure stream of water containing an abrasive material has proven to be an effective and popular way to shape components out of metal, glass, plastic, and many other materials. Today waterjet suppliers are searching for ways to further compress the thin stream to cost-effectively produce complex parts that require tiny contours and precision cuts.

Even though waterjets already are capable of producing small parts and features, many manufacturers are searching for streams as small as 0.002 in. in diameter. While these levels may be possible for pure, nonabrasive waterjet cutting, on materials like foam and rubber, a problem arises when cutting harder materials, which requires the use of abrasives. After all, the smaller the waterjet nozzle, the more susceptible it is to clogging from large abrasive particles.

It’s easy enough to produce a smaller nozzle, but equipment manufacturers also need to consider wear resistance and the design of mixing tubes on a miniaturized scale.

For waterjet micromachining, even the abrasive particle size matters. This has led scientists to begin using ultrafine abrasive materials to produce tiny, effective waterjet streams.

Laser Microcutting Applications
Laser cutting use in the automotive, electronics, aerospace, and medical industries is nothing new. Many laser cutting processes use CO2 gas, but this method is unsuitable for fine cutting because it lacks heat input control and the ability to reduce focus spot size. As a result, solid-state lasers that can emit a shorter wavelength are used for precision cutting applications.

As medical device manufacturers continue to demand faster, more reliable, and more cost-effective manufacturing processes, precision cutting methods for structures such as endoscopic and arthroscopic devices, biopsy tools, cannulas, and needles have been developed.

Today’s newer laser technology can offer a reliable, stable energy source, while still providing a high-quality beam, high repetition rates, and easy integration on manufacturing floors. For example, the femtosecond disk laser leaves no thermal imprint on the component, which allows for forming smaller, more intricate designs.

A femtosecond laser can deliver shorter laser pulses at less than 400 fs. Its cold ablation cutting technique bypasses the melt-eject process and removes the risk of heat-related damage to intricate designs. The tiny laser beam allows for machining tiny details and reduces the number of finishing steps after cutting.

The level of accuracy laser cutting affords has allowed laser micromachining to emerge as the preferred choice for many precise machining applications. Once a nontraditional process, laser micromachining is well-suited for projects that require tight dimensional tolerances, superior edge quality, and high-volume production.

This advanced laser cutting technology is particularly beneficial for crucial medical tools, which require surgical precision to create contours, clean edges, and patterns. For instance, lasers now can produce precise openings in needles containing unusual tips, as well as puzzle-chain linkages for endoscopes. However, these miniature cutting abilities can also be used in many other industries for projects with these same requirements.

While the micro capabilities emerging in waterjet and laser cutting equipment are important when producing small parts, the tooling and machining possibilities they create are huge. Despite the various challenges that come with micromachining and accurate cutting, such as stringent quality demands, tight tolerances, and varied materials, the latest innovations could mean that waterjet and laser methods are more viable options than ever.

Small-scale cutting technologies aren’t just effective for medical purposes. An optimized machining plan for smaller parts can reduce cycle times, save on component materials, reduce tooling costs, improve the quality of highly intricate components, and decrease machine idling time.

From improving possibilities for machining within the medical industry to enhancing efficiency and productivity throughout every aspect of manufacturing, small-scale cutting may be the next frontier.