Talk to most any manufacturer and a common complaint is that recent engineering grads don’t have practical, hands-on experience — especially when it comes to manufacturing.
The engineering department at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, seeks to counter that trend by making abrasive waterjet cutting part of the college coursework.
Waterjet cutting lets students quickly go from CAD drawings to finished parts. But what’s perhaps more important is that for most of the students, it’s usually the first time they’ve ever been exposed to such technology — or any manufacturing technology, for that matter — explains Jon Nakane, engineering lab director at UBC.
Why a waterjet, instead of a lathe or milling machine?
Waterjets let inexperienced students quickly learn to make parts, compared with more traditional manufacturing methods such as machining parts from raw blocks of steel, says Nakane. Waterjet machining is simple and straightforward, and the equipment is practically indestructible, so much so that Nakane lets engineering students run the department’s Omax waterjet-cutting system on their own without any direct supervision. “It’s rare to turn an undergraduate engineering student loose on a conventional CNC machine,” he stresses.
“The waterjet system teaches students about manufacturability,” says Nakane. And fast turnaround lets them try out several options which, in turn, leads to more-complete designs. Prior to installing the Omax machine, prototyping was long and drawn out, with a lot of time wasted simply trying to figure out how to run the CNC equipment. “Students basically had one or two attempts at getting their designs right,” explains Nakane.
Students are exposed to the waterjet in their second year at UBC. Then the technology must be incorporated into their senior projects — building small robot cars that must run a tabletop course mapped out with electromagnetic tape. Nakane says that just as with any other engineering program, the goal is to solve specific problems. And the short time frames involved mimic how products get developed in real-world industries.
The future of North American manufacturing relies on the development of nimble, technology-driven, rapid cycle time, short production-run products, says Nakane. “The waterjet helps teach and propagate that mindset in our students.” They learn how to talk to machinists and explain how to turn designs into products. “Hands-on time with the waterjet is critical to this learning,” Nakane emphasizes.
The fabrication work is coupled with spot welding, press brakes, and other forming methods. On average, about 250 UBC students use the waterjet annually.