A ship needs re-surfacing and repainting. Industrial rolls of paper need cutting and shaping into baby diapers. Boeing 777 wings need cutting, shaping, and drilling. Foods need fresh and safe processing. Flow International Corporation is there, there, there and there. This Kent, Wash., company is the world’s leader in the development and manufacture of ultrahigh-pressure (UHP) waterjet technology for cleaning, cutting, shaping and food safety applications used in industries representing Flow’s six core markets in aerospace, automotive, food, pulp and paper, job shops, and surface preparation.
Articles we take for granted in our daily lives have, at one point, been processed with Flow’s waterjet technology shaping items, from car interior and exterior trim parts, to shoes and other leather products, to toilet paper and paper towels, to a wide range of foods.“Waterjet technology is unique,” says Ron Tarrant, Flow’s chairman, president, and CEO. “The key to our overall long-term strategy is to provide totally integrated solutions to our customers worldwide. We tie the entire process together with our robotics, automation, and waterjets.” The waterjet is the nozzle that cuts, the robotics control the movement of the nozzle, and the automation loads and unloads the raw materials onto cutting tables, which Flow also manufactures.
Waterjets: Versatile Machine Tools
When water of 60,000 psi is forced through a tiny opening, it can cut through soft materials such as paper, rubber and baby diapers. Mixed with small amounts of abrasive such as garnet, the intense waterjet stream easily cuts hard materials such as metal, stone and glass.
Versatility is the key to UHP waterjet cutting and surface preparation solutions, versus other technologies. Flow’s robotically controlled and lightweight waterjets offer significant savings in setup time, allowing customers to cut 1/2-inch-thick aluminum in the morning and three-inch-thick glass in the afternoon with the click of a mouse. “With other technologies, if you’re cutting aluminum, you have to make some significant tooling changes if you then want to cut stone or glass,” says Tarrant.
But designing technologically advanced cutting systems is not the end of Flow’s story. The company also designs proprietary software programs, such as its FlowMaster® system, to make its equipment work faster, more efficiently and more cost effectively. “FlowMaster® is uniquely designed for waterjet machining, distinguished from traditional CNC drives and controls,” explains Tarrant. “A customer can take his drawing and load it into our software. He or she then enters predetermined water costs, abrasive costs, floor space costs, operator costs, and overhead costs. The customer then tells our software what material needs to be cut and how thick it is. With the click of a button, our software will show exactly how much it will cost to cut that part. Push another button, and the part is cut.”
A formidable challenger against leading laser-, EDM, and plasma-cutting companies, Flow is clearly focused on its leadership course. “We are the technological leaders in the industry, with more waterjet installations than all other waterjet companies combined,” says Tarrant. “We consistently introduce patented breakthroughs, and we have more patents than our competitors.” Flow is true to its leadership mission, with twice as many products, more installations and more engineering manpower than all competitors combined.
Flow’s revolutionary new market contender is its Waterjet Machining Center™ (WMC), a superior waterjet machine tool that challenges plasma- and laser-cutting technologies. This new machine tool reduces operating costs while increasing productivity by more than 25 percent, compared with previous waterjets. This exceptional productivity is due to the WMC’s system enhancements, including an energy-efficient garnet removal and recycling system, a breakaway nozzle and capabilities to follow irregular materials. Faster cutting speeds are achieved through the center’s fully integrated cutting head utilizing a height and collision sensor.
The development of the WMC is an example of the company’s innovative concurrent engineering, which renders the world a virtual unified engineering department. It is the company’s first globally developed product with one worldwide standard. “Its development is remarkable because our engineers here in the States, in Europe and in Asia collaborated, on a 24-hour basis, using the Internet and other communications links,” says Tarrant. “This significantly reduced the product development time, and we were able to bring the product to market much quicker. And we built on the collective strengths of our worldwide engineering team.”
Fresher Under Pressure™
Flow’s sterling reputation in UHP technology is now reaping benefits in the food preparation industry, making food purists worldwide rejoice. “Our Fresher Under Pressure™ system is a totally unique concept to food safety,” says Tarrant. Although the benefits of high pressures in the production of foods have been known for over a century, only recently has the technology become practicable for these applications requiring efficient and reliable pressures. “Since we don’t take anything out of the food, we don’t have to put back anything such as color enhancers or Vitamins C or D,” says Tarrant. Foods undergoing Fresher Under Pressure™ retain their fresh qualities, including their original textures, colors and nutritional values, without the need to be frozen or subjected to heat, chemicals or irradiation. With food safety being the third most important concern to Americans, Flow is optimistic about its future in this field.
Flow’s Fresher Under Pressure™ technology was designed to eliminate harm-ful food-borne pathogens and microorganisms. Foods undergo UHP in batch production (of packaged foods) or in pumpable applications with foods such as orange juice, salsa, baby food, salad dressing and purees. Foods are subjected to pressures up to 100,000 psi. “Juices, fruits, and other foods that are Fresher Under Pressure™ can have shelf lives of up to several weeks, rather than several days, and they taste as good as when just picked,” says Tarrant.
Flow recently developed a raw-oyster processing system that kills bacteria common to oysters. “There is no heat involved in this process,” explains Rick Marshall, vice president of new business development. “Even raw, these oysters will have a shelf life of weeks.” An unexpected and welcome byproduct of this technology is Flow’s discovery, that when oysters are subjected to these ultrahigh pressures, the membrane attaching the oyster to the shell is broken so they are shucked automatically. “Up to this time, the only way to shuck oysters was with a knife. This means a lot to oyster processors, who appreciate the safety factor in addition to savings in time,” says Marshall.
Flow’s fastest-growing market is its food safety equipment. Fiscal 2000 is expected to harvest revenues of $7 million to $10 million, and revenues are expected to double in each of the next three years.
Technology/Total Solutions/Proprietary SoftwareReasons for Flow’s continued leadership are threefold. “Our bedrock is technological leadership,” says Tarrant. “We were the first waterjet company around and we’ve done more than anyone in the industry to advance the technology.” Secondly, Flow is a total-solutions supplier. “We acquired robotics and factory automation companies worldwide so our equipment is designed, integrated and backed by one company,” explains Tarrant. “And we are the only waterjet company in the world and one of the few machine tools companies that can offer this.” Thirdly, Flow’s proprietary software controlling the robotics completes the turnkey philosophy.
The ISO-9001-certified company employs 1,000 people worldwide in its 11 divisions. The Washington corporate headquarters encompasses 155,000 square feet, in addition to a separate 15,000-square-foot facility at that location which houses laboratories, testing facilities, specialty machine shops and offices. One recent acquisition is a Swedish company, Flow Pressure Systems, that manufactures pressure vessels. This significant acquisition is active in batch UHP and continuous production UHP in Flow’s food safety offerings. Another recent acquisition, Flow Automated Systems in Michigan, enhances the company’s robotics capabilities. During the last year and a half, Flow invested about $4 million in capital equipment for machine and fabrication shops.
Flow enjoyed significant upturns in revenues over the last seven years, with double-digit growth until last year, when about 25 percent of its profits were reinvested into developing the company’s food technology. Revenues for fiscal year ending April 1999 were $148 million. Flow markets its products worldwide through a direct sales force and through a network of distributors. Sales outside North America account for 50 percent of the company’s revenues. A rapid-growth company, Flow has grown from $40 million to $160 million in revenues just in the last eight years.
Waterjet Technology: Watermark Future
Flow looks toward a future of core-market expansion. “One of our goals is to continue to mean more to our customers in each of our core markets,” says Tarrant. “For example, we cut the interior trim eight years ago for an automotive supplier, and that’s all we did for them. Then we offered them dashboards, and then bumpers, and then composite parts like trunk liners. We will soon do engine and transmission parts. We want to continue to develop our technology so we can mean more to that customer.” Flow intends to use that inclusive philosophy in each of its six core markets.
“Waterjet technology is the fastest-growing machine tool technology in the world, and we have clearly positioned ourselves as the dominant waterjet company in the world,” concludes Tarrant. “We see our role as continuing to expand in the machine tool industry.” Will it become the dominant machine tool technology? “We like to think so.”