The success of this company might be measured against the performance of its competitors: traditional machine tool companies using laser and plasma cutting technologies. “Whereas most of these companies in the industry have been down between 30 to 40 percent over the last two years, we’ve managed to grow from $195 million in 2000 to $207 million in 2001,” says Michael Ruppenthal, director of marketing for Kent, Wash.-based Flow International Corporation.
Flow is the world leader in the development and manufacture of ultrahigh-pressure (UHP) waterjet technology for cutting, cleaning, and food safety applications in core markets including aerospace, automotive, job shops, surface preparation, food processing, and pulp and paper industries. With more waterjet installations worldwide than all other waterjet companies combined, Flow can boast that its equipment processes numerous products we all use on a daily basis – from shoes and leather products, to car and aircraft engines, to orange juice and salsa.
Flow’s largest business segment is focused on the design and manufacture of waterjet machine tool equipment for material separation applications. Providing totally integrated solutions, Flow offers its customers complete systems that can combine robotics, automation, and waterjets. Waterjet cuts the materials, robotics control nozzle movement, and automation loads and unloads raw materials onto cutting tables, which Flow also manufactures.
Part of the secret to Flow’s continued healthy growth is its focus on diversified applications. “It’s the versatility of our various processes that is key in allowing us to continue to be successful,” says Ruppenthal. “So, when ship building activity is down we won’t be involved that much in providing the equipment for cleaning ship hulls. So we will focus on equipment to clean oil storage tanks or equipment for removing concrete from bridges during infrastructure rebuilding projects.”
Flow operates 10 manufacturing plants throughout the world, including Canada, the United States (three), Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Taiwan, Japan, and China. It also
operates eight technology centers worldwide, where Flow products are displayed and demonstrated. It employs 1,000 people worldwide, with 350 in its Kent, Wash., headquarters.
A lot has been happening at the company since our last visit there about two years ago. At the end of 2001, Flow launched its Dynamic Waterjet cutting system delivering remarkable and precise efficiencies exceeding those of plasma and rivaling those of laser cutting technologies. “Our advanced technologies allowed us to develop this product so our customers can achieve levels of accuracy not possible previously,” says Ruppenthal.
The Dynamic Waterjet can cut parts between 50 to 400 percent faster than a traditional flat-plate cutting machine, reducing cost-per-part by about the same percentages. Taper problems are eliminated and precision cutting of thick materials is a breeze. “This product is even more dramatic than our Waterjet Machining Center we developed about two years ago,” continues Ruppenthal.
Three fundamental components make the Dynamic Waterjet perform so effectively. Mechanical ‘mini wrists’ tilt the cutting head to produce more accurate parts at higher cutting speeds. Advanced algorithms within the control software automatically direct the machine on how to move the wrists in a given set of conditions for a given type or thickness of material. “The head needs to move one way if it’s cutting one-inch-thick stainless steel – and differently if it’s cutting six-inch-thick titanium, for example,” explains Ruppenthal. “Also, the head movements are different for cutting a square versus a circle. We have very sophisticated mathematical models telling the head how it needs to move to cut faster and more precisely than a conventional waterjet.”
The third component of the Dynamic Waterjet (with patent pending) is the software controlling the process, called FlowMaster. “The operator doesn’t need any specialized training because the operation of it is virtually invisible to the operator,” says Ruppenthal.Another hallmark of the Flow development and manufacturing process are the global concurrent engineering teams used to advance new technologies. “We used collaborative teams of engineers in Asia, Europe and the United States. This is an example of how we keep ahead of the competition – and why people continue to want to buy our products,” Ruppenthal says. The Dynamic Waterjet took over four years to develop and thousands of engineering hours of concurrent teamwork.
Always searching for newer applications for waterjetting, Flow is now applying its waterjet technologies to milling and hole drilling. “We can drill holes a lot better and more reliably with waterjets than with other technologies,” says Ruppenthal. One such application is the Joint Strike Fighter Program. “Holes need to be put into the engine for cooling purposes because one of the problems with these high-performance jet engines is that the temperature of the burning fuel is higher than the melting point of the metal the engine is made of.” Drilling multiple holes helps keep the metal cool.
Other applications in the cutting side of the company’s business include peening to improve fatigue life in critical components such as automobile engines, jet engines and suspension components used in trucks and buses.No matter where in the world Flow equipment is located, diagnostic troubleshooting is just a phone call away. FlowLink, launched mid-2001, is a software service for cutting machines. “It allows us to remotely diagnose a customer’s machine,” explains Ruppenthal. “If a machine is having a problem in Venezuela, all we have to do is call into that machine and take a look at it from here in Washington. Sometimes we can fix the problem using the phone line – or we can suggest to the customer what they might need to do to fix it. Or we can send a service technician equipped with all the necessary parts to fix the problem.”
On the cleaning, or surface preparation, side of the business, Flow recently increased pressures of its pumps from 45,000 psi to 55,000 psi. “Increased pressure means increased productivity in all of our businesses – this means higher productivity up to twice as fast,” Ruppenthal says. Such applications include cleaning ship hulls and oil storage tanks, paint removal from oil platforms, and periodical removal of ceramic coatings on jet engines in order for new coatings to be applied.
Fresher Under Pressure
As consumers become more knowledgeable and more demanding about food safety, high-pressure food production is more in demand. Fresher Under Pressure™ allows foods to retain their fresh qualities – including original textures, colors and nutritional values – without the need to be frozen or subjected to heat, chemicals or irradiation. Fresher Under Pressure technology uses pressures up to 100,000 psi to eliminate harmful food-borne pathogens and microorganisms.
“We recently purchased a company in Sweden to help with the capacity of this part of our business and we can now manufacture food safety equipment in Europe,” says Ruppenthal. “We expect that revenues from this product will continue to double each year over the next five years because it’s a need that continues as consumers demand processes that don’t change the flavor or nutritional value of their foods.” Flow expects unlimited potential in this area due to consumers’ skepticism over other methods and the ever increasing desire for food safety.
Flow anticipates a continued bright future for a number of reasons. One is that it is the only company in the world totally devoted to UHP technology. “We have an unrelenting drive to continue to advance our technology and that’s what sets us apart from our competitors,” Ruppenthal says .”Another thing that distinguishes us dramatically from other companies our size is our global acceptance. We make our products in the countries where we will be selling the products – rather than taking an American product and having to Europeanize it.”
Flow plans to continue to be the global leader of UHP technology. “We are the alternative to competitive technologies and as industries use more and more exotic materials and composite metals, there just isn’t another efficient method to machine those metals other than waterjetting,” concludes Ruppenthal. “So we will continue to be more and more competitive and take increasing amounts of market share from companies using conventional processes.”