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Plasma Maintenance – Improving Air Plasma Torch Consumable Parts Performance

March 2013

Advances in technology that affect cut quality, productivity and cost per foot of cut

With the rapidly increasing population of low-cost CNC plasma cutting machines that utilize air plasma cutting systems, I’m hearing many questions regarding how to implement the best practices to improve performance of these machines.

It’s interesting to me, because the new wave of low-cost or entry-level CNC plasma’s are initiating a déjà-vu moment with someone like me, being in this mechanized plasma cutting industry for over 35 years.

We’ve already solved many of the issues associated with short consumable life: cut edge angularity, dross, part warpage, productivity, etc. in more expensive industrial-CNC-plasma systems. This was accomplished with major advancements in technology. Unfortunately, the majority of improvements in the industrial-plasma systems technology will not be feasible with machines that are designed to be extremely price conscious.

In this article I’ll explore the consumable parts used in the business end of an air plasma cutting torch. I’ll look at what each part’s primary function is, how they differ in technology between brands and how to get the best performance from them.

The above illustration shows the components or consumables as used in the latest technology air-plasma torches. These parts are used in a Hypertherm Powermax65 for mechanized cutting. All of these parts are called consumables, because they are easily (no tools) replaceable parts in the torch. But in reality, only the nozzle and the electrode are the most commonly replaced components.

This particular torch is a shielded technology plasma torch meaning there is a copper shield that is electrically isolated (screws on the composite threads on the front of the retaining cap) from the nozzle.

A shielded technology torch was developed to allow hand torches to drag cut without the nozzle “double arcing” to the plate. Double arcing would cause the torch to stick to the plate while drag cutting and would also cause arcing damage to the nozzle orifice that affected cut quality in terms of severe edge angularity.

The shielded technology was later adapted to mechanized torches to allow for longer nozzle life and thicker piercing capabilities. Another recent shield iteration is Hypertherm’s Conical Flow technology that uses the inner shape of the shield along with the conical outer shape of the nozzle to assist with plasma arc constriction, velocity and cooling to further improve air-plasma cut quality and consumable parts life.

Most older technology air-plasma torches are unshielded, meaning that the nozzle is exposed as the closest component to the metal being cut. These torch types will prove to have considerably shorter nozzle life, along with poor cut edge angularity and dross. For best performance at power levels above 30 amps, it’s best to use a shielded torch for mechanized plasma cutting.

Function of each consumable

Shield

The shield on the latest technology plasma torches has a few functions. First, it’s designed to electrically isolate the nozzle from arcing or contact with the plate, allowing the nozzle to last from six to 10 times longer than a torch with an exposed nozzle design. Second, the shield (on some Hypertherm torches) is used to improve cut edge squareness by improving arc energy density in conjunction with the nozzle shape.

A third function, only used on some CNC machines, is the use of the shield as a plates surface sensor. This technology is known as Ohmic Contact and works in conjunction with the CNC machines height-control system to electrically locate the part surface that is then used to calibrate the height-control system, so the torch height can be accurately controlled for both pierce and cut heights.

Shields used for hand cutting are different than shields used for machine cutting. The hand cutting shields are slightly longer (about 0.060 in.) and have slots or castelations on the front end that allow the arc length to be correct when dragging directly on the plate, making for easy hand cutting. Machine shields have a smooth face (less spatter buildup) and are of shorter length to allow for proper standoff distance when used with an arc-voltage-based height-control system.

The shield can be cleaned with an abrasive pad, such as Scotch-Brite, and as long as the center nozzle hole is perfectly round and the air bleed holes are not plugged, it will operate properly. If the holes are plugged or the center bore is out of round expect cut edge angularity variations. It’s not uncommon for the shield to last for months of use before replacement is necessary.

Retaining cap

The retaining cap is primarily used to retain all of the internal consumables in the torch, as well as to electrically insulate them from the operator for safety reasons. On most higher technology torches the retaining cap routes the air flow for the shield and provides it with an insulated, threaded mount.

On some brands of plasma torches, the shield is either called a cup or Shield Cup and is often made from a ceramic material. Newer technology torches have a shield made from a glass filled fiber material, along with copper and high temperature thermoplastics for conductivity and insulation as required.

With the exception of the ceramic cups (which are fragile) used on some torches, the modern air plasma retaining caps are very durable and often last months or years before replacement. The retaining cap should be replaced when the shield threads get burned, cracked or otherwise damaged. Internal plugging or cracking of the air passages in a retaining cap can also cause cuts with edge angularity issues. Machines that have the Ohmic Plate Sensing capability will use a special ohmic retaining cap with a wire terminal for making the process functional.

Nozzle

The nozzle appears to be a very simple copper part in a plasma cutting torch. However, when you consider that its primary function is to constrict or squeeze a 25,000 degree F ionized gas arc into a narrow column of high velocity gas — yet copper melts at around 1,000 degrees F — then you start to realize the design physics involved in making a nozzle that can last for hundreds of feet of metal cutting!

The nozzle function is to do just that: take the superheated plasma gas and increase its velocity while shaping it into a tubular column. This hot gas then transfers to the plate being cut, which melts, and the molten metal is ejected from the bottom of the plate by the gas velocity. Another function of the nozzle is to create the arc initiation point inside the torch, as well as helping to control the velocity of the shield gasses in the Hypertherm conical flow technology torches.

In most cutting applications the nozzle is the part that is replaced most often. Typically with a good technology shielded, conical-flow torch design you can expect one to three hours of arc-on time. This will vary with the power level as well as the material thickness being cut.

Often with the best technology torches you can expect anywhere between 500 and about 1600 cut cycles (start and stop) before the nozzle orifice is damaged to the point that cut quality is affected, which can often result in hundreds of feet of material being cut. When you do the math, even if a nozzle costs $5, it costs only a small fraction of a cent per foot of cut.

Many of the lower technology torches will have lower purchase price nozzles, but will experience as little as 1/10th the life of the best technology torches. With these systems the purchase price for nozzles is lower, but the cost per foot of cut is dramatically higher, resulting in higher cutting costs. Note: in some plasma torches the nozzle is called a tip, however this can get confusing as users often call the shield and the electrode a tip as well!

Electrode

The electrode in a plasma cutting torch, at least the ones that have excellent life, can be considered an engineering marvel. This part is the negative output of the plasma power supply, so it’s where the plasma arc actually starts then passes through the nozzle orifice and attaches to the positive plate being cut.

In an air-plasma torch, this electrode absorbs a good amount of the heat load from the process. You will notice on better technology electrodes a spiral groove heat exchanger on the upper end and a small slug of silver colored hafnium (an earth element that serves as a great electron emitter) on the lower end. So the electrode is the starting point of the arc and has to remain relatively cool inside the hot inner chamber of the torch. When more heat is applied, you can expect shorter life.

Electrodes in the better technology torches will last typically two to three times as long as the nozzle, and in lower technology torches will last closer to one to one with the nozzles. There is some relatively new electrode technology called Copper Plus that has a unique method of automatically feeding the hafnium insert forward as the electrode wears. These new electrodes further increase consumable parts life, reducing the cost per foot of the process even more.

Swirl ring

The swirl ring in a latest technology plasma torch has a variety of functions. Simpler technology torches use the swirl ring (as its name implies) to swirl the air flow before it enters the nozzle orifice. This swirling effectively minimizes the plasma cut edge angularity on the right side of the kerf (as the torch is moving away from you) and increases the angularity on the left side of the kerf.

Torches with better technology also use the swirl ring to insulate the nozzle from the electrode as well as to align these parts with perfect concentricity for better cut edge angularity. Further, in a Hypertherm air-plasma torch, the swirl ring acts as a bearing that allows forward and backward movement of the electrode to ensure efficient arc starting and pilot arc initiation. It also meters the air flow to the nozzle orifice ensuring consistent energy at the arc.

Swirl rings in the best tech torches typically last for months or years. Over time the wear on a swirl ring can cause cut edge angularity issues and or misfiring of the torch, either of which can indicate that it’s time for replacement.

The key things to consider to maintain the integrity of the plasma torch and its ability to cut fast, clean and with excellent cut quality are:

  • Always use genuine consumables that are manufactured by your torches’ provider. Minor material changes as well as stack-up tolerance variables can and will affect the delicate balance of physics in a plasma torch and will usually result in poor performance, short life and possibly torch damage.
  • Ensure that your compressed air supply is clean, dry and oil free. If necessary, install moisture separators, dryers and or filters and drain your compressor tank often.
  • Follow the plasma system manufacturers cut specs exactly. Piece height, pierce delay time, cut height, cut-amperage arc voltage, air pressure and cut speed are critical to cut quality and consumable life.

Hypertherm Inc.