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Cutting Parts at the Speed of NASCAR

June/July 2012

Situated in a refurbished movie theater in Cornelius, N.C., Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) seems, at first glance, closer to the NASCAR version of a theme park – minus the rides – than a high-tech racing facility.

Beyond the gift shop and the lobby with its large TV display screens showing footage for the team that MWR supports, guests are treated to a catwalk view of all the engineering action that takes place in the facility. Tours are also provided, and the sheer number of cars that are available to see up close would excite any NASCAR fan.

But MWR’s sole purpose is not entertainment. It’s to help its team win.

In NASCAR racing, speed is all-important. Whoever has the fastest car wins the race – it’s almost always guaranteed. But many NASCAR fans might not be aware of the fact that speed is not just important on the track, but off it, too.

This lesser known need-for-speed comes from the often week-to-week rules changes on the specifications of the racing cars. To be in compliance, parts that meet the new codes have to be fabricated on a last minute basis.

“NASCAR racing is all about NOW,” says Michael Waltrip, co-owner of MWR and famed NASCAR racer. “To be competitive, we got to have it NOW.”

To make it happen now, the production and engineering crews of MWR have an incredible tool at their disposal – a 4 ft. by 8 ft. Jet Edge High Rail Gantry Waterjet with an X-Stream 90K pump.

This waterjet is what helps MWR meet those extremely tight deadlines created by the frequent rule changes. Jeremy Vanderleest, MWR’s waterjet operator, illustrates just how quick the turnaround can be: “Right now, I’m working on a part to go on a car for this weekend to go to Darlington – the NACA ducts that draw air through the right-side window.

“They were too far back and NASCAR finally came up with a specific measurement, so we have to move all of them forward. It’s only a quarter inch, but we have to redo the whole framework for it to work.

“So, I’ll have them done here today, they’ll be on the car tomorrow, and it’ll be on the race track on Friday.”

Certain features of the Jet Edge High Rail Gantry Waterjet are what specifically enable MWR and Vanderleest to keep up with the quick turnaround, one of them being the X-Stream 90K pump. About a year after MWR installed the waterjet, they upgraded from a 60,000 PSI pump to their current 90,000 PSI pump.

On the upgrade, technical director Nick Hughes says, “The increased pressure on the pump has broadened the scope of what we’re able to do with the waterjet and what kind of materials we can put on it. It’s increased our productivity, because we can cut certain parts more quickly, in addition to being able to cut through thicker materials in a more timely manner.

“It’s definitely been a big step forward for us.”

Vanderleest also says that the upgraded pump increases his ability to effectively work under time constraints. “With the X-Stream 90K, I’m cutting 30 to 40 percent faster. That adds up to about the equivalent of a week of extra work that’s being done with that speed boost.”

Beyond the increased speed to finish parts, another thing that’s important to MWR is consistency and precision. With the car specifications relegated by NASCAR, parts have to be precise every time, and the waterjet helps them accomplish this.

“Before the waterjet, a lot of the sheet-metal components for the cars would have been hand fabricated, leading to a lot of variation from one part to another,” comments Hughes. “Now, we’re able to waterjet those and gain a lot more consistency. So we’re at the point where if you were to put any two of our cars on the floor side by side, they’re almost identical.”

Hughes also mentions the fact that since their engineering teams try to squeeze as much performance out of the cars as possible by keeping the weight down, the precision of the waterjet is important because it allows them to use as thin as material as possible.

“The waterjet helps us to sort of push the limit a little bit harder and get the weight out of the parts that really need them,” he says.

Just as it also increases their consistency and precision, the Jet Edge waterjet also helps MWR to further increase productivity when it comes to machining parts.

“It speeds up the machining process a lot,” says Vanderleest. “We’re able to rough it out on the waterjet and then just do the couple final cuts to get it to the desired dimensions.”

Hughes mentions that not only do they spend significantly less time roughing out blanks, but cut parts from the waterjet lack the hardened edge that they had been getting before using other methods of cutting.

“Anything that comes off the waterjet, we can usually finish quite easily,” points out Hughes.

The features of the waterjet already discussed definitely help MWR to get parts done quickly, but another benefit that they enjoy is simply the fact that they have the machine in-house.

“For us, having the waterjet in-house is very easy to justify, because we keep the throughput on that thing very high,” says Hughes. “And from a cost perspective, too, it’s well worth having it here, as we’re able to juggle different parts on it.

“Every weekend that goes by that we can’t put a new part onto the car is sort of a missed opportunity. So really we want to be able to, if we come up with a new part or a new idea, put that onto the car as quickly as we possibly can.”

Vanderleest also mentions the fact that having the waterjet in-house allows them greater secrecy.

“We’re able to do whatever we want without an outside vendor looking at what we’re doing,” he says. “It’s hard to keep secrets in this sport – being able to keep everything in-house means that there are fewer eyes on it. If we do find something that works well, with having the waterjet in-house, we can maybe keep the secret a little bit longer than usual.”

Waltrip agrees that it’s beneficial having the machine in-house.

“With the waterjet in-house, we get improvements to our cars and to the track sooner,” he says. “That’s probably the most important thing to me as a race car driver. I want my car to be fast this Sunday. And if they say we have this new part, and it’s going to make me faster, but we can’t have it for three weeks, then I’ll say, ‘Well, that sucks. I want it now!’ And with the waterjet, I have it now.

“Not only that, but there is just so much in cost savings through being able to cut out several pieces at once. We have multiple cars, and over a thousand parts for them come out of that machine. With the waterjet, we can cut a lot of them out at once, and it just saves a lot of time and money.”

The Jet Edge waterjet helps MWR to get parts done at the speed they need – the speed of NASCAR. With the X-Stream 90K pump, they can cut through a variety of materials quickly, allowing them a versatility that helps parts to get on cars in time for “this Sunday.” Not only that, but the waterjet offers the precision and consistency to do it right every time.

“I know our cars are better,” says Waltrip, and when asked if he feels that the waterjet has helped them to achieve that, he responds, “I know it has.”

Jet Edge Waterjet Systems