Engineering majors are among the most commonly held by CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. While having an agile mind and an enviable work ethic can get someone through a challenging engineering program, it doesn’t guarantee they’ll head a big company and make millions of dollars. Regardless of their eventual position or the size of their bank account, these are the folks driving innovation.
Hitting the Fortune 500 might not exactly be on the radar for Nisan Lerea, a former University of Pennsylvania engineering student, but his head is in the right place. Lerea, co-founder and CEO of Wazer (short for “water laser”), and his business partner, Matthew Nowicki, co-founder and CTO, began developing what equates to a desktop waterjet machine while they were students. Currently, they’re in the process (along with a couple dozen employees) of producing the machines for release later this year.
The idea for the desktop waterjet came to the pair while they were working on the university’s Formula SAE team, producing parts for a racecar, which required precision cuts in hard metals. The university didn’t have the sheet metal cutting equipment they needed, so for his senior design project, Lerea and a few other students began to devise a solution.
“In 2012, we decided to build a small, affordable waterjet for the school since we didn’t have one,” Lerea says. “I partnered with Nowicki in 2015 to start the company.”
At that time, the only way to produce the metal parts they needed was with a giant waterjet machine with a price tag of a $100,000 or more – certainly overkill for their needs. The existing waterjet companies, Lerea says, were busy competing with each other, producing larger machines and higher pressure heads for faster cutting.
“That limits them to certain production environments in certain industries like automotive and aerospace and anyone producing large batches,” he explains. “The waterjet makers were overlooking the massive, wide array of industries that need to fabricate custom sheet metal on a small scale. And that’s where we fit in: low-volume production work and the type of prototyping engineers need before going into full production. There was no one offering that, but that was the exact type of need we had as students at an engineering school.”
As Lerea envisioned, the printer-size waterjet machine is not going to be a high-production workhorse like its larger cousins that pump out 90,000 psi. But that doesn’t mean a high-volume shop couldn’t include a Wazer waterjet in its arsenal. Lerea says the target audience is quite vast, as the product can be used for prototyping for such industrial heavyweights as those in the automotive and aerospace industries.
For example, engineers are constantly tweaking designs and looking for areas to improve, but halting production to work on a prototype isn’t an ideal situation in a competitive marketplace. With the Wazer, Lerea says, it’s easy to do a short run of 10 or 20 units to validate a design.
“It could also be used to create fixtures or handle repairs around your facility,” Lerea says. “On top of that, it’s hard for an engineer to get the time they need on the larger waterjet or laser because those machines are booked all day for production. It’s difficult for an engineer to get the technician to stop and break down their setup to do a small part, but for $7,500 – the cost of a Wazer waterjet – an engineer can have access to largely the same capabilities.”
Lerea categorizes the target audience into three distinct “buckets,” the first being industrial users, such as those in the tool and die industry or any manufacturer that fabricates metal. The second bucket is academia – colleges and technical schools. The third bucket includes artisans that work with a variety of materials, such as people producing jewelry, stained glass, interior design products and tile work.
Lerea is upfront about the Wazer waterjet’s limitations; it’s not the same as an industrial machine. It has a 2-hp pump, so it takes more time to make cuts and it requires more abrasive. The cutting speed had the Wazer team worried at first, but beta testing with customers has proven that worry to be baseless.
“For the use cases,” Lerea says, “if you’re prototyping, you’re not counting pennies because your time is much more valuable if you can get through one, two or three iteration cycles in a week. In those situations, time isn’t usually a factor.”
For example, on 1/4-in. aluminum, the Wazer waterjet works at a cutting speed of 0.9 ipm. End users can cut 6 ft. per hour and it will cost around $10 in consumable parts, mostly the abrasive. Therefore, in a high-volume production scenario, bringing the Wazer in wouldn’t make sense, but to have a machine dedicated to one-off parts and prototypes would.
“Every manufacturing facility,” he says, “even if they’re doing high-volume production, has some sort of tool shop or prototyping lab. There is always someone tinkering on a bracket here or a part there to try to improve the end product. It’s kind of like a modern-day bandsaw that is digital and precise. You can design a part on a computer, send it to the machine, press go and walk away.”
When asked about the small pump, Lerea says that having a machine that can be plugged into a regular outlet is a major perk. A 110-V, 15-amp outlet is all that’s required.
It’s also a quiet machine. A conversation at normal volumes can take place in close proximity of the machine. Lerea has even been interviewed on camera in front of an operating machine with no audio difficulties. Despite its relative quiet nature compared to industrial size waterjets, Lerea says it does produce some noise – it’s for a shop environment, not an office.
Since its inception, the Wazer waterjet has gone through a significant amount of redesign, mostly related to usability and scale. The goal was for it to be small enough to place on a desktop – a unit that is compact and contained.
From a usability standpoint, Lerea and his team added a feature for collecting spent abrasive. In a typical waterjet machine, abrasive collects at the bottom of the tank in a bed that has to be removed to drain the water shovel out the abrasive. The engineers at Wazer, however, wanted to remove all of the manual labor involved with traditional waterjets.
“We developed a system to suction up used abrasive and put it in buckets housed within the tank,” Lerea says of their method, which requires no disassembly. “Usability features like that were really important to us. In that vein, we have web-based software where you can import your drawing file, and within a minute or two, it spits out a G code file that you can load on to the machine. We wanted to streamline the workflow and get from design to cutting as quickly as possible. It’s more like a printer and less like an intimidating piece of equipment.”
Unlike a printer, however, the unit is plenty durable. Lerea says his team has been putting hundreds of hours on models at their facility.
“It’s going to be a machine that will survive thousands of hours,” he says, “as long as it receives regular maintenance, of course.”
Aside from the abrasive, the cutting bed will need to be replaced every 50 hours. The cutting head, however, is rated to last around 300 hours, and the pump is “on the order of hundreds if not thousands of hours,” Lerea says.
The Wazer crew is still highly focused on their inaugural unit, which they’re busy filling pre-orders for now. The engineering team has also segued into the tech support team, supporting customers who might need assistance with any issues they might have in the field.
All Wazer waterjet machines come with a six-month warranty, but a lifetime of free email and phone support is available, as well. Lerea adds that the Wazer team offers remote diagnoses that should lead to adequate self-service, but if there is something that can’t be handled remotely, the machine only weighs 100 lbs. and can be shipped back to the Wazer headquarters for repair.
“We’ll even send them the packaging so they can box it up,” he says.