Device uses water to carve niche in industry Laser-guided water-jet does sculptor's handiwork

October 23, 1991|By Deborah I. Greene | Deborah I. Greene,Carroll County Bureau of The Sun

WESTMINSTER — A photo caption in The Sun yesterday with an article about a water-jet machine used to cut marble incorrectly identified Tom Ward. Mr. Ward is supervising engineer for the U.S. Capitol.

The Sun regrets the errors.

WESTMINSTER -- It took centuries for the Colorado River to carve out the great stone barriers of the Grand Canyon.

But in the workshops of Laser Applications Inc., only a moment passed as twice the force of raging waters sliced into cold, hard marble as if it were a slab of lard.

The water-jet, a machine that promises to revolutionize manufacturing, sputtered steam and whirled into action yesterday as it cut the marble into designs that rivaled the handiwork of any sculptor or craftsman. And, in less time and for less money, too.


John F. Hardtke Jr., a marble draftsman for Hilgartner Natural Stone Co. of Baltimore, watched the machine effortlessly

accomplish what a draftsman needs a keen eye for art and a deft blow with a chisel and hammer to do.

"This is amazing," Mr. Hardtke said, his chin in his palm. "It's hard to imagine that you can take something [an image] from a floppy disk and it can come out a finished product in a just a few minutes."

At Mr. Hardtke's suggestion, Hilgartner plans to use the new technology in a $20,000 contract to cut elaborate marble floors for three elevators on the House side of the Capitol in Washington.

The pattern for the floors is an intricate mosaic of stark white Georgian marble and Tennessee Imperial Black marble that matches to the grain the stone floor placed decades ago in the lobby of the elevators.

The work is scheduled to be done sometime after Thanksgiving when Congress is in recess.

Mr. Hardtke has even proposed using the water-jet as a "trump card" in Hilgartner's bid for two major contracts, a marble bust of George Bush for the Rotunda in the Capitol and a multicolored marble map of the state of Ohio.

Since the 1930s, stonecutters have used compressed water to carve chunks of rock in quarries. A handful of companies still use the rough-edge of the technology to cut large portions of steel or alloys like those used in space rockets. Laser Applications has fine-tuned the process and devised a way to use the water-jet to cut curlicues, sharp indentations and intricate patterns never before achieved with traditional masonry or metal tools.

A 75-horsepower engine generates the energy that thrusts water through the water-jet's pump at 60,000 pounds per square inch or about twice the speed of sound. The water travels through a web of tubes to a small sapphire point, like that of a ball-point pen, and is mixed with fine, sandlike material. That material combines with the high-velocity water at the point, which is held by a mechanical arm guided by a laser following a computer-generated pattern.

Laser Applications has plied its trade for 13 years, but only recently decided to market its technology to the general manufacturer, said Jim Wollenwebber, sales engineer.

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