Cutting Edge: Senior Design Project WAZER is a Million-dollar Idea

Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics major Nisan Lerea graduated in 2012, but he is still working on his Senior Design Project: WAZER.

A low-cost, tabletop machine that can cut any material with an ultra-high pressure stream of water, Nisan devised the idea when looking for a better way to work with sheet metal as part of Penn’s FSAE racing team. Along with fellow racers Matt Nowicki, Dan Meana and Christian Moore, Nisan is now turning WAZER into a business. The team is producing its first machines after a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, notching over $1 million in pre-orders.

Below, Nisan credits his Senior Design Project experience with his success in pushing the limits of what a waterjet can do. “The work we did at Penn proved that it was possible to build a useful waterjet for less than $10,000. We learned why industrial waterjets were so expensive and what cutting performance we could expect by reducing the pump pressure and therefore lowering the cost.”

The idea of WAZER originated when we were undergraduates at Penn Engineering. The four of us were all Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM) students and were all interested in hands-on engineering — we loved to make things.

Naturally, we all joined the FSAE team where we built custom F1-style racecars each year and raced them in an international competition against other schools. This was a major part of our Penn experience — Matt even led the team for four years. We did almost all of the custom metal fabrication in-house, but unless you have industrial-scale resources, cutting hard materials is, well, hard!

Whether you’re making a racecar chassis, robot parts or a piece of art, if you’re planning on working in metal, polycarbonate, stone or ceramic, there are three main options for individuals or small businesses:

● Fashion the raw materials with hand-operated tools, which is time consuming.

● Outsource the fabrication to a shop with the proper tools, which is expensive.

● Switch to softer materials, like wood or plastic, and fabricate using existing desktop digital tools such as 3D printers or laser cutters, which means finished goods cannot be made using the proper materials.

We fabricated some of the more complex parts using CNC machines — computer-controlled tools that can cut very precise, 3D shapes. But for the frame of the car, it was easier to cut 2D parts out of sheet metal and put them together.

Aside from the complexity involved in setting up a CNC and swapping the correct cutting bits in and out, it’s hard to hold a large sheet of metal in place so it doesn’t vibrate. A laser cutter would be much easier to work with — it’s just like drawing on a piece of paper, where you just lay down a sheet, load the design, and press go — but the non-industrial-scale lasers we had access to are only strong enough to cut plastic. We ended up spending hundreds of hours cutting and shaping our sheet metal with hand tools. This was a common issue many Penn Engineering students encountered.

What we could have really used was a waterjet. Waterjets work very much like laser cutters, but by mixing abrasive particles into an extremely high-pressure stream of water, they can cut through much harder materials. Unfortunately, existing waterjets are huge and very expensive. So for my MEAM Senior Design Project in 2012, my partners and I set out to make a small-scale, low-cost waterjet for Penn Engineering to have and use.

Senior Design involves combining all of the skills students learn as Engineering undergraduates in an effort to build a useful new product or device. Working with my advisor, MEAM Lecturer Jonathan Fiene, and classmates Adam Libert, Neel Doshi, Carlee Wagner and Nick Bartlett, we researched waterjet technology and learned that industry trends had been towards higher and higher pressure (up to 90,000 psi!) in order to increase cutting power. But to accomplish this meant really expensive pumps. We found almost no data on reduced-pressure waterjets, so we tested that ourselves and found a set of operating conditions that was affordable, yet still capable of cutting through 1/4” aluminum and 1/8” steel. The end result was a waterjet proof-of-concept prototype that would go on to become WAZER.

With WAZER, you get the ease-of-use of a desktop laser cutter but with the ability to cut through any material. WAZER works by combining abrasive particles with a high-pressure water stream, which erodes through the material. Because the cutting is erosion-based, there’s no heat-affected zone, no material warping, no smoke, and no need for ventilation.

The MEAM Senior Design Project gave us the confidence that low-cost waterjet cutting was possible, but it wasn’t yet a business. After graduating, our Senior Design team mostly went its separate ways, but Matt and I ended up working together at BioLite, where we worked on off-grid energy products for camping and emerging markets. However, after WAZER received some publicity on in 2014, we started to receive interest from more than just engineers like us, but also artists, product designers, and small businesses of all sorts with custom fabrication needs. We realized there was potential.

In spring 2015, Matt and I quit our jobs to revisit my Senior Design research and turn it into a company. I remember Matt saying, “If it doesn’t work out, I will at least have built myself my own personal waterjet. So it’s a win-win.”

In January 2016, we joined HAX, the world’s first and largest hardware accelerator, hired Dan and Christian (two old Penn buddies from the FSAE team) and moved to Shenzhen, China, to work out of HAX’s office. There the team was introduced to the vast manufacturing ecosystem that exists in Southern China, which is essential to producing an affordable waterjet and democratizing the technology. However, in order to maintain a high-quality product, WAZER will be assembled in its own facility in New York. This will allow the team to have more intimate knowledge of its own product and the ability to catch and fix issues as they arrive. As a team that loves to make things (and that loves machines that make things), we want to be as actively involved the building of our product as possible.

We launched a Kickstarter campaign in September and were overwhelmed with the level of interest. We reached our $100,000 goal in less than an hour, and many of our earliest supporters have been following our progress since the 2012 Senior Design Project! When the dust settled, we had orders for roughly 300 machines netting $1.3 million.

The Kickstarter campaign gave us the support we needed to set up manufacturing operations and build up a company that can support this product. The next main milestone is delivery of our pilot units to our first Kickstarter backers. We aim to ship our first pilot units in August 2017, and have all 300 Kickstarter units delivered by the end of the year.

Also, while we’ve been focusing on the development of the physical device, our software still needs a lot of development work (we’re hiring!). At Penn, our experience with running multiple types of CNCs and laser cutters taught us the importance of having really streamlined software that makes it easy to go from design to cutting. Most machines at Penn did not have this, and our waterjet was no exception. We used off-the-shelf software that wasn’t meant for waterjet cutting and it was a pain. So another big milestone for us is to build the software that the user interacts with and controls the machine.

Once we get the initial machines out into the world, we’ll be able to learn from our users what’s most important to them. We expect to see some incredible things being made with WAZER — creations that we could have never imaged on our own. That’s what is most exciting about what we’re doing. We’ve created a unique tool that enables creativity and independence, and we can’t wait to see what people make with it!