Sunday, November 9, 2014

Waterjetting 27a - Cutting materials with internal stress

Safety glass, or toughened glass is typically designed so that, when it fails it will break into small pieces with few of the relatively sharp, and thus dangerous, fragments formed by ordinary glass. It is used in making shower doors, and automobile windows. As such is differs from laminated glass (which I will discuss in a later post in this section). The toughened glass is formed by quickly cooling the glass, after it has been heated. And one way to check if a sheet has been treated this way is to look at it through polarized sunglasses. Tempered glass will show a pattern. The reason for that, and for the rapidity of the breakup of the glass, is that the lines show the internal stresses that the glass treatment deliberately leaves in the material. (There is an interesting variation on this way to tell the difference using an iPhone.)

Figure 1. Broken pieces of tempered glass, showing the small fragments that result. (Floydglass)

Because the treatment puts the outer parts of the glass into compression, while the inner part is in tension once cracks start to appear in the glass, then the glass is designed so that these stresses will cause the cracks to grow, bifurcate and join in patterns that cause the glass to shatter into less dangerous fragments. But this creates a considerable problem if there is a need to reshape the glass after it has been heat-treated.

Note that this treatment is the opposite of the result where glass is annealed, where – by cooling the glass at a slow rate – the internal stresses are much reduced, but as a result, when the glass breaks the fragments can be more damaging.

Figure 2. Sheets of annealed glass, showing how it may break from impact. (ADMglass)

Annealed glass is, as a general rule, relatively easy to cut with an abrasive waterjet system provided that certain simple precautions are taken. However, when it comes to cutting tempered glass, one of the suggestions is to anneal it first, so as to get rid of the internal stresses. Unfortunately, in the process this also removes the benefits of the tempered treatment.

When one tries, without other treatment, to cut tempered glass the results are not pretty. Edgar Hernandez has posted a video of what can be expected to happen.

The problem goes back to the basic way in which waterjets, and abrasive waterjets work in cutting through material. Simplistically waterjet impact will penetrate the cracks that exist in a target surface; the following slug of water then pressurizes the water within the crack, causing it to grow. As cracks get longer it takes less and less pressure, either internally within the crack, or in the surrounding material, for that crack to grow catastrophically to failure of the piece. Where there are relatively few natural cracks in the material – as happens with glass – then abrasive is introduced into the waterjet stream, so that the impact of the small particles will form small cracks when they hit the glass surface. Normally those cracks are relatively small, and when first cutting into or piercing the glass the pressure of the jet is often lowered so that the particle speed is also lower and the crack length that the particles create is also small and localized around the impact point, so that the integrity of the whole piece is not threatened.

Figure 3. Cracks around the impact of single particles of abrasive onto glass.

The problem, from a cutting aspect, with tempered glass is that the internal stresses that are deliberately placed into the glass are designed so that cracks do not have to be very long before the concentrated stress at the crack tip (which increases with crack length) reaches a point where it will continue to grow at an increasing rate to failure of the piece. The longest cut we have made in tempered glass before it shattered was about an inch-and-a-half.

Because the stress in the glass is an inherent part of the nature of that particular type of glass there is no really effective way of cutting the material, after it has been tempered. If a particular shape is required then the glass should be cut to final shape before it is tempered, and care should be taken to ensure that there aren’t any large cracks or chips along the edge of the glass before it is then tempered.

Stress problems aren’t restricted, however, to trying to cut tempered glass. When cutting larger pieces of metal one can also run into problems from stresses that were left in the material after it was initially formed. Perhaps the most common of these is found where a partial cut allows a stressed part to lift slightly above the plane of the rest of the material. If the part is being cut in steps, the raised piece can then move into the path of the cutting nozzle as it moves back over the piece. This can have some unfortunate consequences for the nozzle and focusing tube (there goes bitter experience speaking again).

Other problems that can crop up come from the shifting of the piece in the plane of the part, but where the stress relief moves the edges so that subsequent cuts into the part no longer comply with the blueprint for the cuts, since the material has shifted. This shift can be a relatively small movement – depending on the level of stress that was captured in the material, but it can be enough to take the final part out of tolerance, and thus it never hurts to be sure of the stress condition of the piece before starting to cut.

I’ll return to this theme, but with a different illustration of stress effects next time.


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