Flow International Case Study

La Paloma Arts

The following case study was written in October, 2005, for Flow International, a Kent, WA-based manufacturer of ultra-high pressure waterjet cutting tools. The case study focuses on La Paloma Arts, a California company that specializes in producing and assembling public sculptures. This case study explains how La Paloma Arts used Flow International's abrasive waterjet cutting tools to cut pieces for the "Crystal Mountain" sculpture designed by Dennis Oppenheim. A photo of the "Crystal Mountain" sculpture is included in the case study.


Public Sculptures Come to Life with Waterjets

Waterjet Cutting Technology Dramatically Improves Quality of Parts

The Company

In 1974, artisan Ron McPherson founded La Paloma Fine Arts, a California company that originally specialized in limited edition fine art prints and multiples. Over three decades, the company has evolved into making three-dimensional fine art objects. Today, its main focus is in producing large outdoor public sculptures, designed by various artists.

"We manufacture large public sculptures, and also work as a facilitator to coordinate activities between the artist, the engineer, the architects, city planners, and building departments involved in the project," Ron McPherson explains. "Most of what we do involves taking two-dimensional materials, sheet or plate, and forming them into three-dimensional objects."


The Challenge

In 2004, La Paloma was hired by world-renowned sculptor Dennis Oppenheim to produce a new sculpture entitled "Crystal Mountain." This massive, 40-foot sculpture now sits in the new International Terminal at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.

Crystal Mountain SculptureThe "Crystal Mountain" sculpture presented many unique challenges to La Paloma. The sculpture would be assembled from individual pieces. These pieces would be cut from 4-foot-by-12-foot sheets of 3/16-inch-thick aluminum plate.

"Basically, the artist re-created the microscopic structure and appearance of a crystal with this sculpture," McPherson tells us. "The sculpture is hollow inside. The tunnel at the base of the sculpture provides support for the crystal structures on top. The crystal structures are all at odd angles, so they would be devoid of building norms like plumb and square."

"We had to coordinate with Dennis Oppenheim throughout the project, to make sure we keep with his vision. Also, because people would be able to walk underneath this sculpture, it needed to comply with safety regulations. So we also had to coordinate with the engineer in charge of assembling the sculpture, to make sure of its structural integrity."


The Solution

Pieces of the "Crystal Mountain" sculpture were cut using an abrasive waterjet system. McPherson had purchased a waterjet system with a 6’ x 12’ Integrated Flying Bridge from Flow International in 2002, after researching the benefits of abrasive waterjet cutting.

Abrasive waterjet cutting uses water pressurized to 60,000 pounds per square inch (psi), with a garnet abrasive entrained in the jet stream. The water is forced through a precision orifice 0.013" in diameter. The water and abrasive garnet mixture cuts materials quickly and precisely, with accuracies of up to 0.001".

The waterjet’s fine jet stream cuts at a tight tolerance, enabling a high level of accuracy on finished parts. Waterjets can be a more cost-effective alternative, since jobs that normally take several hours to cut can often be completed in just minutes. In addition, the time required for setup and fixturing of the material is minimal with the waterjet.

"For the 'Crystal Mountain' project, Dennis Oppenheim created a model, about 12 inches tall, of his sculpture," says Ron McPherson. "We were able to scan this model into the computer, and construct a virtual 3-D model of the sculpture. We enlarged the virtual 3-D model to the dimensions of the 40-foot sculpture. We then had to 'unfold' the virtual model -- breaking down the individual parts of the sculpture into 2-D models, so we could get the dimensions of the parts that needed to be cut by the waterjet. From there, we transferred the dimensions of the individual parts into the waterjet machine using the FlowPath software, and cut the material."


The Results

Using the Flow waterjet allowed Ron McPherson and his team to produce numerous small pieces that could fit together accurately to form the "Crystal Mountain" sculpture.

"Accuracy is very important in cutting parts for public sculptures, McPherson explains. "If you don't have the proper fit-up and tolerances, it's very easy to get a weld that doesn't have structural integrity. The Flow waterjet not only cuts the full-size panels that made up the sculpture, but also does a more accurate job of layout than the traditional methods of hand layout. It would be very difficult, time-consuming, and less accurate to try to do hand layout and cutting or shearing of the aluminum plate."

"The waterjet is also exceptionally accurate in cutting bolt holes and rivet holes in the proper places. Inaccuracies in the placement of these holes can cause the structure to not quite fit together. The waterjet helped us to eliminate errors in drilling the holes necessary to position the parts accurately for the sculpture. The ability to cut bolt and rivet holes speaks to the diversity of the waterjet."

Prior to purchasing the Flow International waterjet system, La Paloma had relied primarily on a plasma cutter for cutting public sculptures. However, the plasma-cutting process left a damaged thermal edge that required secondary finishing, such as edge-grinding or polishing, to remove. Since abrasive waterjet cutting is a cold-cutting process, it leaves no thermal damage on edges of parts, thus saving project time by eliminating secondary finishing of parts.

"One of the most important parts of meeting safety code requirements for public structures is edge quality," says McPherson. "There cannot be any thermal damage on the structure at all. The waterjets cut with no thermal damage, which helped us to meet code requirements for the project."

McPherson has been amazed by the performance of the waterjets. "I’ve been able to achieve more than expected. The tight nesting capabilities, high quality of edges, and accuracy of cuts have exceeded my expectations for what the waterjet machine has allowed me to do."

"The two main reasons why we chose Flow's waterjet were the quality of the cut parts and Flow’s commitment to their customers by their very extensive parts and service network. Using the waterjet has allowed our company to increase the quality of our work, and to expand our business to cut new types of materials."

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