When is a balloon not a balloon? When it’s a technical problem, a design challenge, and an inspiration for development of new and more efficient cutting equipment.
EdgeWISE Tools founder Pat Momany www.ewt-inc.com — didn’t start out at high-tech edge of fabric cutting industry. Problems that need solving get his inventive juices flowing, and his penchant for saying, "Sure, we can do that," before figuring out how, add up to an enterprise that’s reinvented itself several times. Now with that trademark inventiveness and can-do attitude, Seattle-based EdgeWISE is pushing limits of fabric cutting, in a system custom-designed to cut out huge scientific balloons NASA plans to send to very edge of Earth’s atmosphere.
From boats to balloons It started with boats. " I was in printing business in 1985, and met a lady who was putting vinyl names and logos on sides of boats," Momany relates. "Gerber had released a 15-inch vinyl text cutter, but she was doing graphics and logos in addition to letters. I wondered if we could somehow melt vinyl to cut it. We started out with a soldering iron attached to an X-Y plotter." After working through many "thermal issues," midway through 1986 Momany, in partnership with another company that later went out of business, introduced a 36-inch thermal cutter to sign industry. The following year, "back when 286s were hot computers," Momany reminisces, he and colleagues at GrafikEdge helped develop Amiable Technologies sign-cutting software, and came very close to perfecting a swivel knife cutter of sort that’s now widely used in cutting business. "I didn’t trust software engineers," he recalls this near-hit ruefully. In late ’80s, Momany began teaching himself about lasers, and in 1990 sold GrafikEdge and started EdgeWISE Tools to develop, sell and service cutting tools and systems. EdgeWISE debuted a roll feed laser (RFL™) system at International Sign Association show in 1992, and received a US patent in November of 1993. For a few years EdgeWISE licensed technology to another company, but when this route failed to produce desired growth, EdgeWISE began designing and selling its own RFL product line. According to company literature, RFL technology offers significant advantages over traditional flatbed systems that cut with blades:
RFL takes only one-third to one-half floor space of a flatbed; lasers use minimum heat, for less material distortion; lasers provide a high degree of accuracy, consistency, control and flexibility; extremely small cut width allows for detailed work and close nesting of components, minimizing waste; lasers decrease risk of injury, com-pared to many mechanical cutting methods.
"We started focusing on designing and developing other laser tools, and were invited by Eastman Worldwide, an industrial fabric company, to exhibit in their booth at 1997 Industrial Fabrics Association show in Nashville. That’s where I met Raven Industries’ Ron Stevens, who was heading up manufacturing end of NASA’s Ultra Long Duration Balloon Project," relates Momany.
The Single Direction Cutter (SDC) system was designed to provide precise beam delivery, material handling and motion control, developed to compensate for distortions due to material stretching.
The Ultra Long Duration Balloon Project (ULDB), profiled in our October 1999 issue, is NASA’s latest development in near-space scientific exploration. The project aims to develop balloon systems capable of supporting scientific observations above 99 percent of Earth’s atmosphere, for durations of approximately 100 days. Innovations in materials and construction—the current design is 600 feet tall and pumpkin shaped, with lobes that increase its strength, and made of a one mil five-layer Mylar-polyethylene-polyester composite that provides a previously unavailable combination of gas barrier, tear resistance and strength—add up to a balloon that can take near-space extremes of temperature and sun exposure, and carry a couple thousand pounds of equipment. "Ron and I discussed those 600-foot lobes, and I said, ‘Sure, we can do that,’" Momany says nonchalantly. "Our thinking has always been not-quite-mainstream, and that’s me. I’m a conceptualist; I have engineers to tell me what we can’t do. " The enormity of ultra long duration balloon poses huge manufacturing challenges. "The biggest problem was that NASA wanted lobes to be cut to 600 feet plus or minus a quarter inch," Momany marvels. "These scientists are amazing. You get them in a room together and they have all these ideas, but they’re some-times not very realistic about manufacturing reality. We got them to agree to plus or minus three inches; that’s a .5 percent margin of error." Momany knew immediately that their RFL system, which moves material backward and forward under stationary cutting heads, wouldn’t do trick; moving film that Connecticut-based Dimension Polyant had developed for NASA forward 600 feet and then back to cut one gore would inevitably distort fabric beyond required accuracy level. The obvious solution was to develop a system that would move material in only one direction. Momany is quick to credit engineer Bill Stuart with figuring out how to devise software controls for EdgeWISE’s Single Direction Cutting (SDC) system, which combines state-of-the-art laser beam delivery, material handling and motion control to calculate required material length and digitally compensate for stretching that occurs during handling.