in Vol. 7 - July Issue - Year 2006
A Champion of the Wet Blast Process!
Robin Ashworth, Managing Director of Vapormatt Ltd
Automated wet blast aircraft wheel cleaning machine
Robin Ashworth is Managing Director of Vapormatt Ltd, probably the best-known company in Europe and the USA – if not globally – in wet blasting. Robin has a degree in mechanical engineering and has worked in every area of the company – from design and project management to sales and marketing. He is currently completing a Masters Degree in Business Administration to augment his management role. MFN recently had a chance to talk to him.
(?) MFN: To begin with, can you give us a ‘potted history’ of Vapormatt Ltd and its current position in the global marketplace?
(!) R. A.: Firstly, it’s great to have the opportunity to talk about Vapormatt, its capabilities and aspirations, and many thanks for inviting me to do just that. Vapormatt is essentially a family company, which was established in 1978 and is now run by the third generation of the Ashworth family – myself and my brother Terry, who is Technical Director. Our main office, administrative and production headquarters are in Taunton, UK, but we also have manufacturing facilities in other European locations. We are wet blast specialists and have been since the start: in fact, the Ashworth family originated the pressure recirculatory wet blast process – often generically termed ‘Vapormatting’ – and our involvement can be traced back to the 1940s, so we consider ourselves very much as the world’s leading practitioners in the field and are dedicated champions of the process.
(?) MFN: Wet blasting is a well established process but perhaps it would be useful to describe it for those not familiar with it.
(!) R. A.: Wet blasting (or ‘Vapormatting’) uses water and an abrasive medium, accelerated from a nozzle by compressed air, to provide a very effective and environmentally friendly ‘closed-loop’ and controllable surface cleaning and conditioning process. In essence, it is similar to dry blasting except – obviously – the abrasive media is wet and not dry, which offers a number of important advantages in practice. The abrasive particles used can be as fine as talcum powder but, due to the aqueous carrier, no dust or static electricity is created and the water buffers and lubricates the particles on impact. This allows very fine finishes to be produced without damage to the component. Bio-degradable degreasing compounds can be added to the water, further extending the capability of the process and enabling parts to be degreased and cleaned or super-finished in a single operation – streamlining production and saving time and labour. Integral filters continuously remove contaminants and blast debris. Many different types and grades of abrasive media can be used, depending on the application.
(?) MFN: How has the process developed to meet the needs of today’s production engineers?
(!) R. A.: As in many other areas of manufacturing, advances in process control have had the greatest impact in recent years. Wet blasting can be governed precisely in order to meet the strict manufacturing and maintenance standards of the aerospace industry, for example, where the natural extension of the process – ‘wet peening’ – is superseding conventional shot peening in many instances because it has been shown to achieve a better surface result with no contamination. Programmability for accurate process reproducibility has become a standard feature of our automatic machines. Added to this, wet blasting has been able to satisfy the production-line requirements of the growing automotive component refurbishment and reconditioning market (spurred-on recently by EU legislation like the ‘WEEE Directive’), since it allows highly soiled parts to be effectively degreased and cleaned in a single processing chamber. Our automated wet blast technology has made significant inroads in this and other similar applications.
(?) MFN: What do you consider to be Vapormatt’s ‘USP’?
(!) R. A.: This really is an extension of the previous question. Because of our extensive, in-depth knowledge of the subject of wet blasting and abrasive media – gained over many years in line with industry’s increasing technical demands – we justifiably consider ourselves as global technology leaders. Wet blasting may be an established process but it is not a simply applied one. Others have entered the market and have discovered that fact to their cost, largely because their process knowledge is lacking in depth. For example, a successful wet blast medium requires highly accurate harmonisation and control of the air stream, the liquid and the solid. To select and maintain the correct mixture for a particular application is not easy. And, because of the essentially aggressive nature of the process, machines have to be built to last. Our machines, which range from simple manual cabinets to sophisticated programmable units, are quality-engineered, and go on working to minimise their cost of ownership – a fact that our customers will endorse. In addition, we offer the most extensive selection of wet blast consumables and spares available, both for our own and for other manufacturers’ equipment – details of which are easily identifiable and accessible on line via our website (www.vapormatt.com) – and we provide a high level of technical support.
(?) MFN: What is your view of the current global marketplace for wet blasting and related equipment?
(!) R. A.: It seems that over the last few years, the creation of conglomerates in the surface finishing market has led to the spawning of a number of new ‘spin-off’ companies by individuals who have left the big organisations to start-up their own operations. Some of these may succeed and some may fail but the overall effect has been to create a complicated market, particularly at the lower end. There seem to be lots of ‘me-too’ boxes around and this, I think, is damaging the reputation of the quality wet blast and some other surface cleaning and degreasing processes. For example, we are frequently called upon to solve problems that are often attributed to wet blasting but which, in fact, are caused by the poor design and operation of inferior wet blast equipment installed by companies that do not fully understand the complexities of the process.
The bigger global operators continue to develop their products and processes at the higher technology end – PCB cleaning and integrated circuit deflashing are two such examples (which we are also involved in) – but they tend to be more interested in moving forward on a broad front, rather than developing specialised ‘niche’ areas such as wet blasting that necessitate a high degree of technical knowledge and support.
Also, globally aspirational manufacturers such as Vapormatt, have to be aware of and understand the legislation affecting machine design, construction and operation in the countries they serve, which can quickly change; they also need to appreciate the particular requirements of different market areas. In Europe, for instance, when it comes to machine design, we tend to be more aesthetically oriented than in the USA. We like our machines to look attractive as well as perform well and have a good standard of build. The norm in the USA has been to build exceptionally rugged machines but with less emphasis on appearance. This means that to be successful on the global stage, companies have to synthesise these and other relevant aspects so that machines can be constructed – preferably in modular form – to suit all markets.
We at MFN would like to thank Mr. Robin Ashworth for the interview.