Laser Cutter

What is Laser Cutting?

Laser cutting is a non-conventional metal-cutting technique that uses thermal energy, a highly concentrated light beam, to cut a workpiece. The energy is so high that it burns and vaporizes a material as it is projected onto it. 

There are a number of differences between a laser cutter and a conventional machine tool, and the key lies in the tooling and cutting mechanism. The tooling used by a conventional machine tool includes a spindle and a cutting bit, whereas a laser cutter uses laser optics and a nozzle to cut the workpiece by vaporizing it.  


Laser Cutter, He Mei Cheng Technology

 

Construction

A laser cutter is constructed with a resonator, laser optics, a lens, and a nozzle. The resonator is where the laser beam originates. The resonator casts out the laser beam and it travels through the optics, a set of mirrors, to the lens. The purpose of the lens is to further focus and enhance the beam. The concentrated laser beam will then be projected out of the cutting head, the nozzle.

Laser cutters are typically gantry-type machines. The cutting head is mounted onto a  bridge, which allows for  X and Y-axis motion across the working area. It is usually driven by a rail system or a chain system and is CNC-controlled. These advanced cutting machines are grouped into several types based on the laser they use.
 

Types

Laser cutters are divided into types based on how the beam is formed, including the CO2, neodymium, and fiber lasers. Let's take a look at how these categories differ.
 

CO2  

This type is the most common among the three because they are more cost-saving, less power-consuming, and can deal with most general-purpose cutting applications. The laser beam is generated by electrically exciting a mixture of gas consisting of carbon dioxide.


How CO2 Laser Cutters Work, Further Fabrication

 

Neodymium 

Also called Nd: YAG laser, this is the most powerful type of laser cutter. It generates laser beams with a much higher intensity than the other two. The laser originates from neodymium-doped crystals, which create a beam with a significantly smaller wavelength. It cuts through thicker material, but the wear of the machine might be a concern.


Nd: YAG Laser, Qpage

 

Fiber

The fiber in this case refers to the glass fibers that concentrate and amplify the light beam in the cutting head. A fiber laser cutter is almost as intense and powerful as the neodymium type. That said, owing to the mechanism, it does not require as much maintenance.


How does the CNC Fiber Laser Cutting Machine Work, Factories

 

Material Processing Limitations

Though laser cutting is, in general, an efficient technique, the use is in fact restricted owing to the cutting mechanism. Based on how powerful it is, a laser cutter can process metals, wood, plastics, ceramics, and more, but there are some materials that should never be cut with a laser. They are:
 

PVC

You should never cut PVC, vinyl, or artificial leather with a laser cutter because these materials emit chlorine gas when burnt by laser. Pure chlorine gas damages the optics and corrodes the metal parts of the machine.
 

Polycarbonate/Lexan

You should not cut polycarbonate and Lexan thicker than 1mm because they catch fire easily and discolor during the process. Besides, it is very inefficient to cut these materials with a laser.
 

HDPE/PolyStyrene Foam/PolyPropylene Foam

The HDPE material and milk bottle plastic tend to melt when exposed to high-intensity laser beams. On the other hand, PolyStyrene and PolyPropylene foam are prone to catch fire when processed by thermal energy. Since they catch fire and melt easily, it is better to cut these materials with a blade or saw.
 

Fiberglass/Coated Carbon Fiber

Fiberglass and carbon fiber do not burn and melt easily, but when they react to laser beams, they emit noxious fumes, which pose a threat to the personnel in the working environment.
 

Pros and Cons

The advantages of a laser cutter include flexibility and versatility. It can cut numerous shapes and intricate designs without changing the tooling. In addition, the machine is able to provide excellent accuracy and precision. Since it has the ability to reach accuracy up to +/-0.1mm after treatment or finish process is not required. The absence of cutting bits eliminates the maintenance and replacement of tooling. All these features make laser cutters a cost-saving investment for any shop.

The disadvantages come from the limitations to the materials and the need for professionals. Compared to other CNC machining approaches, laser cutting requires trained and experienced personnel to operate. There is a higher chance of hazards without a professional operator. In terms of material limitation, the process is not suitable for very thick, certain plastic, and coated materials, for the gas and fumes generated may damage the personnel and the equipment.

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