There is a lot of debate in the metal cutting industry about which method of sheet metal cutting is better, Laser Cutting or Plasma Cutting. Here we give a summary of each option’s benefits and an insight into how each technique works.
Overview of Laser Cutting
Laser cutting works by focusing an intense beam of infrared light onto the surface to be cut. It uses tiny but potent lasers to focus the beam and heat the material to the point of melting, burning, or vaporising. The technique then uses an assist gas to clear the molten or burned area to create the cut. Read more about How laser cutting works here.
Laser cutting is hugely versatile in its application. Its most common use, however, is to cut metals, a material that plays a part in almost all industries – from agriculture to construction, manufacturing and security, to name but a few. The most widely used metals are steel and aluminium, but the process can be applied successfully to most metals, including brass, copper, titanium and tungsten. Laser cutting isn’t just used for metals, its use on non-metals such as silicon, ceramics, plastics, rubber, polymers and carbon composites is also widespread. The technique is pivotal to industries such as microelectronics that rely on silicon parts, producing the technological products that we rely on – and take for granted – every day. Ceramics are also a key component in many industries due to their capacity to conduct heat and their electrical insulation properties. This broad application makes laser cutting crucial to a diverse number of industries.
Simplicity and Precision
Laser cutting has advanced dramatically over recent years and is undoubtedly one of the quickest and most effective ways to cut sheet metal. It is also a simple process; customers only need to supply a schematic for their design to be brought to life. Thanks to the simplicity of the process, laser cutting is a low-cost option for short-run or even one-off bespoke designs. It is also capable of handling intricate designs while maintaining a high degree of accuracy. With low wastage of sheet material, laser cutting also offers an economical option for customers. As well as being suitable for a wide range of materials, laser cutting also works successfully on thin materials, adding to its versatility. Machines also typically have several applications besides cutting, such as drilling, marking and engraving.
We continually invest in technology to ensure we offer an unrivalled flatbed cutting service. Our most recent investment, a Trumpf TruLaser 5030 10 kW, is one of the fastest and most innovative laser cutting machines on the market. It delivers extreme precision coupled with impressive cutting speeds. This combination means we can offer competitive rates without compromising on quality, and can cut Mild Steel up to 30mm, Stainless Steel to 40mm, Aluminium to 30mm plus Brass and Copper to 12mm and 16mm respectively.
Perhaps the standout advantage of laser cutting is its high accuracy, making it the ideal choice when tolerances are tight. Some commercial lasers can achieve tolerances of 0.1mm, and specialist lasers are even more precise: this precision is why laser cutting is the method of choice for the aeronautical industry. Perhaps the only constraint of laser cutting is that it is not suitable for very thick material. In this instance, a water jet or plasma cutter is needed.
It delivers extreme precision coupled with impressive cutting speeds. This combination means we can offer competitive rates without compromising on quality, and can cut Mild Steel up to 30mm, Stainless Steel to 40mm, Aluminium to 30mm plus Brass and Copper to 12mm and 16mm respectively.
Overview of Plasma Cutting
Plasma cutting originally developed in the 1950s as a technique for metals that could not be flame cut. It is a process that cuts through materials with an accelerated jet of hot plasma. But what is plasma? Plasma is the fourth state of matter; solid, liquid and gas are the first three. Although plasma is categorised as a subset of gases, it does not behave like a gas because it is made up of charged particles. It occurs naturally in the astrophysical realm but can be artificially created when energy is added to a gas through intense heating. The result is ionized gas, which has high electrical conductivity: plasma.
The plasma cutting process, or plasma arc cutting (PAC), uses a high energy stream of plasma as its heat source. This stream is directed through a plasma arc torch to heat, melt and cut the workpiece. Plasma gas exits the tip of the torch at extremely high speed and temperature; this weakens the workpiece material and allows fragments to be removed to produce the desired cuts. However, this only works with electrically conducting materials because the workpiece material acts as a component of the primary arc circuit; an electric arc is established between an electrode in the torch and the workpiece material, which acts as the anode.
High Cutting Speeds and Fast Turn-Around Times
Plasma cutting torches have evolved significantly since the 1970s. Like laser cutting, plasma cutting offers high cutting speeds; both can deliver fast turnaround times. However, one drawback of plasma cutting is that it causes a wider area of thermal deformation – the heat-affected zone is greater in plasma cutting than in laser cutting. The extent of the thermal deformation depends significantly on the melting temperature of the workpiece material. Nonetheless, it impacts its ability to handle more complex designs and achieve the same accuracy as laser cutting.
Plasma cutting does have one clear advantage over laser cutting though: it can handle thicker materials. In fact, it can handle material thicknesses up to 180mm. Plasma cutting tends to work best with large workpieces and with simple designs. By contrast, laser cutting can handle both small and large material sizes as well as manage highly intricate designs.
Although plasma cutting machines have a lower acquisition cost than laser cutting machines, the superior results of laser cutting and its versatility have made this a continued investment area for ADS Laser Cutting, most recently with our acquisition of one of the more modern fiber lasers, the Trumpf TruLaser 5030 10 kW.
ADS Laser is the premier metal laser cutting, folding, fabrication and metal finisher.
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