When it comes to cutting metal, wood, glass, and other hard surfaces, it's hard to imagine a beam of light being able to keep up with a spinning blade. A traditional beam of light would indeed have a tough time. That said, a concentrated laser beam makes cutting a breeze.
What is Laser Cutting?
Laser cutting is a process where a laser beam is used to heat a workpiece to the point where the piece is precisely severed. According to Answers.com, laser cutting machines include a high powered laser and a computer to direct the laser beam onto the material to be cut. From there, the laser beam melts, vaporizes, or burns the material along the predetermined cut line, resulting in a precise, neatly cut edge.
According to Coherent, a company that manufactures laser cutting machines, laser cutting:
"...concentrates high amounts of energy into a small, well-defined spot. The resulting heat energy created by the laser vaporizes materials in this small-defined area and a gas, or mixture of gases, such as oxygen, CO2, nitrogen, and/or helium is used to blow the vaporized material out of the kerf (the width of a groove made by the laser beam). The beam's energy is applied directly where it is needed, minimizing the Heat Affected Zone (HAZ) surrounding the area being cut."
Laser Cutting Applications
Laser cutting is used by manufacturers, small businesses, schools, and hobbyists alike. According to Coherent, common items suitable for laser cutting include:
- Thin non-metal materials - Paper, most plastics, fabrics, mylar stencils, polycarbonate, wood up to .04 inches, and thin acrylics can be cut with a 150 watt average power (450 watt peak power) laser.
- Thicker non-metal materials - You'll need a laser with an average power of between 250 to 500 watts (up to 1500 watt peak power) to cut thicker non-metal materials such as thicker plastics and wood up to one inch thick. In general, lower power lasers will have to work harder to make the same cut. This reduces cutting speed and can result in excessive heat, chemical changes, or damage to the Heat Affected Zone.
- Metal materials - Metal materials generally require higher power lasers (between 150 and 1,000 watts (up to 2500 watt peak power). Some thin metals (such as stainless steel or cold rolled steel) can be cut with 150 watt lasers when oxygen-assist gas is used.
Laser cutting is used to cut any number of items from a variety of materials such as: jigsaw puzzles, clock faces, metal tags, machinery parts and components, packaging, signs, patterns, leather upholstery pieces, and more.
Advantages of Laser Cutting
Laser cutting offers numerous advantages over other types of cutting. Not only can you cut a variety of materials such as paper, plastics, cardboard, leather, and metal, laser cutting is extremely precise. Once a pattern is programmed into the laser cutter, it can continuously cut exact copies of the pattern on workpiece after workpiece. Laser cut edges are clean. In addition to cutting items, laser cutting can also cut small, highly detailed holes with good edge quality.
Finally, laser beams do not wear due to cutting, resulting in less strain on the cutting equipment. Laser cutting has come of age and has proven to be a reliable, advantageous alternative to other cutting methods.
1. Answers, "Laser Cutting," - http://www.answers.com/topic/laser-cutting
2. Coherent, "Laser Cutting FAQs," - http://www.coherent.com/Products/?1971/Laser-Cutting-FAQs