How Laser Cutting Works

Laser cutting is one of many processes that have noticed a much more widespread use over recent years. Many of the laser-based processes have similar benefits and applications, and as one cutting laser machine can perform multiple processes, it can be hard knowing exactly which one could be right for your business.

To make this a little easier, we have explored the process in greater detail below, looking at how the process works, the different types of laser cutting, its advantages, and where you’ll see it most commonly used.

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The laser cutting process is completed using a laser such as this

What is laser cutting?

Laser cutting, as the name may suggest, is the process of cutting a material using a laser beam. This can be done to either trim down a material or to help cut it into complex shapes that more conventional drills would struggle with.

This laser process also has many similarities to the laser drilling and laser engraving processes. The former involves the creation of thru-holes in a material or dents, like an engraving used in the later process. These dents and holes are essentially cuts, and you’ll often see a laser cutting machine being used for laser drilling and laser engraving too.

A vast range of materials and thickness sizes can be cut using laser cutting, making it a handy and adaptable process.

A laser cutting machine can also be used for laser engraving

A laser cutting machine can also be used for laser engraving

What is the laser cutting process?

The laser cutting process works by having a focused and precise laser beam run through the material that you are looking to cut, delivering an accurate and smooth finish. Initially, the laser is used to pierce the material with a hole at the edge, and then the beam is continued along from there.

The laser being used essentially melts the material away that it is run over, so is more like melting than cutting. This means that it can easily cut light materials such as cloth up to tougher metals and gemstones such as diamonds.

You can use either a pulsed laser beam or a continuous wave laser beam, with the former being delivered in short bursts while the latter works continuously. You can control the beam intensity, length and heat output depending on the material you are working with, and can also user a mirror or special lens to further focus the laser beam.

Laser cutting is a highly accurate process, thanks to this high level of control that you are offered. Thanks to this, slits with a width as small as 0.1mm can be achieved when using the laser cutting process.

There are three main types of laser cutting:

C02 laser cutting

C02 laser cutting is done using a gas laser. The gas in question is a carbon dioxide mixture which has been electrically stimulated. C02 laser cutting is most often used on non-metal materials as they have a wavelength of 10.6 micrometres.

Crystal laser cutting

Crystal laser cutting uses nd:YAG (neodymium-doped yttrium aluminium garnet) and nd:YVO (neodymium-doped yttrium ortho-vanadate) lasers. These are crystals which belong in the solid state group of lasers, and have the same wavelength as fiber lasers, around 1.064 micrometres. This means that they are useful for both metals and non-metals.

However, this type of laser machine is made up from expensive pump diodes, which can be costly when needed to be replaced; typically, after 8,000 – 15,000 hours of use. The crystal used also has a much shorter service life than that of a fiber laser.

There are other types of laser cutting, such as gas laser cutting

There are other types of laser cutting, such as gas laser cutting

Fiber laser cutting

This type of laser cutting is completed using a fiber laser, the type of lasers that we have here at SPI Lasers. Like the method of crystal laser cutting above, fiber lasers belong to the solid state group too.

A beam is created using a ‘seed laser’, which is then amplified using glass fibers and pump diodes. They have the same wavelength as above, 1.064 micrometres. This means that the laser beam for a fiber laser is roughly 100 times greater than that of a C02 laser when it comes to intensity. It also means that they can work with both metal and non-metal materials.

A fiber laser is the most useful of the three laser types. Alongside the benefits listed above, they are often maintenance free, require much cheaper replacement parts, and have a much longer service life of around 25,000 usage hours.

We focus solely on state-of-the-art fiber lasers at SPI Lasers, using both Pulsed Fiber Lasers and Continuous Wave Fiber Lasers to complete any laser cutting tasks. With efficient speed and production rates, our lasers are great at working with numerous materials and high output industrial applications.

There are also several techniques involved with the laser cutting process, which we have touched on briefly above:

Laser cutting

The main use for a laser cutting machine, explained extensively in this article. This is the process of cutting a shape to create smaller sizes, pieces, or more complex shapes.

Laser engraving

Laser engraving is the process of removing a layer of a material to leave an engraving below. This is often used for etching barcodes onto items or personalising items such as trophies.

Laser marking

Laser marking is similar to laser engraving in that a mark is made but the difference being that the laser mark is only surface level, while an engraving from laser engraving has much more depth.

Laser drilling

Laser drilling is the process of creating dents or thru-holes on or in the surface of a material.

What materials can a laser cutting machine cut?

A laser cutting machine is great at cutting a huge variety of materials. Listed below are just some of the many materials:

  • Wood
  • Gemstones such as diamonds
  • Titanium
  • Steel
  • Reflective metals
  • Glass
  • Plastic
  • Silicon

Whatever the material is that you need to work with and whatever the application, it’s highly likely that laser cutting will more than be up for the task.

What advantages does laser cutting have over other more conventional cutting methods?

Laser cutting offers a huge number of benefits over other more conventional forms of cutting:

  • Laser cutting is a non-contact process, and so there is minimal damage caused to the material you are working with and associated moving parts
  • Laser cutting has low maintenance costs and only needs inexpensive replacement parts
  • The laser cutting process helps to dramatically reduce material wastage
  • One laser cutting setup is capable of working with multiple materials and applications
  • It is much safer using laser cutting than other processes as the beam is enclosed within a light box
  • You are offered total control with the beam intensity, heat output and duration when undertaking a laser cutting process, making this a highly reliable process

These are just some of the many advantages of laser cutting, for more benefits please refer to this page here.

These benefits have led to laser cutting being used in numerous industries, including the automotive, aerospace, electronics, semi-conductor and medical industries.

Think laser cutting is the right process for you?

If you’re interested in laser cutting after what you’ve read above or you have more questions, then we would be happy to discuss this further. Simply get in contact with us here.


Image credits: SD-Pictures, moritz320, PeteLinforth and pixel2013


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