Getting started with laser cutters
Laser cutters are fantastic tools when used in the right circumstances, and there are a lot of benefits to manufacturing businesses, as well as many other types of businesses having them available. Since we sell laser cutters, we often get questions about what laser cutters are, and how they can be used, so we thought we’d put together some guidance for businesses that are considering purchasing their first laser cutter.
What is a laser cutter?
Laser cutters are just what they sound like – they are tools that create patterns or designs using a laser beam to cut into a material, either by melting, burning or vaporising.
The first CO2 laser cutter was invented by Kumar Patel in 1963. Since then, there have been all kinds of different laser cutting tools that have been developed, and for an incredible range of uses. Laser cutting is used in many industries including medicine, manufacturing, aerospace and the automotive industry. It is even used in surgery settings, and most commonly used in eye surgery.
In much wider use, laser cutting is often used to cut metals, because there is little friction between the material and the machine, allowing smooth finishes to be achieved. In addition to designers and manufacturing businesses using laser cutters, many hardware companies, education facilities and artists are now using laser cutting machines.
What is a laser cutter used for?
The name pretty much tells you what a laser cutter can do – they are simply used to cut materials. Laser cutters are often used for creating prototypes, because they can confirm that designs will work before starting to produce items on mass.
Most laser cutters will be able to do cutting, etching and engraving, and marking too, which (depending on the type of laser cutter purchased) could open up a new income stream for a business. Some software (such as 1-Touch Laser Photo) can even take existing photographs and create an image that is suitable for engraving onto materials. This is a great way for businesses to produce bespoke gift items and on-demand items quickly and easily.
Since with these techniques the laser is only going into the material part-way, it is simply a case of configuring the machine correctly to be able to create designs on the material rather than cutting all the way through.
What types of laser cutters are there?
Most differences between laser cutting machines are between the types of lasers used, and each type of laser will dictate both the material, and the thickness of the material that can be cut with it. Professional manufacturing and fabrication businesses tend to need higher powered lasers, especially for large areas of plastic or metal, whereas materials such as thinner plastics, card, paper and wood can use lower powered lasers.
The there are three types of lasers that are commonly in use:
- Gas lasers (also known as CO2 laser cutters)
With this type of machine, the cut is achieved using CO2 that is created by electrical stimulation. A CO2 laser requires other gases such as nitrogen and helium to create a 10.6mm beam. CO2 laser cutters can be used to cut glass, some types of plastic, some foams, leather, paper-based products, wood and acrylic. Some gas laser cutters will be able to cut through metals, generally they are used for non-metals or organic materials, or for engraving tasks.
Gas lasers are often preferred by businesses because they are one of the more adaptable machines – they can work with a wide range of materials, and can cut through much thicker materials with a smoother finish than some other types. This means businesses can offer a range of services with their laser cutter, and because CO2 laser cutters are pretty common, they are typically less expensive, which makes it a more accessible purchase that delivers a good return on investment.
- Crystal laser cutters
This type of cutter creates laser beams from nd:YVO (neodymium-doped yttrium ortho-vanadate) and nd:YAG (neodymium-doped yttrium aluminium garnet). Crystal laser cutters can be used to cut plastics, metals, and some types of ceramics.
Businesses that need to cut thicker or stronger materials will choose a crystal laser cutter since the beams that are created are much higher intensity, however the strength of the beam comes at a cost. The increase in power means that wear on the machine occurs at a much faster rate and parts will need to be replaced more often.
- Fibre laser cutters
Fibre laser cutters use fibreglass to increase the power from a seed laser to be able to cut. They are generally used for cutting plastics and metals, as well as other non-metal materials.
Fibre lasers are part of the solid state lasers family, and don’t have any moving parts. They’re also up to three times more energy efficient than gas laser cutters, and can cut through reflective materials without the issue of back reflections. Businesses invest in fibre laser cutters where they need a cheaper, durable alternative to a crystal laser, since they also require less maintenance.
There are three main types of laser cutting techniques to be aware of:
Flame or reactive rutting is where oxygen is used as an assist gas. The oxygen is blown into the kerf at pressure, and the material that is being heated will start to burn, and to oxidise. The reaction helps the laser beam as there is more energy released.
Fusion cutting, or melt and blow is where an inert gas such as nitrogen blows molten material out of the kerf, which means there is a significant reduction in the power that is required. The material is heated up until it has reached the melting point, after which the gas blows it out.
Remote cutting is where a high-power laser beam can cut a thin sheet without the use of a gas. The material is partially evaporated, which means there isn’t any need for an assist gas.
What materials can you use a laser cutter on?
We get a lot of questions about materials you can use laser cutters with. Some of the most common questions we get asked tend to revolve around the types of materials that can be cut with a laser cutter, such as whether you can cut glass with a laser cutter, if wood is suitable to be cut with a laser cutter, and if metal laser cutters can be used on other materials.
The answer to these questions is yes, but it depends on the type of laser cutter. There are many different materials that laser cutters can be used on. In addition to metals – including tungsten, steel, aluminium, brass and nickel – lasers are often used to cut ceramics and silicon, and many other non-metal materials.
A more appropriate question might be to ask what material is laser cutting not suitable for, and although it is a pretty versatile technique, there are some materials that aren’t ideal. Aluminium and copper alloys aren’t always suitable, as their heat conductive and light reflecting properties mean that a much more powerful laser is required to work with these materials.
Metals that are more than 20mm are not usually suitable for laser cutters, although again, it depends on the type of laser cutter and the type of metal that is being considered.
How does a laser cutter work?
Again, it depends on the type of laser cutter that is being used, but we’ll keep it simple. Laser cutters simply direct a high power laser through optics, and are controlled by a CNC (a computer numerical control) to direct the material or laser beam in the direction that it needs to go.
As the laser beam is pointed at the material, it either melts, burns or vaporises the material, or in some cases will be blown away by a jet of gas. The precision of the laser means that the edge is left with a high-quality surface finish that would take a lot longer than manual methods.
Rather than telling you how laser cutters work though, let us show you!
Advantages of using a laser cutter
There are loads of reasons to use laser cutting over other methods. Different users and businesses have different reasons to use a laser cutter, but here are some of the most commonly cited reasons:
A laser cutter means there isn’t a complicated setup to be completed each time, and the setup is the same for many different shapes and material thicknesses. Most setups are suitable for cutting many types of shapes where the material are the same thickness, and even more intricate cuts or shapes are easy to create.
When there is a precise bit of work to be done, laser cutting can be the best solution compared with some other thermal cutting materials. Generally, there are no additional tolerances required since most machines are accurate to within 0.1mm. Since the machine produces such accurate results, most post-production treatments are unnecessary.
When you need to create a number of the same products that need to be the same, laser cutting is a great way to provide this. A difference of somewhere in the region of 0.05mm means that the parts that have been created are as close to replicas that can be produced without use of a mould.
It is also a lot quicker than most mechanical cutting methods, especially when the cuts are more complicated. In terms of thermal cutting methods (such as plasma or flame cutting) laser is faster until the point that the thickness of the material is around 10mm. However, there may be differences, depending on the power of the machines being compared.
We’re big fans of automation, and laser cutting is a highly automated technique, which means there is very little operator input required. Final quality checks are required from the machine operator but the speed, and reduced manual input requirements mean that laser cutters can result in much lower costs.
Where there is a feeding system for the laser cutter, even more automation and accuracy in the process can be achieved – but this will generally require much more upfront investment.
High quality results
Highly precise, accurate finishes is one of the main attractions of laser cutting, especially when compared with other thermal or mechanical cutting methods such as flame cutting or using saws or shears. Laser cutters are usually accurate to around 0.1mm, without needing to conduct any post-cutting treatments.
Since there is no friction between any parts (the beam is only ever in contact with the material that needs to be cut, so there is no mechanical friction) and the amount of wear on the machine is minimal.
One of the biggest advantages of using laser cutting is the versatility of the method. Firstly, laser cutting can be used on many different materials – from metals to acrylic, MDF and woods to paper. That means that one machine (depending on the specification of the machine) can be used to do countless types of jobs.
Secondly, there are a range of techniques that laser cutters can be used for. Engraving and laser marking are another way to make use of laser cutter machines, meaning that even more value can be wrung from your investment.
Finally, there are a number of profiles that laser cutters can be used for – so, you can use the process for all kinds of things, including tubes.
Challenges of using a laser cutter
Laser cutters can be a fantastic asset to a business and a professional workshop, however buying one and getting started isn’t always an easy process. Let’s take a quick look at some of the biggest challenges with laser cutters:
Training and expertise is required
Unfortunately, you can’t simply walk up to a laser cutter and start using it without any prior knowledge. Particularly with industrial machines, there is a certain level of learning that needs to be done before someone can begin using a laser cutter – and not just for safety reasons! Training is also required to get the best results from the machine, and to set the machine up correctly in order to achieve the desired results.
There are limitations to metal thickness
Laser cutters aren’t always the most appropriate tool for the job. Particularly where there are thicker metal plates that need cutting, this is often the case. Most metal fabrication companies will only laser cut metal plates up to 15mm or 20mm.
The price of laser cutting machines can be high – they can easily cost more than £1 million, and can cost twice as much as waterjet and plasma cutters. There may be savings to be made in terms of running costs, and the overall efficiency that the laser cutter will provide means that over the long term, it is worth the investment. However, finding those kind of funds up front to invest can be a challenge for many businesses.
Health and safety considerations
Although a good reason to use laser cutting is the fact it is so versatile and can be used to work with different materials, the fact that it is a thermal cutting method means that some materials melt and emit gases or fumes that can be hazardous to health.
Fumes from plastics can be particularly dangerous, and so it is important to ensure that when a laser cutter is in use there is a good ventilation system in place. Unfortunately, this adds to the cost of the initial investment, but is absolutely essential for a safe working environment.
Safety equipment for laser cutters
Although health and safety procedures can be inconvenient, they are absolutely essential for everyone’s wellbeing, particularly when machinery is involved. All users should have received proper training on the hazards, control measures and manufacturer’s operating procedures, as a bare minimum before using the machine. A logbook may be appropriate to detail who used the machine, how long they were cutting for and the materials that were cut.
An operating laser cutter should never be left unattended, and emergency procedures should be in place, as should safety precautions such as the wearing of appropriate PPE – safety glasses, ear defenders and gloves should be mandatory, and the most suitable fire extinguishers should be available in the vicinity. The cutting bed should be cleaned regularly to reduce the risk of fire.
Laser cutters should have a fume exhaust system that has filters to remove contaminants from the air in order to protect staff that are operating the machine. The laser cutter should never be used without the fume exhaust system being on.
Although laser cutters are usually fully enclosed systems that prevent the laser from being activated unless safety features are in use, it should go without saying that untrained personnel should be closely monitored, and children should be prevented from accessing the room that the laser cutter is in.
What software do you need for a laser cutter?
Hardware isn’t the only thing you’re going to need for your laser cutter – you’re going to need software to create your designs. Your results will only be as good as the information that you put into the machine, after all.
Luckily, there are a range of options that you can work with, depending on the needs of your business and the expertise of your team – and not all of the software you can choose from costs hundreds of pounds either. There are some pretty excellent free options, so if the budget doesn’t have much room to pay for software, you don’t have to invest in software immediately – or even ever, if you find the open source options can do what you need!
Free laser cutter software
The great thing about the internet is that it has given rise to some truly excellent free software options with absolutely no need for dodgy pirated downloads. The open source movement has a community of thousands of developers who make software code available for anyone to work with, adapt, improve or otherwise modify, and there are some excellent alternatives to paid software that mean you can eliminate software costs without compromising on results.
- LaserWeb4 is an open source software that has been around for quite some time. It is easy to install and has been designed with controlling a laser machine in mind (assuming supported firmware is installed).
- Inkscape is the open source community’s excellent alternative to Adobe Illustrator. Well worth a look if you don’t have £250 spare for an Illustrator license but want similar functionality!
- SolveSpace is a free, open source 2D and 3D CAD programme that can prepare CAM data for your laser cutter.
- Solid Edge 2D Drafting (created by Siemens) is an option that features simple drawing layouts as well as diagramming, annotation, and dimensioning controls. The major attraction for this software is that it automatically complies with drafting standards, including the International Standards Organization (ISO), American National Standards Institute (ANSI), and British Standards Institution (BSI), among others.
Paid laser cutter software
If you’ve got funds available in your budget, and you need a software solution for your laser cutter that has superior functionality and user experience, or your team are already familiar with one of these solutions, then these are some of the software options that may be suitable for your laser cutter.
- DraftSight Professional is £159 per year, or DraftSight Premium is £399 per year.
- A license for LightBurn is either $40 or $80, depending on the type required.
- A single license for Adobe Illustrator is £248.42 for a year, or you can get a year of all the Adobe Creative Cloud apps for £596.33 per year.
- TurboCAD pricing depends on the functionality that you need. TurboCAD Designer is £44.99, with prices ranging up to TurboCAD Platinum that is £1199.99, and there are versions available for Windows and Mac operating systems.
- While there is a free version of SketchUp available for individuals, professional use costs from $299 per year.
- SOLIDWORKS doesn’t publish their price on their website – you have to request a quote but research from resellers suggests that businesses should expect to pay upwards of £200 per user per month. There are incentives for start-ups that may dramatically reduce this cost if certain criteria are met.
What do you need to consider when choosing a laser cutter?
Businesses will generally choose their laser cutter based on what they are going to be cutting, and cost of the machine versus the return on the investment. However, there are plenty of other considerations that will impact the decision about which machine is right for them.
- Cost is where most businesses will start when making a major purchase like a laser cutter. The initial investment is to be considered of course, but there are also costs such as the rate that parts will need to be replaced and running costs to consider. Like other capital purchases, the lifetime of the machine will also need to be considered in order to budget for replacement.
- The materials that need to be cut is the next consideration for most businesses. Not every laser cutter is suitable for cutting everything, and using the wrong type of laser cutter will deliver poor results at best, and at worst, employees could end up hurt.
- Safety concerns are the next consideration – when working with some materials, fire risk is a hazard that needs to be dealt with. Other materials create toxic fumes when being cut and so suitable extractor fans and PPE need to be factored into the purchase.
- Support should be taken into account, especially when a cheaper type of laser cutter is under consideration. The machine needs to be reliable enough so that it doesn’t let you down, and parts should be easily replaced. Can you carry out any repairs yourself using laser parts from a seller, or will you need an expensive service plan from the manufacturer that will keep your laser cutter running, but will add to the overall cost? If a manufacturer’s plan is too expensive, consider Hobarts service plans as a more affordable alternative.
- The size of the machine and the size of the material that can be worked with is also important. A smaller bed means that only one material can be cut at a time, but a bigger bed may cost more.
- We’ve already mentioned power in terms of running costs, but the capacity that the premises can deliver should be checked before buying and installing the machine, especially when a more powerful machine is required. Higher power allows for faster and more accurate cuts, with smoother finishes, so it is important to get the right machine.
Which is the best laser cutter for small businesses?
It is pretty difficult to make a recommendation for the best laser cutter for any businesses, since it really depends on the type of work that is needed and what materials will need to be cut. Hobarts has a range of Universal Laser Systems available for customers, and so we recommend getting in touch for a discussion about the needs of your business before making a decision.
The Universal Laser Systems VLS2.30DT is a great option for entry level laser cutting, and is ideal for production overflow and prototype development work. It is a desktop machine, which means you don’t need a huge amount of space, and there are optional extras that mean an extra exhaust system isn’t required, and it connects to a PC with a simple USB connection.
Where a bigger, or more powerful machine is required but cost is prohibitive, a second-user or ex-demonstration machine may be a more affordable option. We have an ever-changing range of previously owned and ex-demonstration models that could put the laser cutting machine you need in the price range you can afford. We only deal with quality machines that have been thoroughly tested and serviced by our engineers, so you can be assured that your machine won’t let you down.
Talking of servicing, when you have bought your laser cutting machine, you will need to ensure you carry out suitable routine maintenance. When you rely on your machine to keep money flowing in, you need it in working order. A servicing plan with Hobarts can keep your laser cutter in working order and ensure that servicing doesn’t get missed -or you can book one-off servicing to suit your needs.
If purchasing a laser cutter isn’t affordable for your business, it may be more suitable to purchase it using finance or renting the machine you need. If this is something that could help take your business to the next level, then get in touch.
Our final thoughts
Laser cutters are fantastic, but they’re not something to jump into using without thought. Taking the time to do your research is essential to ensure you’re not going to end up wasting time and money on inferior finishes, or for members of your team to be injured.
Once you’ve identified the right machine and made your purchase, your laser cutter will also help to lower costs, meaning that you can increase your profits as well as allowing your team to work more quickly. A faster turnaround time, as well as a higher quality of finish means that your customers are going to be impresses and recommend your business, and return to you for work to be completed in the future. That’s a win-win scenario in our books.
For a discussion about buying your first laser cutter, advice or a discussion about finance, maintenance or servicing, give us a call on 0333 900 8700 or email us email@example.com.