Precision Laser Cutting: Is it right for your company?
In some niches, the term “precision laser cutting” has become a buzzword marred in obscurity. Laser cutting has been in use for over 20 years and the technology, machines, and processes have changed drastically with improved technology over that time. As a result, it has become more capable than most people think.
What is Precision Laser Cutting?
Precision laser cutting is the using of a high power laser to cut a material. Laser cutting is used across a number of different industries for many different uses. It is an extremely versatile and highly sought after. One great advance in laser cutting is the ability to not have to cut completely through a piece of material.
Laser cutting is obviously done by a laser cutter. There are a number of different laser cutters available for use. The most commonly known is probably the CO2 laser. But the fiber laser and solid-state laser are also extremely useful. In addition, CW or continuous wave laser cutters are available as well as pulse laser cutters.
In using laser cutting, a part is designed or file created from a piece through 3D-scanning and loaded into the appropriate software for the laser cutter. A highly focused laser then melts the material while a pressurized gas (often carbon dioxide) is used to blow the material out of the cut to create what is called a kerf. In general, a piece that has been laser cut requires minimal finishing.
Laser cutting is extremely accurate. This leads to finished pieces that are consistent. When the proper laser type, temp, and power are chosen, there is minimal charring is discoloration from the process. Some materials, like titanium, could have some color changes as they have properties that are heat-reactive, but that accuracy of the parts is not affected.
Uses for Precision Laser Cut Parts
Laser cutting can be used for a wide variety of parts and pieces. Best suited for 2D-applications, some 3D parts can be cut as well. We haven’t figured out how to bend the laser yet, so 3D-curves aren’t possible <b>yet</b>. As long as the part and the material it is being cut from can fit on the machine, it can probably be laser cut. This means parts as large as car doors or as small as watch gears can be laser cut. The control we have over the laser in accuracy, depth of cut, etc. also allows the creation of custom parts including laser engraving, laser etching (such as the glowing buttons in your car), and serial number etching on metal parts.
Laser cutters are usually used for 2D-designed parts. As such, they require a vector-file format that can be loaded into the laser cutter. These types of files can be created in a number of different software packages such as Corel Draw, Adobe Illustrator, and AutoCAD. Some free design software such as Inkscape and FreeCAD are able to create vector-file formats as well.
Can I use any file type?
Almost any vector-file format can work and most common is SVG. Other acceptable file types are DXF, AI, EPS, and PDF, but having an SVG file is the best way to go and generally creates the least bottlenecks in the process.
Ease of work
Once designed and saved as a vector-file format, the laser cutting machine is able to easily cut the pieces. Professionals are able to quickly choose the correct settings for the material and the laser it is being cut with, and the machine does the rest of the work.
Detail and Accuracy
The accuracy of pieces are almost unparalleled with other comparable replication techniques. Due to the nature of the vector-file format and how the laser is controlled, a laser cutter is able to create nearly exact reproductions with a very low tolerance for error. This is highly sought after for many projects whether it is a need for extremely specific dimensions or mass production of an item.
Just how detailed are the pieces
The width of the laser is very small. Due to this, it can create extremely intricate pieces while cutting. For example, the internal gears of a wristwatch can be laser cut and then part numbers and serial numbers can be engraved on the actual gears such that it can be read clearly. This is a major improvement over the stamping method previously used. In general, you can plan details around 0.1mm, but there are considerations that should be taken with sharp points and corners.
Turnaround on Projects
When it comes to laser cutting, generally, the time spent is going to be focused on the design aspect. The time that the laser cutter itself takes is relatively quick compared to other methods, but it varies depending on the material, thickness of the material, and power/type of the laser. Experience and training are definitely needed to make all the correct choices.
How long does it take?
Even with variations, cutting with a laser is usually measured in inches per minute. For example, if you have a 5500W laser cutting 0.5″ stainless steel, you can expect it to cut about 39 inches per minute. But a 700W laser under the same circumstances can cut at 55 inches per minute.
Laser cutting is an amazing process! It is extremely versatile, accurate, and detailed. Compared to other manufacturing options, it is quick and easy. However, when it comes to industrial applications, getting the correct settings are important and require a number of considerations and calculations. Consulting a professional is recommended to not waste time and resources. Contact us and can help you.