How Exactly Does Laser Cutting Work?

If you’ve been wondering what laser cutting is and exactly how it works, you’ve come to the right place to find out.

Laser is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Laser cutters have become a key tool in many industries, including manufacturing and even medicine.  Laser cutters are so popular due to their precision, adaptability, and their excellent cutting quality.

If you are new to laser cutting, you may have a ton of questions. What kinds of things can you create? What materials can you use? What are the different types of laser cutters?

The team at Engineered Mechanical Systems has helped engineers with custom fabrication, close tolerance machining, laser cutting, forming, reverse engineering, inspection, and more for over 30 years.

Who better to explain to you what laser cutting is and how it works than the professionals? So let’s get some of those questions answered for you.

What Exactly Is a Laser Cutter?

A laser cutter is a Computer Numerical Controlled (CNC) machine, which means the designer controls the machine with a computer. Using design software, the designer creates something and then sends it to the laser cutter, bringing the design to life.

When the design is sent to the laser cutter, a very thin, focused laser beam cuts through or etches something into the material on the cutting bed. While cutting can be done on almost any type of material, some of the materials commonly used on laser cutters are metal (such as aluminum and stainless steel), cardboard, wood, paper, and some types of plastic.

Laser cutters can produce designed parts very quickly. Since laser cutters are prototype machines, designers can create and perfect their designs quickly and at a low cost before sending the product to production.

How Exactly Does a Laser Cutter Work?

While there are different kinds of laser cutters, the process is the same when they cut materials. The laser emerges from the laser resonator, sending out a beam of intense light that will reflect through a series of mirrors into the cutting head. The cutting head contains a lens that condenses the laser into a very thin, very concentrated beam. The beam is then directed onto the material and cuts or rasters the material.

The cutting head is mounted on an XY gantry. An XY gantry is a mechanical system driven by a belt or a chain. It allows the precise movement of the cutting head inside a given area (the size of the work bed). The laser head is then moved over the work bed and makes precise cuts on the material on the work bed.

The focal point of the lens (the laser is the finest here) needs to be directly on the surface of the material it is cutting. Therefore, a focusing procedure must be performed on all laser cutters before making any cuts.

What Can a Laser Cutter Be Used For?

Laser cutters can be used for a variety of things. The most common uses are related to manufacturing tasks, but they are also used by small businesses, schools, and even the medical industry.

Because so many industries require the use of metal, cutting metal is one of the top uses of laser cutters. For example, the auto industry needs to make sure their parts are exact replicas of each other. Laser cutting is, therefore, a significant part of the automotive manufacturing process.

Laser cutting is also used frequently in the medical sector. Not only are laser cutters used in the design of medical devices, but doctors also use laser cutters in surgery in the place of a scalpel to vaporize human tissue.

Are There Different Kinds of Laser Cutters?

All laser cutters are similar in how they are built. The main difference between them is the type of laser that they use. The three main types of lasers are; CO2 lasers, neodymium lasers, and fiber lasers.

CO2 lasers: This type of laser is produced when electricity flows through a tube that is filled with gas (composed mostly of carbon dioxide). Laser cutters using CO2 lasers are the most common type of laser cutter. They are relatively inexpensive, low power, efficient, and can cut through a variety of materials.

Some common materials used with CO2 cutters are metal, cloth, paper, and wood.

Neodymium Lasers: A neodymium laser uses neodymium to transmit infrared light. They have a higher intensity than CO2 lasers, so these lasers are used to cut stronger materials. It is common to have parts of this type of cutter to wear quickly due to the amount of power it exerts during use.

Materials that designers can use with neodymium lasers are plastics, metals, and some types of ceramics.

Fiber Lasers: A fiber laser uses what is called a seed laser. The beam is then amplified using glass fibers specially designed to derive energy from pump diodes. Fiber lasers don’t require much maintenance and have a long service life. However, they also tend to be the most expensive.

Plastic and metal are typically the materials used with fiber lasers.

Will I Need Specific Software to Operate My Laser Cutter?

Similar to how inkjet printers come with drivers that need to be downloaded to your computer for the printer to work, laser cutters work the same way. The drivers for laser cutters take the design from the computer and convert it into a format that is then read by the laser cutter.

You will, of course, also need a design program. Some available design programs are:

  • 2D Design Programs: CorelDRAW, Adobe Illustrator, AutoCAD, and Inkscape

  • 3D Design Programs: Solidworks, Autodesk Inventor, and Autodesk Fusion

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We hope this has helped answer some of the questions you had about laser cutters and how they work.

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