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A Guide to Laser Cutting Technology, Part 1

(April 2009) posted on Tue Apr 21, 2009

Laser cutters have evolved from prototyping tools to highly-productive finishing systems. Read on to learn about developments in lasers, control software, and other facets of the technology that make laser cutting systems a viable option for any shop currently using conventional, tool-based cutting machines.

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By Markus Klemm

Another misconception is that laser cutting is a dangerous operation that burdens a workplace with safety risks. Though it may seem counterintuitive to some, laser cutting systems are in many ways a safer alternative to tool-based cutting systems. The initial installation of a laser cutting system takes care to eliminate the chance of stray beams creating workplace hazards if workers do not wear safety glasses. Tool-based systems, on the other hand, pose a continual risk of severe worker injury if they are not operated properly. Although such accidents are rare, they can be catastrophic. Costly injuries to tooling are somewhat more common, such as when technicians leave tiny screws in a cutting area that end up destroying custom dies.

While laser cutting systems cannot handle any and all substrates, the range of acceptable materials continues to grow along with better engineering of laser cutting technology. For example, polycarbonate substrates used to be beyond the reach of laser cutting because of the laser cutters’ tendency to leave poorly cut edges with a heavy brown discoloration on the substrate. This is still true with the thickest polycarbonates, but not so with thinner polycarbonate substrates that older systems couldn’t tackle.

Many still think that PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is not a good match with laser cutting technology, but that notion too is a bit out-of-date. It is possible to cut PVC materials, provided that components are added to protect existing machine components near the laser beam from the corrosive action of PVC-cutting byproducts and that appropriate filtering systems are added to protect operators from noxious fumes.

The real disadvantage of laser cutting technology—and the reason that most companies that use laser cutters do so in conjunction with one or more tool-based cutting systems—is that it is less cost-effective for many relatively straightforward long-run applications which are not beyond the reach of mechanical cutting. If part geometries are easy for a physical tool to achieve, if the substrate isn’t troublesome (too thin, sticky, abrasive, etc.), and especially if the job involves a relatively long run length where the cost of the die becomes a negligible factor, tool-based cutters are often better finishing tools.


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