Laser Cutting or Plasma Cutting - How to Choose the Correct Method?

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Laser and plasma cutting services provide a highly effective way to accurately cut small, medium, and large metal pieces to the required specifications. Several differences separate laser and plasma cutting, including tolerance levels and cutting intricacies. Laser cutting involves various sub-methods, including CO2 and fiber optic laser cutting along with assist gases, while plasma cutting involves plasma arcs, and assist gases. Overall, there are benefits and drawbacks to each cutting method.

What is Laser Cutting?

Laser cutting uses a high-power laser directed through mirrors and optics magnified as it travels. The computer numerical control (CNC) equipment then allows for precision movement of the laser cutting head to produce precise, intricate parts on a variety of materials. Typically, the laser cutting process uses a motion control system to follow a CNC-coded pattern to make highly accurate cuts. The focused laser beam burns, melts, or vaporizes the existing material, then assist gases push vaporized materials away leaving a high-quality surface finished edge.

How Does Laser Cutting Work?

The stimulation of materials creates the machine’s laser cutting beam through electrical discharges or lamps inside a closed container. The cutting laser is amplified through the reflection of a partial mirror until its energy is enough to escape as a stream of coherent monochromatic light. This light is focused at the work area by mirrors or fiber optics that direct the beam through a lens that intensifies it.

What are the Types of Laser Cutting

There are three types of laser methods typically used to cut metal. Each laser method delivers a unique cut, increasing accuracy depending on the metal. Laser cutting methods include:
  • CO2
  • Fiber

What are the Advantages of Laser Cutting?

Laser cutting is better suited to making intricate cuts for electronics, medical, aerospace, and automotive applications than plasma cutting processes while producing a thin cutting seam within the workpiece. Additional laser cutting benefits include:
  • High precision
  • Tight tolerance cutting
  • Fast
  • Numerous material options
  • Energy efficient

Which Materials are Ideal for Laser Cutting Machines?

Laser cutting machines are used to cut almost any material. Metals like steel, stainless steel, aluminum, copper, bronze, tungsten, brass, and nickel are ideal for laser cutting since the cutting temperature exceeds the metal’s melting temperature. Non-metal materials such as wood, silicon, and ceramics acrylic can also be laser cut to precise tolerances.

What is Plasma Cutting?

Plasma arc is a metal cutting process that uses jets of ionized gas at temperatures that exceed 20,000°C to quickly and accurately cut metals for various projects. Plasma arc can cut a wide range of electrically conductive alloys, including plain carbon and stainless steel, aluminum alloys, nickel alloys, and titanium.

How Does Plasma Cutting Work?

An electric arc is struck within the plasma cutting process between an electrode (cathode) and the workpiece (anode). The electrode is recessed in a water- or air-cooled gas nozzle, constricting the arc and causing the narrow, high-temperature, high-volume plasma jet to form.
When the plasma jet hits the workpiece, recombination takes place, and the gas reverts to its normal state, emitting intense heat as it does so. This heat melts the metal, and the gas flow ejects it from the cut.

What are the Advantages of Plasma Cutting?

Plasma cutters are the go-to option for applications that require high-speed precision cuts with lower tolerances than laser cutting. Additional benefits of plasma cutting include:
  • High speed
  • Precision cuts
  • Cuts up to 50.8 mm thick
  • Less expensive than laser cutting
  • Lower maintenance than laser cutters

What are the Disadvantages of Plasma Cutting?

Some of the disadvantages associated with plasma cutting include:
  • Less accurate than laser cutting
  • Larger kerf size
  • Material requires cleanup of slagg or dross
  • Cannot engrave
  • Creates localized radiation

What Materials Can be Plasma Cut?

Plasma cutters can only be used to cut conductive metals such as:
  • Steel
  • Stainless steel
  • Aluminum
  • Brass
  • Copper
  • And more

Plasma or Laser Cutting – Which is Best for Your Project?

Before deciding which metal cutting method is right for your project, several considerations should be made. Tolerances are the primary driver in choosing between plasma and laser cutting methods. Plasma methods can cut within tenths of inches, while lasers can cut to thousandths of an inch. Table sizes and metal thickness should also be considered. Generally, thicker metals are plasma cut due to precision tolerance factors.
Certain metals and metal sizes can be cut using laser and plasma cutting. Generally, pieces manufactured for aesthetic or exposed applications get laser cut; while less aesthetically appealing, structural components that are less exposed are plasma cut due to lower tolerances.
Case hardening is also a factor since heavier thermal plasma processes increase temperatures at the site of the cut where the material gets the hottest. Laser cutting will also provide increased spacing accuracy over plasma cutting. However, the project’s result will most often dictate the method used.

The IMS Difference

What separates IMS from other steel suppliers? With an abundance of metal options and customer service that is second to none, IMS has you covered with the following metal stock advantages:
  • Material under the same roof as cutting equipment
  • Next-day delivery of processed material via our trucks
  • Same-day pick-up in Will-Call
  • No minimum purchase
  • Unprecedented customer service
  • Support of Just-in-Time manufacturing processes
  • Salespeople that act as an extension of your purchasing department (we will get any metal products you need)
  • Material management (stocking and delivery on a scheduled basis)
  • Credit lines with good terms
  • Seven stores are open six days a week (check each location for specific times)
  • Shop by metal alloy

IMS – Your Preferred Destination for Laser & Plasma Metal Cutting Services

Looking for a world-class metal supply and distribution company that also provides in-house Hi-Def Plasma, Tube Laser, Flatbed Laser, and Waterjet Cutting Services? IMS is your trusted supplier with decades of expertise. We stock products in the sizes and styles you need. Stop by one of our California or Arizona locations or request a quote today.
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