Today’s consumer has a wide array of options for cutting systems and machines, options that can seem overwhelming. However, when it comes to cutting metal, most machines fit into one of two categories: plasma or laser. Named for the way in which they cut, both types of machines have distinct advantages and excel at different applications. In this article, we hope to clarify your choices by briefly explaining each type of cutting machine and giving you the information you need to select the system that’s right for your needs.
Simply put, a plasma cutting machine uses the power of electrical current and compressed gas to cut through metal. Plasma cutting technology was first developed in the 1950s in order to cut copper, stainless steel, aluminum, and
other metals that could not be cut with flame. Plasma cutters utilize concentrated electrical currents and high-velocity gas flow, usually oxygen or nitrogen. This creates intense heat, which melts a narrow slot in the metal. The gas then propels the molten material from the bottom of the cut.
For cutting most types of metal, plasma cutting systems are hard to beat. They provide fast, smooth cuts with extremely consistent edge quality over the life of a consumable set. In addition, plasma cutters are more forgiving with certain types
of materials, including metal that is oxidized or otherwise imperfect. Plasma cutting machines are also better for certain types of cuts, such as bevel cuts, which can be performed right on the machine. This eliminates secondary operations and provides faster turnaround time. While plasma requires personal safety devices for protection from glare and noise, this technology doesn’t require a safety enclosure around the entire system the way laser sometimes can. For many, the main advantage of plasma over laser is its cost-effectiveness. Plasma cutting systems are considerably less expensive in terms of both the initial purchase and routine maintenance costs.
Plasma cutting’s main disadvantage, though, is that it can only be used to cut metal. There’s also more cutting slag produced than with a laser cutter, which must be ground away. Finally, plasma cutting can generate harmful gases, although the use of personal protective devices or underwater plasma cutting will generally avoid these hazards.
As the name implies, laser cutting uses a focused beam of laser light to melt, burn, or vaporize materials, forming a narrow slot. At the same time, auxiliary gas blows out slag from the cutting slot, thus eliminating the need for a secondary process. Laser’s main advantage over plasma is the wide variety of materials it can cut. In addition to all types of metal, laser cutting systems can neatly slice through wood, glass, ceramic, rubber, PVC, and even leather and textiles. Laser cutters can also perform a wide variety of cuts and excel at fine, detailed cuts such as holes and engraving. In addition, laser cutting can be quite fast, sometimes up to 393”/min, and since laser cutters remove slag automatically, edges are smooth from the beginning, with no need for grinding or secondary processing.
However, laser cutters are typically very expensive, sometimes up to 3 or 4 times the cost of a comparable plasma machine; maintenance can be more costly than plasma as well. There’s also safety to think about with laser; unlike plasma, laser cutting systems require protective gear and a safety enclosure.
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