Today’s consumer has a wide array of options for cutting systems and machines, options that can seem overwhelming. However, when it comes to high production metal cutting, most machines fit into one of two categories: plasma or laser. Today’s plasma and laser cutting machines are both highly precise thanks to computer numeric control (CNC), but both have distinct advantages and excel at different applications. In this article, we hope to clarify your choices by briefly explaining plasma cutting versus laser cutting and giving you the information you need to select the system that’s right for your needs.
How They Work
Simply put, a CNC 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. Plasma cutting machines are often used in fabrication shops, construction, automotive repair and restoration, and other similar industries.
Laser cutting, however, uses laser optics and CNC to direct a focused beam of high-powered light. This light melts, burns, or vaporizes the material, forming a narrow slot. At the same time, auxiliary gas blows out slag from the cutting slot, eliminating the need for a secondary process. Laser cutting is typically used for industrial manufacturing applications to cut a variety of materials, from flat-sheet metal to structural and piping materials.
What They Cut
For most applications involving metal, plasma cutting systems are difficult to beat, especially at thicknesses greater than ¼”. Plasma cutters slice neatly through a wide variety of metals with a thickness of up to 80mm, providing fast, buttery smooth cuts with consistent edge quality and very little dross 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, and can cut through metals with reflective properties, which are impossible to cut with laser. Plasma cutters can produce part accuracies better than 0.008”, and are quite fast, processing 16 gauge mild steel at over 200 IPM and 1” thick mild steel at over 45 IPM. Plasma cutting machines are also the optimal choice 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.
Laser’s main advantage over plasma is the wide variety of materials it’s capable of cutting. In addition to most types of metal, laser cutters can handle wood, glass, ceramic, rubber, PVC, and even leather and textiles. Laser cutters can also perform a wide variety of cuts at narrow kerf widths (0.006” to 0.015”) and excel at fine, detailed cuts such as small holes, intricate notching, and delicate engraving. Laser is faster when cutting thinner metals. Laser machines are capable of cutting thinner metals at over 1000 IPM and can produce a cut edge squareness of less than 1 degree. However, laser can cause some heat distortion, particularly on thicker plate. It is also slower than plasma on most thicknesses, typically ranging from 20 to 70 IPM.
Both plasma and laser cutters require special accommodations to operate safely. While plasma cutting machines require personal safety devices for protection from glare, noise, and gases, this technology doesn’t require specialized gear and a safety enclosure around the entire system as laser sometimes can.
If you’re looking for the most bang for your metal-shop buck, you can’t beat plasma in terms of initial investment. Depending on the type and size of machine, as well as its features, most shop-quality CNC plasma cutting machines can be purchased in the range of $50,000 to $100,000. Laser, meanwhile, is by far more expensive. While used laser cutters can sometimes be found for around $250,000, a new machine frequently runs over $300,000, sometimes to as much as $1 million. When it comes to cost with laser versus plasma, plasma is by far the least expensive up-front investment.
Even when factoring in operating costs such as consumables, abrasive, power, gas, and routine maintenance, plasma is once again the clear winner. Most CNC plasma cutting machines run at about $15/hour, whereas laser cutting machines generally cost around $20/hour to operate. The aforementioned safety considerations also drive up the cost of operating a laser cutting system, since special accommodations must be made. The bottom line for your bottom line when comparing plasma versus laser? Plasma is the best value.
Head-to-Head Performance Testing
If you’re still not certain which is best, plasma versus laser, for your metalworking applications, this study conducted by Hypertherm will likely prove helpful. In tests pitting X-Definition plasma cutters against fiber laser, ISO ranges compared well across mild steel at a variety of thicknesses. At speeds selected to optimize both quality and productivity, plasma showed less average edge deviation from perpendicular and lower variability in deviation when cutting through 6-mm thick mild steel, even after 1,000 starts. With mild steel at a thickness of 12mm, similar results were achieved. In addition, edge quality was smoother with the plasma machine, and plasma delivered excellent perpendicularity and hole quality.
So which is better, plasma or laser? While the ultimate answer depends on the materials you’re cutting, what types of cuts you’ll be making, and your budget, for most metalworking, the clear winner is a plasma cutting machine. Plasma produces fast, high-quality, precision cuts through all types of metal while avoiding the hazards of laser, not to mention its high cost. For great cutting at a great value, you can’t beat plasma. If you’re ready to investigate which plasma cutting machine is the best fit for your requirements, call us today. Our team of experts will guide you through your options and find the ideal machine for your shop, so you can build something great.
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