What is Laser Cutting and How is it Used in Metalworking?

Laser cutting is a method of cutting to specific shapes flat sheet metal and other materials. This article summarizes how laser cutting works, its benefits and drawbacks, and also discusses the different types of laser cutting.

What is Laser Cutting?
Laser cutting, as futuristic as it sounds, is the technology that uses a laser to cut metal – a process predominantly used in the industrial manufacturing realm. Industrial laser cutters are used mostly to cut flat sheet material or structural or piping metals. The laser cuts the material by burning, melting, or blowing it away. Most people don’t know that the word laser is an acronym that stands for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation” – a process that works by stimulated emission. It is manifested in the form of a low divergence beam that can be manipulated with various reflective surfaces.

A laser beam is generated by stimulating a lasing material by electrical discharges or lamps within a closed container. There are many different ways to produce a laser beam in cutting lasers with different types used to cut different material. Here is a partial list of the methods: vaporization, melt and blow, melt blow and burn, thermal stress cracking, scribing, cold cutting and burning stabilized laser cutting.

What are the Benefits and Drawbacks of Laser Cutting?
During mechanical cutting, by saw, for example, machines can be contaminated by the materials they are cutting and can also be dulled by frequent extended use. Precision in laser beams is also higher than that of typical industrial cutting materials. In short, custom laser cutting produces greater consistency from part to part. Laser cutting gives you cleaner, burr-free cuts, quicker production, minimal operator intervention (so less human error), and greater accuracy means less wasted metal and lower costs to the manufacturer. Mechanical cutting is simple machining but requires less energy than does laser cutting, the main weakness in the process. Also, the laser cutting process requires cooling. Water is a commonly used coolant, usually circulated through a chiller or heat transfer system.

What are the Types of Laser Cutting?
There are three main types of laser cutting. The CO2 laser is used to cut, bore, or engrave. Nd is used for boring when there are high-energy requirements but low repetition. Nd-YAG laser is used where high power is needed. Both are used for welding. A typical laser machining apparatus consists of a power supply for producing a laser beam, a work piece positioning table, laser material, a method of stimulation, mirrors, and a focusing lens. The work piece is fixated by straps, clamps, tabs, magnets, or suction cups.