laser cutting piece of metal with sparks flying

Laser Cutting vs Plasma Cutting: A Comparison

If you work in an industry that requires materials like metal, wood, granite, or marble, you're likely familiar with at least one method to cut and engrave those materials. While human workers are still popular for sectioning out or altering materials, these machines can also do quality work.

Plasma and laser cutting are two of the most popular methods of cutting different materials. Both of them can do much better cutting or engraving than any human being can.

This is because a computer guides them with exact guidelines. This computer then lays out every design that is cut. They both have pros and cons, but at the end of the day, one of them just might be the superior option.

Today, we’re going to look closely at these two methods of cutting. How do they really compare with each other? Is plasma cutting actually cheaper than laser cutting? Is that true everywhere?

What can you cut via laser? There are many differences when you look at laser vs plasma cutting, which is why they both have their uses.

What Is Laser Cutting?

Laser cutting has been around since the mid-1960s when Peter Houldcroft came up with the idea of pairing a focused laser with an oxygen assist gas.

His goal was to drastically improve the precision and quality of the thermal cutting technology of the time. He was successful. His experiments proved to be a crucial ground floor from which future laser-cutting techniques could be built.

These future techniques would be utilized to improve what could be done with laser cutting technology. Nowadays, the lasers we use are made of a high-power beam of light that burns so intensely it can cut clean through most materials. It leaves a smooth edge and does work that's just about on par with hand-cut materials, if not better.

A Brief Breakdown of Laser Cutting

The reason that laser cutting equipment is so precise is that a computer performs the cuts. A code is put into a motion control system, which uses computer numerical control (CNC) to guide the laser.

You can program many patterns into a control system. This gives users nearly unlimited rein to cut materials in various ways. The only limitation users would face is creating new patterns and designs to inscribe into work.

Laser cutting equipment allows for significant artistry in its designs thanks to its intensely precise drawing capabilities. Lasers are light and can thus be adjusted in size to the most minute degree imaginable.

Viable Materials

You can also do laser cutting on lots of different materials. Wood, copper, aluminum, zinc, mahogany, leather, quartz, amethyst – just about any textile or material you can think of can be cut by a laser.

That is, to a point. There are a few materials that you shouldn’t cut with a laser cutter, or you’ll at least want to consult your owner’s manual before attempting to cut them. These include vinyl, pleather, and other kinds of plastic products. Sometimes, cutting certain types of plastic could damage your laser cutting machine considerably.

This is because trying to cut plastic with heat usually results in a big, gooey mess that, at best, will take you a long time to clean and, at worst, will cause your machine to be completely ruined.

Other materials you can’t cut with a laser cutter include polystyrene and polypropylene foam, which can catch fire. Fiberglass and carbon-coated fiber can emit harmful fumes when someone attempts to cut or engrave them with a laser cutter.

ABS tends to simply melt when exposed to the beam of a laser cutter. Thick polycarbonate is another material you’ll want to keep out of your laser cutter’s beam. This material cuts poorly and can emit quite an unpleasant odor when exposed to a laser cutter.

Wide Variety of Uses

However, there are still a ton of veritable uses that you can get out of your laser cutter. Cutting, engraving, and laying out designs with a hand that’ll never mess up is a nifty tool, even if it’s limited in the materials it can be used on. That makes the product such a significant draw in so many different industries.

A laser cutting system allows you to eliminate the middleman of artists or human contractors. It's usually faster and can be done in-house by trained professionals or anyone who takes the time to learn how to use such a system.

Laser cutting is also preferable to human work because of its exactness. You can always count on laser-cut materials to feature the same glossy finish, the same clean lines, and the same in everything.

After all, that’s what clients who want to use laser cutting are looking for in the first place: consistency. Laser-cut materials will always look exactly how they're supposed to look. There is never any deviation from the design – no slip-ups or mistakes.

But how does laser cutting compare to plasma cutting, the similar-sounding yet totally different style of cutting and engraving?

plasma cutting circles out of sheet of metal

What Is Plasma Cutting?

Plasma cutting is when you use a jet of white-hot ionized gas (such as argon, nitrogen, or a mixture of argon and hydrogen) to focus an arc of electricity. A cooled nozzle then constricts this arc. This concentrated beam of electrical energy can cut conductive metal such as copper, aluminum, steel, brass, and any other metal that conducts electricity well.

Inert gasses produce more high-quality cuts in alloys, giving a plasma cutting machine a massive advantage over the metal-on-metal cutting technique that it replaced. This older technology was prone to making uneven cuts and even releasing metal shards into the air, bringing with them all sorts of problems.

How Plasma Cutting Got to This Point

Plasma cutting also originated quite some time ago – back in the 1960s, if you can believe it. Initially, plasma welders theorized that there were probably many more benefits to using hot plasma itself to cut other metals than using the cold metal. After all, plasma cutters could slice through any metal material like butter and wouldn’t be a risk due to random shards flying everywhere.

When a CNC cutting table was introduced into the manufacturing landscape, plasma cutters began to take off in the 1980s. With this newfound technology, it became clear that plasma cutters and similar technology would replace human workers en masse. After all, plasma cutters could cut out cleaner lines than any person could and do it repeatedly without needing a break. They quickly replaced metal workers all across the United States and the rest of the world.

Today, a plasma cutting machine is designed to work long hours and deal with thousands of pounds of materials. They are outfitted with powerful motors and robust amplifiers to deliver top-notch results. They are available in enormous sizes and quantities – sometimes hundreds of feet long – and can utilize hundreds of torches to carry out their pre-programmed tasks.

What Materials Can Plasma Cutters Deal With?

Unlike laser cutters, which are pretty versatile for all kinds of materials you can use, a plasma cutting table only works with conductive metal. For a material to react to the ionized gas that comes out of a plasma cutter, they need to be able to conduct electricity.

The whole interaction between plasma and the metal material it cuts only happens because the gas is ionized by the reaction between an electrode and whatever metal is being cut – the cathode. If there’s no electricity, there’s no heat and no cutting. Or, to put it another way, if there’s no arc, there’s no spark.

plasma cutting machine sparking as it cuts metal

Laser Vs. Plasma Cutting: Is There a Superior Option?

So, now that we know more about these two cutting options, is one of them clearly the superior choice? Well, it depends on what you’re looking for from your cutting process. Laser cutters cater to a wider range of materials, while plasma cutters are limited to metal. That means if you’re looking to engrave or cut a wide range of materials, then laser cutters might not just be more viable – they might be your only option.

What plasma cutters have going for them is that they are much cheaper and easier to use than laser cutters. A laser cutting table will probably be out of the question if you’re trying to cut thousands of tons of sheet metal into smaller portions. A plasma machine is likely your ideal solution for a job with an enormous scale due to the much lower overall cost.

However, there’s something else we need to consider: the insane level of detail that laser cutters can deliver. They can do fine engravings at infinitesimally smaller sizes than you can achieve with a plasma cutter because lasers are much easier to adjust than plasma jets.

Plasma jets are like roaring infernos compared to a laser beam. If you need any fine craftsmanship done on a small scale, then a laser cutter will likely be your tool of choice.

Is there a superior option when comparing these two kinds of cutting techniques? We can say for sure that the answer depends on what kind of job you need to do. Both types of machines are ideal for different tasks, but it’s pretty easy to differentiate them.

If you need any fine work done, go with a laser cutter. It’ll be more expensive, but it’ll do the job well — like any skilled craftsman or tradesperson. If you’re looking for large-scale factory work for a big job, then plasma cutting is probably the way to go. It all depends on your individual needs.

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