If you’re in the fabrication industry, you’ve probably come across laser cutting or plasma cutting, and maybe even both. If you think they sound similar, that’s because they are. Both processes are used to cut or separate pieces of material (usually metal) from each other. However, they are far from identical and can’t be used interchangeably, so which do you choose?
Laser cutters use powerful beams of light to thermally cut pieces of metal, while plasma cutters use gas and electricity to produce an arc that melts metal to cut it. Laser cutters excel at cutting a large range of materials, while plasma cutters have more limitations.
The choice between laser cutting services and plasma cutting will depend on what kind of work you plan to do with the machine. We’ve created the guide below to help you determine which one you should pick. We’ve differentiated and compared laser and plasma cutting so that you can make an informed decision.
Continue reading to find out more.
What Is Plasma Cutting?
Plasma cutting is a melting process that uses a superheated, electrically ionised gas fired from a nozzle at high speed towards the material. An electrical arc is formed within the gas and ionises some of the gas, creating an electrically conductive plasma channel.
The electricity from the cutter torch travels down the plasma, and the heat generated melts through the material. The plasma and compressed gas blow away molten metal, which results in the separation of the materials. Plasma machines typically use oxygen or nitrogen as the working gas.
Plasma cutting was developed in the 1950s as an alternative to flame cutting. It is often used in automotive repair and restoration, fabrication shops, salvage and scrapping operations, industrial construction, and even factory maintenance and shipbuilding.
However, because plasma cutting is much more restricted in what it can cut, it’s quickly being replaced by laser cutting. As laser cutting technology has advanced, there are fewer and fewer circumstances where using plasma cutting is a better option.
Advantages of Plasma Cutting
The key advantages of using a plasma cutter include:
- Portability – Plasma cutting is a more portable cutting process, with the option of handheld plasma torches, and can even be used in water.
- Cost-Effective – Plasma cutting has a high speed cut-off with low operational costs.
- Cuts Thick Materials – It’s ideal for cutting thicker pieces of metal and can cut any conductive metal.
Disadvantages of Plasma Cutting
The disadvantages of plasma cutting include:
- Wear Parts – The electrode and nozzle have a very short service life (2 changes per day). The width and shape of the incision can vary depending on the consumption of the nozzle and electrode.
- Poor Cut Quality – In addition to variation from nozzle wear, plasma cutting can cause significant heat deformation, which can contribute to poor cut quality.
- Noisy to Operate: Plasma cutters make a loud noise when cutting.
- Low Versatility – A much smaller range of materials can be effectively cut when compared to laser cutting, such as aluminium, stainless steel and mild steel.
- More Difficult to Operate – Plasma cutting is also far more challenging to use.
What Is Laser Cutting?
Laser cutting is a thermal cutting process that uses a computer-directed high-powered laser together with an active gain mechanism (either gas or optical fiber) to concentrate the laser. Fiber laser cutting is typically the premier choice for metal fabrication applications.
Laser cutting was developed in the 1960s and was initially used to cut holes in diamond dies. Although laser cutting was originally used for industrial manufacturing applications, low-powered laser cutters are now used in architecture, small businesses and schools, and even by hobbyists.
However, when it comes to more industrial laser cutting applications, these processes are primarily performed by professional metal fabrication services using high-powered machinery.
There are currently two types of laser cutting machines — CO2 laser cutters and fiber laser cutters. Both CO2 and fiber lasers use a laser to create a beam used to cut and fabricate metal, but the key difference is how the beams are concentrated – whether the ‘active gain medium’ is gas or optical fiber. This means these technologies operate at different wavelengths, altering the absorption of the laser.
In a CO2 laser, the beam is generated when electricity passes through a chamber filled with gas.The beam is transmitted through a series of reflectors, focusing on the material using a focus lens. This produces heat at the focal point of the laser and creates a hot spot on the material, which melts or vaporises to form a slot.
Fiber lasers use a laser diode that emits light through a fiber optic cable to generate a cutting beam. The laser, which is amplified and shaped in the laser cavity, uses a transport fiber to reach the material surface. Fiber laser cutting machines can quickly and accurately cut a wide range of materials but particularly excel at sheet metal cutting.
Advantages of Laser Cutting
The benefits of laser cutting technology include:
- High Accuracy – Laser cutters are highly accurate, capable of tight tolerances and a very small kerf width, particularly when it comes to CNC fiber laser cutters. This makes laser cutting suitable for precise & intricate jobs.
- Clean Cuts – Laser cutting produces minimal thermal deformation. CO2 laser cutters produce slightly superior results to fiber lasers when it comes to clean cuts, particularly on thick materials
- Cuts a Wide Range of Materials – Laser cutters are very versatile and can be used on an extensive list of materials, as long as they are not overly thick. Fiber laser cutters, which are capable of cutting even reflective metals effectively. Laser cutting technology also works on other materials such as wood and glass.
- Versatility – In addition to cutting, laser cutting machines can also etch or engrave materials. This means more processes can be accomplished with a single piece of machinery.
Disadvantages of Laser Cutting
The downsides of laser cutting include:
- Speed – Cutting times sharply increase when plate thickness is increased. However, fiber laser cutters are known to be much faster than CO2 laser cutters.
- Susceptible to Variation – The state of the material’s surface determines the processing quality, and the difference in the material’s composition also affects the quality of the cut.
- Ventilation Requirements – You also need to ensure that the laser cutting machine is ventilated correctly. Not every material cuts cleanly, meaning the process can release fumes and gas into the air that are unsafe or unsuitable for people to breathe in.
- Higher Cost – Laser cutters are incredibly powerful and versatile, but they require high upfront costs and more ongoing maintenance. However, fiber laser cutters have lower running costs and maintenance costs than CO2 laser cutters.
What Are The Main Differences Between Laser Cutting And Plasma Cutting?
The primary difference between laser and plasma cutting is that laser cutting uses a thermal cutting process via a beam of light, while plasma cutting is a melting process that uses gas and an electrical arc. This makes laser cutting faster and more versatile compared to plasma cutting.
Plasma cutters can only be used on conductive metals like aluminium, mild steel and stainless steel. In contrast, lasers can be used on practically any material, metal or nonmetal, as long as they aren’t overly thick.
Both plasma cutters and laser cutters can also be used with computer numerical control (CNC) machines. These machines connect to a computer, which allows you to design and program exactly what the machine will cut, allowing for more intricate work even with a plasma cutter.
Laser cutters can cut, engrave or etch, and weld, while plasma cutters can only cut.
Learn more about how the two processes compare below.
Laser Cutting vs Plasma Cutting: Which Materials Can You Cut?
Plasma cutters only work on conductive metals, while laser cutters can cut a full range of metals, as well as non-metal materials. While CO2 laser cutting technology used to limit its ability to cut reflective metals, up-to-date fiber laser technology makes laser cutting viable for most sheet metals.
Plasma cutting is more suited for cutting medium-thickness plates of conductive metals, such as stainless steel, aluminium, brass, copper.
There are two varieties of laser cutting technology available today: fiber laser cutters and CO2 laser cutters. Fiber laser cutters are highly suited for cutting sheet metal including both reflective and non-reflective metals. This includes sheets of carbon steel, low alloy steel, stainless steel, and high alloy steel.
CO2 laser cutters excel at cutting non-metal materials like leather, ceramics, wood and plastic, as well as non-reflective metals. Although laser cutters cannot typically cut materials as thick as those in plasma cutting, they are far more accurate and precise.
Laser Cutting vs Plasma Cutting: Which Is More Powerful?
Plasma cutters are more powerful than both fiber and CO2 laser cutters when it comes to very thick materials. This makes it a popular technique in heavy salvage and wrecking applications. Laser cutters need more power to achieve the same level of cutting power as a plasma cutter, but are also far more precise.
Handheld plasma cutters can cut materials up to 38mm thick, while a stronger computer-controlled plasma torch can cut steel up to 150mm thick.
The most powerful 30kW fiber laser cutters available can cut metal up to 100mm, while high-powered 15kW laser cutters can cut up metal to 50mm in thickness. When it comes to laser cutting technology, fiber laser cutters have over five times the power density at the focal point compared to CO2 laser cutters.
However, CO2 laser cutting technology is typically used to cut thicker materials than fiber laser cutters, which are most efficient and effective when cutting sheet metal. Obviously, the size and strength of the cutter will affect the upper maximums of how thick of a material it can cut.
Laser Cutting vs Plasma Cutting: Which Is More Accurate?
Laser cutting is much more accurate compared to plasma cutting, with fiber lasers being more accurate than CO2 lasers. The laser used in laser cutters is far more precise than the jet used in plasma cutters.
This makes CNC laser cutting far more suited to precision applications requiring both high positioning and re-positioning accuracy. This can range from the manufacturing of precise metal parts to the fabrication of structural steel for construction and infrastructure use.
The precise kerf width will depend on the material thickness, speed of cutting, and the machinery itself. However, CNC fiber lasers are capable of unbeatable precision in detailed work, being almost twice as precise as CO2 laser cutters. Plasma cutters are unsuitable for detailed and accurate cutting, with a kerf width of around twice that of CO2 lasers.
Laser Cutting vs Plasma Cutting: Which Is Faster?
Laser cutting is a faster technique than plasma cutting, including both fiber and CO2 laser cutting machines. The exact cutting speed varies depending on the amount of power fed into the machine and its model, but laser cutters can reach up to 10m per min for thin sheet metal, much faster than any plasma cutter.
Fiber laser cutters are amongst the fastest cutters available, with high power fiber lasers cutting up to five times faster than CO2 lasers. Both are still notably faster than plasma cutters, making laser cutting far more efficient for large and repetitive production runs.
Laser Cutting vs Plasma Cutting: Which Is Cheaper?
Plasma cutting machines are cheaper than both fiber and CO2 laser cutting machines when comparing the initial investment costs. For operating costs, machine power, gases, abrasives, consumables, and maintenance have to be considered, but laser cutters are slightly more expensive to power.
The initial investment of a cutter is a significant factor. Plasma cutters are amongst the cheapest types of metal cutting technology. Although exact costs will vary depending on type, features, and size, a Computer Numerical Control (CNC) Plasma machine could range from $15,000 to $300,000. Although it may seem like a wide range, most CNC plasma machines nowadays cost under $100,000.
When comparing laser cutters, high-powered fiber cutters are generally more expensive upfront than CO2 laser cutting machinery. However, the cost to run a fiber laser machine is less than half the cost of equivalent CO2 laser cutting, with 3 to 4 times the throughput.
The cost of an entry-level fiber laser cutting machine starts at around $250,000. However, investing in a high-powered CNC fiber laser can cost up to $1,000,000 or more. On the other hand, CO2 laser cutting technology is more accessible, but running costs are more than double that of fiber laser cutters.
Given the high cost of good quality machinery, it’s more cost-effective for most businesses to outsource laser cutting to a professional laser cutting service.
Laser Cutting vs Plasma Cutting: Which Is Safer?
Laser and plasma cutting machines can be dangerous around inexperienced users since they pose radioactive hazards (in varying degrees) and physical dangers. Both should be operated according to stringent Occupational Health & Safety Standards.
The laser used by laser cutting machines has varying classes, representing different levels of hazards.
- Class 1 – Laser radiation is harmless even with prolonged radiation
- Class 2 – Visible lasers (output below 1mW), only safe for the eyes with short-term radiation below 0.25 seconds.
- Class 3 – Accessible laser radiation is dangerous to the eyes in any degree
- Class 4 – The laser will damage both the eyes and the skin when exposed and can trigger fires within its danger zone.
All users have to be properly trained on the hazards, control measures, operating procedures of the lab and manufacturer, use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), emergency procedures, and safety precautions. PPE includes safety glasses, gloves, skin protection, and hearing protection (if necessary).
As for plasma cutters, the main hazard is a broad spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, which extends from Infrared light (IR) and into the UltraViolet range (UV). Although lasers also emit radiation, it’s far less significant in comparison. Plasma cutters also produce electrocution and air quality hazards. The PPE for plasma cutting includes Flame-Resistant (FR) Balaclavas, face shields, gloves, and non-flammable and heat-resistant apparel.
Laser Cutting vs Plasma Cutting: Which Should I Use?
For most projects, laser cutting is a better option than plasma cutting. This wasn’t always the case, but the benefits of modern fiber laser technology make it the superior choice. Fiber laser cutting is incredibly versatile, clean and accurate, as well as being the faster method.
Laser cutting excels at cutting thinner metals such as sheet metal and is far more versatile. Laser cutting is also extremely accurate and produces cleaner cuts than plasma cutting, which makes it suitable for any project requiring precision.
A fiber laser cutter is one of the most versatile types of metal cutting technology available. This type of machine eliminates many of the pitfalls of CO2 laser cutters, making laser cutting technology the most advanced option on the market.
However, it depends entirely on your project. If you are cutting very thick pieces of conductive metal and quality is not an issue, a plasma cutter will be quicker to use than a laser cutter. The quality of cuts produced by a plasma cutter is much poorer than a laser cutter, so this will be a significant factor to consider for your project.
A general rule of thumb is that a plasma cutter will be best if it’s a very thick piece of metal that needs maximum power, such as in scrapping and wrecking applications. But if the material is thin and requires precision, a laser cutter will work most efficiently.
Laser machines are also preferred for any engraving, as plasma cutters are too intense to engrave correctly. The broader range of uses and the speed at which a laser cutter operates make it superior in most cases.
Laser Cutting Services at Kanyana Engineering
If this article has made you want to use laser cutting for your project, Kanyana Engineering can help. We are experts in laser cutting and metal fabrication in Western Australia, with over 20 years of experience in the industry.
We use two state-of-the-art 15kw Bystronic laser cutting machines in our workshop to produce the best cutting results for our clients on sheet metal up to 50mm. We work with 15kw fiber laser cutters because they have tight tolerances, ensuring the most accurate cut possible. With all of our metal fabrication services offered in-house by our local professionals, you can guarantee a smooth process for your project. We aim to achieve excellence in every project we take on.
At Kanyana Engineering we prioritise quality, safety, teamwork, and versatility. If this sounds like the right metal fabrication company for your project, get in touch with Kanyana Engineering today.
Can Plasma Cutters Cut Anything?
Plasma cutters can only cut conductive metals, such as mild steel, stainless steel and aluminium. Unlike laser cutters, they cannot cut non-metals such as wood, plastic, rubber, and ceramics.
Is Water Jet Cutting Better Than Laser Cutting?
Water jet cutters are better at cutting 3D designs and thicker metals than laser cutters, but they are far less accurate and precise and can damage materials in the process. Water jet cutting is also more expensive than laser cutting.
Laser cutters will have a problem with materials that are quite thick and perform best with sheet metal. On the other hand, water jet cutters pose a risk of delamination and damaging components with the abrasive force used to cut them.
This article is published in good faith and for general informational purposes only. Kanyana Engineering does not make any warranties about the ongoing completeness and reliability of this information. Always seek specific advice on your metal fabrication project to ensure all variables are taken into consideration.
Graham Dawe is the Managing Director and Works Manager of Kanyana Engineering. With decades of experience in the metal fabrication industry, he is dedicated to keeping Kanyana at the forefront of the sector’s technological growth. Looking beyond the process itself to holistic, integrated CAD, CAM and MRP solutions, Graham believes Australian manufacturing has an enduring place on the global stage. In Kanyana Engineering’s state-of-the-art workshop in Mandurah, WA, Graham delivers an exceptional standard of work for commercial, industrial and government clients alike.