guide to laser cutters

Ultimate Guide To Laser Cutters: Costs, Types, Materials

Laser cutters are a fantastic addition to any workshop, but they are quite expensive and should be seen as a serious investment. They can easily be broken through improper use, so it is important to understand how they work and what they can be used for.  

They are dangerous pieces of equipment if used incorrectly and could lead to serious injuries for the operator.

We have put together this handy guide to answer your basic questions if you are just starting to learn about laser cutters. Will go over basic costs from large industrial types of laser cutters to hobby-style laser cutters for home and small businesses.

We will also go over the types of laser cutters and the kinds of materials they will cut (and also materials that are not good for cutting on laser cutters.)

How do laser cutters work?

Laser cutters, as the name suggests, use a laser beam to cut through and score into different materials. They are commonly used in most workshops and are even found in a lot of schools.  

The word laser was not originally a word in its own right. It is an abbreviation of the phrase light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation. This gives us a good indication as to the rough premise of their operation.  

Laser Beam

The laser beam is an incredibly intense and concentrated stream of light. It is all one wavelength. In standard CO2 lasers, this is a beam of infra-red light that is invisible to the naked human eye. The beam is very narrow, measuring only around ¾ inch in diameter.  

It leaves an area referred to as the laser resonator. From here, it begins to travel along its path, known as the beam path. During its journey along this path, the beam comes into contact with multiple mirrors which bounce the light in different directions. These are colloquially referred to as beam benders.  

The beam then hits the focusing lens or a curved mirror situated within the laser focusing head. It is vital that the beam is focused to ensure there is consistent energy density throughout the entire area of the laser beam. This also ensures a high level of heat density where the beam is targeted.  

Gas Used for Laser Cutting

At this time it will also come into contact with a laser gas such as compressed nitrogen or oxygen. This gas travels with the beam through the nozzle of the laser and onto the material you are working on.

The high power density means that the area the laser is focused on heats up rapidly. This causes the material you are working on to melt and partially or completely vaporize.  

When working with a mild form of steel this will kickstart an oxyfuel combustion process whereby the cutting gas is just oxygen. When working with aluminum or stainless steel the laser beam is at temperatures sufficient to melt the metal. The gas used is nitrogen and this blows the melted metal out of the way.  

CNC Controlled Laser Cutter

If you are using a CNC (computer numerical control) laser cutter, the head is moved across the working material in the shape of your design to cut it out. The distance between the material and the laser nozzle is controlled by a capacitive height control system to ensure high levels of accuracy.

This distance dictates the location of the focal point, which in turn impacts the quality of the cut.

Laser Cutting Methods

There are 2 different methods to cut through materials with a laser. This involves the use of either a continuous or pulsed beam. Continuous laser beams, as implied by the name, have one continuous beam of consistent laser light. Pulsed beam lasers use short bursts of laser light to perform the same function.

What are the 3 main types of laser cutter?

Carbon dioxide laser cutting

This is the most common type of laser and is the one we have described above. It is commonly used with a carbon dioxide gas that has been stimulated with electricity.

Crystal laser cutting

These lasers involve 2 different types of laser. They are nd:YAG (neodymium-doped yttrium aluminum garnet) and nd:YVO (neodymium-doped yttrium ortho-vanadate) lasers. They belong to the same group as lasers when in their solid-state, and have a similar wavelength to fiber lasers (about 1.064 micrometers).

The lasers require pump diodes to function which can be very costly. They will also need to be replaced every 8,000 – 15,000 hours of use. This is a much shorter period than say a fiber laser.  

Fiber laser cutting

The laser beam is created with a seed laser and is then boosted by pump diodes and glass fibers. As we have mentioned already, their wavelength is roughly 1.064 micrometers. This means that they have a 100x larger laser beam than carbon dioxide lasers in terms of intensity.

These are the most multi-functional of all the laser types mentioned here. They do not require much maintenance, last on average around 25,000 hours of use, and the replacement parts are a lot cheaper.  

How much do laser cutters cost?

There is no one set price for a laser cutter, as there are a lot of variables that you can choose from. These include the design, type, size, and cutting abilities of the laser cutter in question. It may seem like a good idea to purchase a cheaper laser cutter, but these are likely to have considerably weaker laser beams.

The price point of a laser cutter is likely to be anywhere from $250 to around $15,000 for home-usage. If you are considering purchasing a laser cutter for the industry, the price will be a lot higher. You will be looking at about $275,000 to $1,390,000.  

The major factor that determines the price of your laser cutter will be the intended usage. If you are only planning to use the laser cutter for engraving, you can safely opt for a more budget machine. If you want to cut through industrial-strength metal then you are likely to need to pay a decent amount more.  

Laser cutters can range in size from roughly a home printer to around 3,000 x 12,000 mm tables. The smaller the size of the laser cutter, the cheaper it is likely to be.

What can laser cutters cut through?

Laser cutters are powerful machines that can cut through a huge variety of materials.  

Metals

Metals are one of the most well-known materials used for laser cutting. They can handle any type of metal from steel to non-ferrous metals. Laser cutters may struggle with reflective metals such as aluminum and you may need to use a fiber laser to get through them.

Metals up to 30 mm thick can be cut with a laser cutter. Some laser cutters may be able to handle metals thicker than this, but if you are in doubt we suggest checking in your owner’s manual for confirmation.

Wood

Most types of wood are suitable for cutting with laser cutting. Plywood and MDF (medium-density fiberboard) are highly recommended for laser cutting. Take care when cutting woods containing oils and resin. These are highly flammable substances and could be very dangerous.

Read Also: What Is The Best Wood for Laser Cutting?

Cardboard and paper

These are commonly cut with lasers to make intricate invitations and other decorative pieces.  

Plastics

Some clear plastics such as Poly(methyl methacrylate) (also known as PMMA), acrylic, and lucite are highly suited to laser cutting. They produce an amazing finish as the cut area melts away to leave a smooth and polished appearance.  

POM (polyoxymethylene) is a plastic that is commonly used in engineering. This is also very suited to being cut using a laser cutter.  

Glass

Laser cutters can be used to cut glass in a highly effective manner. You should check that your laser cutter is powerful enough to handle cutting glass, and it must also have a cooling system.

What Material Can You Not Cut on a Laser Cutter?

Materials that are not suitable for cutting are primarily different types of plastic.  

You should not cut PVC (polyvinyl chloride) as this causes the plastic to emit toxic fumes and acids. These are dangerous to the operator if inhaled, but can also cause parts of the laser cutter to corrode.  

How much are Trotec laser cutters?

Trotec offers a variety of laser machines. They include laser engravers, laser cutters, large format laser cutting machines, business solution laser machines, custom-built laser machines, and industrial marking lasers.  

Trotec does not publish pricing information on its website, meaning that it can be tricky to roughly estimate the cost of a laser cutter to allow for budgeting.

The company claims that this is due to the custom element of each of its laser cutters. Similar to when you are purchasing a customized car, it is hard to estimate costs without knowing what is included.

Generally speaking, Trotec laser cutters will start at around $14,000. Used or demonstration models are likely to be found a bit cheaper, and you may get a discounted rate of around $10,000.  

Why do laser cutters cost so much?

When you are deciding what laser cutter to purchase, your most important consideration is what materials you will be cutting. Carbon dioxide lasers are better suited to use on paper and wood, whereas fiber lasers are better suited to metals. If you are planning on working with a whole range of materials then a flexx laser will likely work better for you.

The power level is another important factor that influences the price of the overall machine. The higher the power, the faster the machine will operate and the quicker your turnaround time will be. Higher laser power also means that thicker materials can be worked with.  

Another factor that influences the cost of laser cutters is the working area. The larger the working area, the more processes can be carried out at once. This also allows for you to work with larger materials, ideal if you are using the machine for an industrial or commercial purpose.  

Laser cutting machine production operator for textile transfer fashion industry factory

There are also many additional features that you can look for within laser cutters that will bump up the price. These include an exhaust system, processing tables, lenses, and rotary engraving attachments. The exhaust system is a key feature as laser cutting creates a lot of harmful gases.

Exhaust systems will safely draw these out of the air and transfer them to the outside where they will cause less damage.  

Processing tables have different properties to suit different functions. There are tables such as the vacuum table which helps keep thinner materials stationary while cutting is in progress and an acrylic cutting grid for use with acrylic materials.

The focus lenses come in a variety of sizes and colors for use with a variety of materials. They help to control the accuracy of the laser engraving and cutting depth. The rotary engraving attachment is designed to assist when engraving circular objects. It replaces the Y-axis movement with a rotary movement.  

The final factor influencing the cost of laser cutters is the build quality. More expensive machines are likely to be made better and will require less maintenance and repairs over their lifespan.

More expensive machines are likely to come with a warranty period that will cover some or all of these costs for a predetermined period after purchase.

Read Also: Types of Plasma Cutters

What strength of laser cutters can cut aluminum?

Aluminum is a good conductor of heat and is also highly reflective of light. This means that there can be many potential issues when attempting to cut aluminum using a laser cutter.

For the best results, it is often advised that compressed gas technology is used in conjunction with high power settings. Gasses commonly used include nitrogen and oxygen.  

Laser-cut aluminum has a wide variety of uses, including road signs, identification plates, car parts, aerospace parts, and architectural panels as well as other things. Particularly on Trotec lasers, there should be settings on your program to ensure the optimal cutting and power settings have been chosen for the task.  

To engrave anodized aluminum, a laser power setting of 30 Watts minimum is recommended. We would recommend trying to practice cuts of your aluminum prior to working on your finished product. This allows you to play around with the settings to ensure the settings are optimal for the cut or engraving quality that you require.

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