3D Printing vs. Laser Cutting: Differences and Comparison
Learn more about these two technologies and how they are each used in manufacturing.
Laser cutting is a technology that uses a high-powered laser beam to cut sheet materials, typically metal, into 2D shapes. 3D printing is a technology that creates parts by adding material layer by layer until the part is complete. Laser cutting is suited to sheet metal fabrications, whereas 3D printing can produce plastic and metal products of almost any shape. 3D printing has a very wide range of potential materials, whereas laser cutting is generally more limited due to the high energy of the laser as well as the thermal capacity or reflectivity of the materials. Laser cutting, especially with metals, is far cheaper than 3D printing metals. Laser cutting is significantly quicker than 3D printing.
Despite the two employing very different technologies, this article will compare 3D printing vs. laser cutting in terms of how they work, their advantages, disadvantages, and materials, and highlight some alternative technologies.
3D printing is a process used to build up parts one layer at a time via the addition of material (plastic or metal). Its first documented iterations can be traced back to the early 1980s in Japan. Hideo Kodama developed a rapid prototyping system using a photosensitive resin polymerized by UV light. Over the years, many different 3D printing technologies like FDM, SLS, DED, and SLM have been developed. FDM and DED both lay the material down through a nozzle one layer at a time. SLS and SLM, on the other hand, use a laser to fuse powder particles one layer at a time until the part is complete. 3D printing is an additive technology, whereas laser cutting is subtractive as it cuts out parts from sheet stock. For more information, see our guide on what is 3D printing.
A typical SLM 3D printer is shown in Figure 1 below:
3D printer printing on metal.
Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/MarinaGrigorivna
Listed below are some advantages of 3D printing over laser cutting:
- 3D printing can produce complex 3-dimensional parts out of both plastic and metal. Laser cutting can only create simple 2-dimensional parts.
- 3D printing has access to a wide range of materials from thermoplastic elastomers to Inconel. Many plastics and some metals like copper and aluminum are generally not suited to laser cutting.
Listed below are some disadvantages of 3D printing over laser cutting:
- 3D printing is not well suited to creating large flat parts. This is because 3D printer flat surface areas are generally smaller. Removing thin, flat metal parts from a 3D printer bed will result in them being deformed or damaged. Metal printed parts often need to be cut off from the build plate.
- Producing metal parts with 3D printing is significantly more expensive than laser cutting. Ultimately it is more costly to produce metal powder for 3D printing than it is to produce sheet metal.
Laser cutting refers to the process of using high-powered CO2, direct diode, or fiber lasers. A laser cutting head moving in the X and Y axes cuts two-dimensional shapes from sheet stock. The technology was invented in the 1960s. One of the first laser cutting machines was created by the Western Electric Engineering Research Center in 1965.
Laser cutters typically cut metal thicknesses from a few millimeters up to as much as 25 mm. Parts with a thicker requirement are possible with a decrease in cut quality and an increase in cut time. Laser cutting machines are designed to accept standard sheet sizes. They can cut out shapes in a few seconds. Laser cutting is widely used in the manufacturing industry and is used to prepare flat parts and to cut out shapes for sheet-metal bending. To learn more, see our guide on What is a Laser Cutter.
A typical laser cutting machine is shown in Figure 2:
Laser cutting machine.
Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/Guryanov Andrey
Listed below are some advantages of laser cutting over 3D printing:
- Laser cutting metal is one of the cheapest methods of metal fabrication. The high production capacity and relatively automated process make the cost per kg much lower than metal 3D printing, for example.
- Laser cutting can process far more material per day than 3D printing.
Listed below are some disadvantages of laser cutting over 3D printing:
- Laser cutting can only produce parts with 2-dimensional shapes. 3D printing can produce more-complex 3D components in one step. Laser-cut parts need additional steps – like sheet metal bending and welding – to create complex pieces.
- Not all materials can be laser cut. Some plastics, like ABS, are not well suited to laser cutting as they will melt and deform. Metals like copper and aluminum are also difficult to laser cut. 3D printers, on the other hand, can use these materials and many more.
Laser cutting is a low-cost high-production-volume technology, whereas 3D printing is a low-volume and high-cost technology. Laser cutting is suited to simple 2D parts, whereas 3D printing is best suited to complex 3D parts.
Laser cutting is one of the cheapest metal processing technologies. This is due to its relatively low cost of sheet stock and the high production rate. 3D printing can be cheap if it is used to print small plastic components. However, the cost can quickly escalate with increased product size and more advanced materials like stainless steel or titanium.
Laser cutting is a very fast process. It can produce sheet metal blanks in a few seconds; 3D printing can take many hours to produce a small plastic or metal part.
Laser cutting is a high-production-volume technology. It can cut many tons of simple 2-dimensional parts per month. 3D printing is a slow, low-volume-production technology. It is more suited to complex 3-dimensional parts for advanced applications.
Laser cutting can be used to cut metal, wood, plastic, ceramics, etc. 3D printing, on the other hand, can produce parts in almost any plastic and a wide range of metals. Wood-filled plastics are also possible. 3D printing can also create multi-material parts in one step. As such 3D printing has a wider range of available materials.
3D printing and laser cutting are completely different technologies, designed with different applications in mind. However, the below technology can be loosely described as a mutual alternative:
- Sheet Lamination: Sheet lamination is an additive technology that works by adding multiple layers of sheet stock on top of each other. These are then fused using heat and pressure. Its purpose is to produce parts with near-net shapes that can then be post-processed with subtractive technologies. The sheets can also be laser cut to remove any excess material to more closely match the net part shape.
Listed below are some similarities when comparing 3D printing with laser cutting:
- Laser cutting machines and SLS, DMLS, and SLM 3D printers make use of lasers as their energy source. 3D printers use lasers to fuse metal powders, whereas laser cutters use lasers to cut through relatively thin sheets and plate metal.
- Laser cutters and metal 3D printers can create parts with a wide range of metals. As such, both technologies can produce parts for real-world engineering applications.
Listed below is an alternative to 3D printing:
- 3D Printing vs. CNC machining: CNC machines can produce complex 3-dimensional parts out of plastics and metal. A CNC machine is also a mature technology that is cheaper than 3D printing, especially when it comes to metal parts.
Listed below is an alternative to laser cutting:
- Laser Cutting vs. Waterjet Cutting: Waterjet cutting is another technology specifically designed to cut sheet or plate material into 2-dimensional shapes. Waterjet cutting uses a high-pressure stream of abrasive-filled water to cut through the material. Waterjet cutting can cut a wide range of materials including plastic, metal, and ceramics.
This article presented the differences between 3D printing and laser cutting, explained what they are, and discussed how each technology can be used in manufacturing. To learn more about 3D printing and laser cutting, contact a Xometry representative.
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