What is Laser Cutting? Laser Cutting Service Materials, Applications, and More
Our In-Depth Guide to Industrial Laser Cutting
Laser cutting is a process that aims a high-power laser through optics to cut materials for industrial manufacturing applications. This type of manufacturing is classified as a sheet metal cutting process since it is often used to cut this form of metal. Laser cutting is also, however, commonly used for quality welding and to cut other materials such as composites, rubber, glass, wood, and aluminum. There is also 3D laser cutting, which uses CNC (computer numerical control) machines to create cuts with depth, as opposed to 2D cuts which simply cut pieces out of a flat surface. This guide outlines all the basics of laser cutting services to help you make the best decisions in requesting the service you need. We’ll be covering:
- What is Laser Cutting?
- Types of Lasers Used in Laser Cutting
- How the Laser Cutting Process Works
- Common Laser Cutting Materials
- Applications of Industrial Laser Cutting
- Is Laser Cutting Right for Your Project?
- Designing for the Laser Cutter
- Laser Cutting with Xometry
If you’re interested in laser marking as well as cutting, you can also check out our guide on part marking. You can also explore our other methods of sheet cutting in our sheet cutting services guide.
Laser cutting involves using a focused, high-powered beam of coherent light to cut through materials, often in sheet form. Material hit by the laser is vaporized and blown away by gases to ensure a clean cut. There are several types of lasers used depending on the material that needs shaping, but all of them rely on programming to carry out a specific pattern of cuts for creating one or more finished parts. While laser cutting is faster and more accurate than plasma cutting, you will find waterjet cutting is more effective with thicker materials, as well as materials that have lower melting temperatures.
Laser cutting is used to cut parts in materials ranging from aluminum to composite to acrylic to wood. Because of the flexibility, quickness, and accuracy of this method, it is popularly used in industries including the aerospace, general manufacturing, automotive, medical, and electronics fields. When designing for this process, make sure your design file is a vector, your design relieves stress points, and you take the width of the kerf (the laser beam’s cut) into account. It’s also essential to know the material you need for your parts to ensure they have the right properties, although Xometry’s instant quote generator can automatically suggest the right material for your application.
There are four main types of lasers used for cutting: carbon dioxide (CO2), fiber, neodymium (Nd), and neodymium-doped yttrium aluminum garnet (Nd:YAG) lasers.
The most common lasers are CO2 because they have high energy efficiency and a high power output ratio. These are best suited for cutting, boring, and engraving. These lasers, which create an infrared beam invisible to the human eye, operate by electrically energizing a gas-filled tube with mirrors on each end. Particles continue to collide and split until they are powerful enough to leave through the one mirror, which is less reflective than the other. From there, they travel a long path of lenses and mirrors until the light hits the workpiece. As it cuts, high velocity cutting gas blows away excess material. CO2 lasers provide better edge quality on stainless steel and aluminum-plated material while remaining flexible enough to work with a variety of other materials. However, they can only cut thin sheets of nonferrous metals like aluminum, and they require a lot of power and maintenance. They’re also slower than fiber lasers. These factors can translate to comparatively increased service costs.
Fiber lasers, on the other hand, are used to pierce more reflective surfaces, thanks to their greater efficiency than CO2 lasers and more powerful beam. These lasers are also used in annealing, etching, and engraving. They work by using pump diodes to send energy into fiber optic fibers. From there the light passes through a series of lenses until it’s powerful enough to cut with the help of NO2 or oxygen. While these lasers are more limited in what they can cut, they’re less expensive to purchase, run, and maintain. This is partially due to their relative simplicity; they have fewer parts, and principally utilize semiconductors (which last longer) to generate laser light. They’re also faster to operate and more energy-efficient, which can translate to less expensive part cutting. Fiber lasers can work on metals including alloys, glass, wood, and plastics.
Nd lasers have high energy, but low repetition efficiency, while Nd:YAG lasers have a high power output for cutting thicker materials but are more expensive to operate. Both Nd and Nd:YAG lasers are used for boring and welding; they can also use a pulsed laser beam which allows them greater precision. Nd:YAG lasers can also be used for engraving. Both of these laser types use neodymium to enhance infrared light, resulting in powerful beams that allow them to process materials that require greater amounts of energy to cut. They can also be used for boring. Nd:YAG lasers feature smaller beam sizes than fiber lasers, which allows for more energy focused in a smaller area to perform faster, more accurate cuts and marking. While these lasers are able to cut with greater strength, however, they also require a warm up period to start production and more maintenance in general. They are also less energy efficient. These lasers can be used on metals, plastics, and even some ceramics.
As described above, each type of laser functions in a slightly different way. However, all lasers are controlled through a CNC program inputted by the operator that interprets the part shape into the series of cuts it must make (hence the other term for the process, CNC laser cutting). The laser itself is adjusted to the type of material and its thickness.
From there, laser focusing optics, including mirrors and lenses, direct energy into a high-intensity focused laser beam. Once light emerges from the laser resonator and cutting head, it hits the workpiece. Cutting gas, such as nitrogen or oxygen, is emitted from the nozzle to blow molten material out of the kerf, and the cut edge gains a drag line pattern. The code controls the movement of either the workpiece or the laser beam until the cuts are finished. From there, the machine can go on to cut other parts from the same sheet or move on to the next workpiece.
CNC laser cutting is often chosen as a manufacturing option since it produces highly durable parts with its ability to cut through a variety of strong sheet metals. Metal laser cutting is not the only type available, however. Plastics, wood, foam, rubber, and other materials can also be cut by laser.
- Laser cutting wood can involve materials from hardwoods to MDF. However, certain woods have resin or oils that present more of a fire hazard and may be more risky to laser cut, making for an increased part price.
- Laser cutting acrylic and other plastics is possible, but it depends on the specific chemical makeup of the plastic. PVC, for example, can’t be laser cut except by specialized facilities because it gives off toxic fumes and acid which can potentially harm the operator and destroy the machine. Polycarbonate can only be cut in thin sheets, since thicker polycarbonate will only melt and not form clean cuts. ABS and HDPE will also melt. However, acrylic, POM, PMMA, and some other plastics can be laser cut without problems; so can the polymer PTFE. Xometry’s instant quote engine, however, automatically suggests the best material for your application to help you avoid choosing one that can’t be processed or won’t function properly.
- Composites, such as fiberglass-epoxy laminate, are often laser cut for the automotive and aerospace industries. For these materials, fiber lasers are generally used given that greater power is required.
- Metal laser cutting includes a wide variety of materials, including both ferrous and nonferrous metals like steel, copper, and aluminum. With more reflective metals like aluminum, laser cutting becomes more difficult so fiber lasers are used.
- Rubbers used in laser cutting can include silicone and synthetic rubbers.
Foams are commonly cut using a CO2 laser, although metal foams require a fiber laser.
Laser cutting offers a cost-effective way to fabricate 3 main types of custom parts— enclosures, chassis, and brackets. Fabricated enclosures may include device panels, boxes, and cases for applications like rackmounts, “U” and “L” shaped parts, and consoles and consolets. Chassis can be fabricated in the form of handheld or industrial-sized electromechanical controls. Brackets that are used in lightweight or corrosion-resistant applications are often laser cut, and the Xometry platform can fully build in fasteners and hardware. Because of its ability to cut in 2D profiles using common stock, laser cut blanks can be extremely economical while still having short lead times.
More broadly, laser cut parts are popular in the aerospace, automotive, electronics, medical, and manufacturing industries. Aerospace especially requires precision parts, often using aluminum and alloys designed for both weight reduction and the ability to withstand extreme conditions; technology companies also require precision in manufacturing small circuit boards. Automotive companies need large numbers of easily reproduced parts. Medical technology also uses laser cutting for its ability to quickly shape hard-to-cut exotic materials, as well as titanium. Overall manufacturing, meanwhile, finds laser cut parts in applications ranging from farming machinery to contract manufacturing to military parts, which sometimes must be made from tough-to-cut materials.
Laser cutting is often chosen over traditional CNC machining (mechanical cutting) processes for its ability to produce custom parts faster with commodity flat panel materials, which makes it highly scalable. The lower setup costs and 2D nesting of cutting paths mean parts can be produced in quantities ranging from one prototype to up to 10,000 production parts, with a rapid turnaround of as few as 5 business days.
Laser cutting is also prized for its clean cuts, which also results in a decreased contamination of the workpiece and at a higher accuracy to CAD. Though these cuts are not as clean as a waterjet and come with a small chance of operator error, laser cutting produces parts that are precise because of a lower likelihood to warp. The same laser operation can also add marking or engraving to the part by decreasing the laser power.
Compared to plasma cutting, laser cutting is more precise and less energy-consuming to operate. However, laser cutting has an upper limit on the thickness of the material it can cut. CO2 lasers are best for processing metals, while fiber lasers can handle thicker materials. For metals thicker than 4 inches, or materials with lower melting temperatures such as plastics and foams, waterjet cutting may be the best manufacturing process.
When planning for laser cutting, makes sure you follow these pro tips to avoid mistakes and ensure parts are the exact dimensions you need:
- Make sure your design file is 100% vector (for a quote from Xometry, this can be achieved in DXF, STEP, STP, SLDPRT, IPT and SAT formats). Laser cutters can’t read jpgs or other image files, nor can they understand text boxes. It’s also important to remove any additional gridlines, notes, etc. from the final file to prevent it getting accidentally included in the final part.
- Make sure you’re cutting from the right material. There’s no point in going to the time and effort to have parts made that won’t stand up to corrosive, extreme cold, or other conditions they’ll be used in. Xometry’s instant quote process uses AI to suggest the material you need based on what’s commonly used, but if your part is going to function under unusual specific conditions, it’s important to know what materials fit the bill beforehand.
- Don’t forget to take the proportions of the final part into account. Details should be at least as wide as the material thickness, and there should be a minimum distance between lines to avoid excess fragility, breakage, or melting of the material. Take the width of the kerf (the gap where material is melted away) into account when designing too; this is especially important for assemblies (in the case of Xometry’s laser cutting, kerf is usually .008 inches wide with tolerances of +/- 0.004 inches). When designing parts for an assembly, it’s best to subtract half the kerf’s width from the outside part and add half of it to the inside part. Finally, double check that your design is to scale.
- For parts that will later connect, add design features to relieve stress and avoid weak points. Adding nodes (low bumps) to the insides of a slot will take stress off of the rest of the slot sides and help increase friction. For inside angles, add holes to the corners to spread stress along the circumference of the hole instead of concentrating it in that corner.
- Simplicity is king, and not just because it makes parts cheaper and more stable. Watch out for overlapping lines, which may cut out parts of your design unintentionally, and remember to connect areas inside of holes you want to keep. For example, if you cut out a capital B without connecting the inner half circles, you’ll end up with a B-shaped hole. Finally, make sure your vector only shows one copy of your design– you can specify that you want more than one in the notes section, but adding multiple of a single vector into a file can drive up costs by complicating the cutting process.
Our laser cutting service can process sheet metal parts up to 53 x 121 inches, including passthrough. However, we also have access to platforms up to 10 by 20 feet for certain laser-cutting projects. Some of our most popular materials include:
- Steels including steel 1075, 1095, 4130, AR500, AR500, Corten A588, 1045 HR, A1011 HR, 1008, 1018, 4140, A36, A366, A572, and G90, as well as tool steel D1 and O1. These include annealed, hardened, hot and cold rolled steel, zinc galvanized, blue tempered, and pickled and oiled steels in thicknesses from .005 inches to 1.000 inch, depending on the material.
- Stainless steel, including stainless steel 17-4 PH, 17-7, 301, 304, 316, 410, 430, 440C, CPM 154, and S30V in thicknesses from .004 inches to 1.000 inch, depending on the material. This includes annealed, hardened, spring tempered, and brushed stainless steel.
- Coppers such as copper 101 H00 to H01, copper 110 annealed, H01, and H02 in .005 inch to .250 inch thicknesses, depending on the material.
- Bronzes and brasses including brass 260, brass 353 H02, brass 464 H01, bearing bronze 932 M07, bronze 220 H02, bronze 510 H08 (spring) silicon bronze 655, in thicknesses, depending on the material, from .005 inches to .250 inches.
- Aluminum, including aluminum 6061-T6, aluminum 2024-T3, aluminum 5052 H32, aluminum 7075 T6, aluminum MIC6, and pre-anodized aluminum in thicknesses from .016 inches to 1.000 inch depending on the material.
- Titanium, including grade 2 and grade 5 (6AL 4V) types from .032 inches to .250 inches thick depending on the material.
- Nickel, including annealed nickel 200 and 625 in .019 inch to .063 inch thicknesses.
- Plastics such as acrylic, ABS, acetal, HDPE, nylon, PETG, polycarbonate, polypropylene, PTFE, and UHMW-PE in thicknesses from .060 inches to .750 inches depending on the material.
- Composites, including carbon fiber and Garolite G-10, G011, and phenolic LE, in thicknesses from .040 inches to .375 inches depending on the material.
- Rubber and gasketing materials, including nitrile, cork-nitrile blend, paper fiber-nitrile blend, EPDM, and silicone rubber, as well as PTFE. These are available in thicknesses from .031 to .125 inches depending on the material.
- Woods, including cherry, poplar, and red oak hardwoods as well as birch, hardboard, plywood, and MDF in thicknesses from .125 inches to .500 inches depending on the material.
- Foams including EVA, polyurethane, silicone, flame retardant, and high temperature varieties in .125 to 2.000 inch thicknesses depending on the material.
Our lead tolerances include +/- 0.005” nominal on the top, though for thicker materials there may be a tolerance deviation on the bottom because of tapers inherent to the laser cutting process. Most of these materials can also have finishing options applied such as bead blasting, anodizing (both type II and III), powder filming, chem filming, painting, and other custom finishes. Learn more about the types and thicknesses available on our sheet cutting page.
Xometry offers custom on-demand laser cutting services in nearly limitless capacity thanks to our Manufacturing Partner network. This allows you to get high-quality parts, ranging from prototypes to high volume orders, in as few as 5 business days. The site provides instant quoting for your sheet metal fabrication needs, allowing you to specify your materials, details, and the size of the project in a few clicks. Whether it is a flat profile cut or a complex welded enclosure, get your price and lead time in seconds with our instant quoting feature. We aren’t limited to laser cutting either. Check out our other high-quality, cost-effective solutions, including cutting and bending services, to find out how we can make your project a reality.
The content appearing on this webpage is for informational purposes only. Xometry makes no representation or warranty of any kind, be it expressed or implied, as to the accuracy, completeness, or validity of the information. Any performance parameters, geometric tolerances, specific design features, quality and types of materials, or processes should not be inferred to represent what will be delivered by third-party suppliers or manufacturers through Xometry’s network. Buyers seeking quotes for parts are responsible for defining the specific requirements for those parts. Please refer to our terms and conditions for more information.