How Laser Cutting Is Used in Different Industries
Learn more about the different industries that benefit from laser cutting.
Laser cutting is a popular technology used in a range of different industries. It is used to cheaply and quickly produce flat, precisely cut components. The most common laser cutters are based on CO2 or fiber lasers. However, newer technologies, such as direct diode laser cutting, are gaining popularity. Industrial laser cutters are often used to cut metals, plastics, and even ceramics. Figure 1 below is an example of a laser cutting machine:
Laser cutting machine cutting metal sheet and metal pipe.
Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/Travelpixs
This article will describe how ten major industries make use of laser cutters, as well as review the characteristics of the major types of laser cutters and the main cutting techniques.
What Are the Industries that Use Laser Cutting?
Industrial laser cutters are used in most modern industries because they offer a low-cost, high-speed method for making high-precision cuts. Listed below are some common industries which use laser cutters:
1. Agricultural Industry
The agricultural industry is responsible for the large-scale cultivation of all livestock and crops. The scale of modern agriculture demands heavy machinery and equipment to efficiently produce large volumes of food. This includes planting machines, fertilizing machines, and bulk storage tanks. Many types of agricultural machinery are primarily made of flat, complex parts joined by welding or fasteners. Laser cutting is ideally suited to economically produce such components. This equipment makes extensive use of flat complex parts and weldments that can be economically produced using laser cutting. Tube laser cutting, a method of cutting holes and slots into a square or round tubing, is also extensively used for structural elements in agricultural equipment.
2. Contract Manufacturing Industry
Contract manufacturing refers to the practice of outsourcing either subcomponents or entire assemblies to be produced by another company. Laser cutting lends itself well to contract manufacturing, as the individual parts are cheap to produce but the initial capital investment is very high, not to mention the ongoing maintenance costs. An industrial laser cutter needs to be continuously utilized in order to remain profitable. Most companies do not have the capacity to justify an in-house industrial laser cutter, making contract manufacturing an ideal solution.
3. Military Industry
The military industry makes use of electronic equipment with advanced circuit boards and heavy-duty machinery. These types of machinery need to be produced to exacting specifications using modern, difficult-to-process materials like hardened steel, non-ferrous metals like titanium, fabrics like kevlar, and advanced super alloys like Inconel®. Laser cutting is an indispensable process for fabricating the tens of thousands of parts and products made every year to meet military quality standards. Specific applications can include: armored plates, permanent marking of equipment, and components for weapons systems.
4. Construction Industry
The construction industry builds large-scale projects such as bridges and tunnels, as well as residential and commercial buildings. Structural steel for these projects is often produced by laser cutting. For example, connection plates and base plates are most optimally manufactured by using laser cutting. There are often thousands of these components for a major steel construction project, so laser cutting’s speed and precision give it a big advantage in these applications. Tube laser cutting is also extensively used for structural elements.
5. Automotive Manufacturing Industry
The global automotive industry is a large consumer of manufacturing output, with over 80 million vehicles produced globally in 2022. The automotive industry requires parts that are precisely manufactured, with very little part-to-part deviation, while also maintaining high production rates to keep up with the pace of vehicle manufacturing. Laser cutting is an ideal technology for meeting the simultaneous requirements of pace, precision, and repeatability. Typical examples of laser-cut components include: sheet metal body elements and textiles for upholstery.
6. Musical Instruments Industry
Musical instruments must be manufactured with special precision to achieve the high level of sound quality demanded by professionals. Laser cutting is an ideal method for achieving unmatched levels of dimensional accuracy. Wood is a common material used in musical instruments, and laser cutters can be used to cut out the basic panels that will be assembled into instruments like guitars and violins, for example. The finished instruments can also be laser engraved with custom artistic patterns, adding cosmetic appeal and a personal style element.
7. Medical Equipment Industry
Medical diagnostic equipment such as X-ray and FMRI machines are complex pieces of equipment that employ a number of different manufacturing technologies. Laser cutting can be used to produce a number of components for these machines, such as their sheet metal housings.
8. Electronics Industry
Laser cutting is widely used in the electronics industry due to the precision required to process micron-scale electronics components. Silicon wafers are also cut using specialized laser cutting techniques such as fracture-controlled cutting. Other applications include laser engraving information onto components and drilling precise holes in printed circuit boards.
9. Furniture Industry
The furniture industry makes use of a range of materials such as textiles, wood, and plastics. Laser cutting can cheaply process all of these materials, which is why it is a popular technology in this industry. Textile and padding patterns can be cut for upholstery, and wood can be engraved with various designs. MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) wood panels can also be cut to produce interesting furniture designs.
Laser cutters are regularly utilized for artistic purposes because they are able to reproduce intricate images on materials as different as wood, leather, metal, and plastic. Typical applications can include engraved inlays and complex art pieces built up from multiple-cut designs. An example of an artistic map cut created with a laser cutter is shown in Figure 2 below:
Laser cut wooden map.
Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/AlexandrinaZ
What Is Laser Cutting?
Laser cutting is a process that can make accurate, complex cuts completely through the thickness of such materials as metal, plastic, and wood. It does this by focusing a beam of light energy into a small point on the surface of the material to be cut, melting/vaporizing it, and blowing it from the cut path with the assistance of a gas jet. Metal cutting requires higher laser power than cutting plastics and wood. The most common industrial lasers employ fiber and CO2 lasers, although there are a number of laser-cutting technologies. For more information, see our guide on Laser Cutting.
What Are the Types of Laser Cutting Used in Industry?
Four general types of laser cutters are used in industrial applications, as listed below:
- CO2 Laser: CO2 lasers are relatively old technology but are still widely used for metal cutting in the automotive, and manufacturing industries. These lasers also do well with organic materials like wood and fabric. CO2 lasers require regular maintenance, as their laser tubes tend to fail over time.
- Fiber Lasers: Fiber lasers are well suited to metal cutting, and can produce precise cuts in a variety of materials. Fiber lasers have higher energy densities than CO2 lasers and are preferred over CO2 lasers in the automotive, manufacturing, and aerospace industries.
- Nd:YAG & Nd:YVO Lasers: These crystal-based lasers have higher power densities than fiber lasers and are widely used for marking and etching as well as for use in the medical industry for various eye treatments. These lasers, however, have high operating costs and low efficiencies.
- Direct Diode Lasers: Direct diode lasers are far simpler than the other technologies in this list, and recent advances have achieved power densities high enough for cutting metals. Direct diode lasers are also able to cut at higher speeds than fiber lasers. Due to the high precision, superior cut edge, and improved efficiencies, direct diode lasers are used for cutting superalloys like Inconel® and Hastelloy® which are typically used in the aerospace and energy industries.
For more information, see our guide on Types of Laser Cutters.
What Are the Things You Can Do With Laser Cutting?
Apart from simply cutting materials, lasers can be used for a range of other techniques as listed below:
- Perforating: Laser perforation is a process whereby a small hole, roughly the diameter of the beam, is made through the material. These holes are often very close to each other. An example of perforation would be the creation of tear lines in vehicle interior trim components so that they separate as intended when an airbag is deployed.
- Seaming: Seaming is a type of welding used to bond two thin materials to each other. It is often used on fabrics, as well as for welding thin metal components like those found in battery housings.
- Etching: Laser etching melts a thin surface layer of material in a prescribed pattern. It removes no more than 0.0001 inches of material and leaves a high-contrast image. Etching is often used to permanently mark components for traceability.
- Engraving: Laser engraving ablates surface material away to produce a 3D design. Two common techniques include concave and convex engraving.
- Marking: Laser marking is used to discolor the surface of a material by using a low-power laser beam. Unlike laser etching, laser marking does not remove any material from the surface. For some metals, the surface is annealed, which causes a color change.
- Drilling: Laser drilling is an alternative to mechanical drilling using a rotating drill bit. It is often used to cut very small, high aspect ratio holes of as small as 0.002 microns. These holes can be made to be extremely precise.
For more information, see our guide on the Uses of Laser Cutting.
How Does Laser Cutting Work?
Laser cutting works by directing a high-powered beam of light into a sheet of material to produce a 2-dimensional profile. In the case of common lasers like CO2 and fiber lasers, the beam is generated inside a resonator that amplifies the light energy until it reaches the desired energy level. The beam is directed using mirrors (CO2) or along a fiber optic cable (fiber laser) down to the material surface. The laser melts, burns, or removes the material in order to cut through it.
Is There an Industry That Offers Laser Cutting Services?
Yes, the contract manufacturing industry offers various laser-cutting services. Outsourcing laser cutting is an excellent way to save money as the initial capital investment for a laser cutter is significant.
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