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Laser cutting machine carving patterns. Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/John99

Laser Cutting and Designing: Guidelines, Rules, and Safety Tips

Learn more about the different factors to take into consideration when laser cutting.

Xomety X
By Team Xometry
March 9, 2023
 12 min read
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Laser cutting is widely used in the automotive, aerospace, and manufacturing industries due to its efficiency, low cost per part, speed, and versatility. It can be used on a range of different materials such as metal, wood, and plastic. This article will list some general design guidelines, laser cutting rules, and safety tips for operating a laser cutter. A general overview of laser cutting, including how laser cutters work, common applications, their pros and cons, and tips on the best laser cutting machines and software will be provided.  

1. Never Leave the System Running Unattended

Laser cutters use high-power, focused beams of light to cut and engrave various materials. The energy densities involved are capable of igniting flammable materials like wood, paper, and even plastic. Most metals won’t ignite but the high-temperature slag produced by laser cutting them can cause fires near the laser machine if flammable materials are left nearby. To avoid the risk of fire, it is important never to leave the system running unattended. 

2. Always Keep a Fire Extinguisher Nearby

Even when all recommended safety precautions for fire avoidance are followed, there is always at least some risk of unintended ignition of a material being laser cut. Always keep a fire extinguisher near the laser machine, as per local health and safety regulations, and make sure it is regularly serviced. A CO2 fire extinguisher is the best type for this application. 

3. Always Keep the Area Around the Laser Cutter Clear of Debris, Clutter, and Flammable Materials

Some industrial metal laser cutters do not have enclosures. Hot metal sparks and slag are strewn underneath and in the near vicinity of the laser cutter. Debris and clutter also pose a tripping hazard to the laser machine operator. Always keep the laser cutter and surrounding areas clean. 

4. Keep the Laser Cutter's Interior Clean and Clear of Debris

Regardless of whether there is an enclosure, if there is debris inside the laser cutter, then there is a chance that the laser head can be obstructed, which may damage the laser machine. Dirt and other materials inside the laser cutter can also create a potential fire risk. A vacuum cleaner can be used to effectively clean out the inside of a laser cutter.

5. Inspect the Cutter Tray's Interior After Each Use and Clean it if There is Debris or Residue

Debris inside the machine on the cutter tray can not only get in the way of the cutting head but can also prevent the raw material from sitting flush on the tray. This can cause inaccurate and skewed cuts.

6. Never Modify or Disable Any of the Laser System's Safety Features

Laser cutting machines have certain automatic safety features to protect the user during operation. These include door interlocks which disable the laser if the enclosure door is opened. This reduces the risk of the operator getting permanent eye damage due to reflected laser light. Disabling this feature will void the laser cutter's warranty. 

7. Never Use the Laser Cutter Until All Covers Are in Place and the Interlocks Work Properly

A laser cutter must be regularly inspected to ensure that it works as expected. In addition to checking the optics and the mechanics of the laser cutter, it is very important to check the safety features as well. This includes the functionality of the machine interlocks as well as making sure that all the covers and doors close properly, and do not allow laser light to potentially exit the machine.

8. Never Stare Directly Into the Laser Beam or Optics

Even low-power etching lasers can cause significant eye damage. While it is not possible, under normal circumstances, to stare directly into the beam, even observing the beam from the side can result in eye damage due to the beam reflecting off the work material and into an unprotected eye. 

9. Avoid Direct Viewing of Optical Instruments

10. Use Only Approved Materials

While laser cutters can be used on a wide variety of different materials, there are still some materials that should never be cut with a laser. If unsure, review the machine operating manual or ask the machine supplier for guidance. If a list of approved materials is not available, then at the very least, make sure not to cut materials that produce toxic or corrosive fumes during cutting. Refer to the Material’s Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for information.

11. Keep in Mind That There are Materials That Can Emit Toxic and Corrosive Fumes

Materials are considered unfit for laser cutting if they produce highly toxic fumes when cut. These can include materials like PVC, composites, and artificial leather. Materials like PVC emit corrosive chlorine that can damage sensitive laser components. 

12. Never Use a Laser Cutter if the Viewport Is Damaged

Some laser cutters have a viewport so that the operator can keep an eye on how the cut is progressing, and whether everything is working as expected. These viewports have a special coating to prevent any reflected laser light from damaging eyesight. If the viewport is damaged, then there is a chance the laser light can escape without being filtered, which could cause permanent blindness. 

What Are Some Tips for Creating a Laser Cutting Design?

Laser cutting can be relatively easy to perform. Here are some tips for ensuring optimal results:

1. Use Software That Enables You To Create Vector Files

When laser cutting, it is important to use a file format that has well-defined, precise edges, such as those found in a vector image file. The design edges in a vector image are defined by mathematical expressions. This is in contrast to bitmap files, whose images are made up of multiple pixels. Zooming into a bitmap image will reveal the individual pixels, whereas a vector image does not resolve into pixels but maintains its shape regardless of zoom level or scaling. A bitmap file must be converted into vector format in order for the laser cutting software to convert it into a set of machine instructions. Inkscape®, a free image-editing software program, can be used to convert the edges in a bitmap file into a vector file. Once in vector format, the file can be loaded into the laser cutting software. 

2. Details Can't Be Smaller Than the Thickness of the Material

In laser cutting processes, a general rule of thumb is to avoid any design details smaller in size than the thickness of the material. For example, if you are cutting a 10 mm sheet of steel, then cutting an 8 mm hole is not recommended. It is, of course, still possible to do, but the quality of the hole and its accuracy will be poor.

3. Set a Minimum Distance Between the Cutting Lines

If the material being laser cut is thick and has a relatively low melting point then the material between two closely spaced cutting lines can melt, vaporize, or warp causing an undesirable effect. This is why it is important to first test the material if closely spaced lines are required. 

4. Never Forget About the Kerf for Cutting

The width of the material removed to make a laser cut is often called the "kerf". The kerf can be in the range of 0.2 to 1.2 mm wide. The width depends on the material type, laser power, cutting speed, and material thickness. The inner edge of the laser cut kerf must be at the outer edge of the intended part dimensions so that the entire part dimension is included in the final part. Laser cutting software can compensate for kerf width by offsetting the laser cut path so that it is fully outside the intended part shape. Alternatively, the original CAD design can be modified to account for the kerf position.

5. Choose the Right Material

Choosing the correct material is critical to the success of a laser-cutting project. It is important to understand what materials the laser cutter is capable of processing. Desktop laser cutters typically cannot cut metal and are designed for cutting materials like wood, paper, and plastic. Some materials should be completely avoided, as they can produce toxic and corrosive fumes. An example of this is PVC plastic. 

What Is a Laser Cutter?

A laser cutter is a machine that uses a beam of laser energy to cut through a material. The laser beam may be produced by a range of different technologies from CO2 gas tubes to doped fiber optic cables. For more information, see our guide on Laser Cutting.

Figure 1 is an example of a laser cutter:

Slide 1 of 1
laser cutting machine
laser cutting machine
laser cutting machine

Laser cutting metal.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/Guryanov Andrey

What Are the Uses of Laser Cutters?

Laser cutters are used for a large number of applications in a wide range of industries, including: the automotive, aerospace, and manufacturing industries. They can cut sheet or plate material into various shapes for further processing. These laser-cut parts can then be bent, welded, or bolted together to form a final product. Learn more in our guide on the Uses of Laser Cutting.

What Is the Advantage of Using a Laser Cutter?

A laser cutter is able to automatically cut complex designs into a variety of materials. It has high levels of precision, far exceeding what can be achieved with hand-cutting or other industrial tools like oxy-acetylene or plasma torches. Laser cutting is also better at producing clean-cut edges, especially when compared to a flame torch and plasma cutting.

What Is the Disadvantage of Using a Laser Cutter?

Laser cutting can be expensive to set up due to the high initial capital investment as well as ongoing energy costs, and constant maintenance requirements. For a laser cutter to be profitable, its utilization rate must be maximized. For a small operator with limited production runs, or for whom laser cutting makes up only a small part of the production process, outsourcing may be an option for getting around the outlay for a laser cutting machine.

For more information, see our guide on the Advantages and Disadvantages of Laser Cutting.

How Does Laser Cutting Work?

Laser cutting works by first generating laser energy, which is simply a beam of well-aligned, high-energy photons. The most common types of lasers include CO2, fiber, and direct diode lasers. The energy generated by the laser is directed through either a series of mirrors or a fiber optic cable toward a lens that focuses the laser light down onto a sheet of material. The focused energy then traces out the desired design by burning, melting, or ablating the material.

Is Laser Cutting Software Necessary for Laser Cutting?

Yes, laser cutting software is needed to perform laser cutting. It is used to convert a design into a set of machine-readable instructions that tell the equipment what laser power to use, the required cutting speed, and to direct the laser beam’s path during the cutting operation.

What Is the Best Laser Cutting Software?

The best laser cutting software depends on the application. When cutting simple artistic designs, then something like LaserGRBL is adequate. However, for more advanced industrial applications, Lightburn® may be a better option. 

What Is the Best Laser Cutting Machine?

The best laser cutting machine depends on the nature of the application  requirements. If you are just cutting wood, paper, or plastic, then the Glowforge® Basic is sufficient. However, for industrial applications such as cutting metal parts, a fiber laser from Trumpf would be a good option. The exact model chosen will depend on a number of factors that can best be discussed with the laser cutter manufacturer.

Is Laser Cutting Suitable for Industrial Use?

Yes, laser cutting is an excellent technique for high-production industrial use. It is used extensively to cut metals, wood, and plastics. Multi-kilowatt fiber, CO2, and direct diode lasers are used for industrial applications. For more information, see our guide on How Is Laser Cutting Used In Industries.

Is There an Alternative to Laser Cutting?

Depending on the requirements, technologies like plasma or waterjet cutting can be used as alternatives to laser cutting. Plasma cutters are cheaper, but when used for thick materials, they produce cut edges that require postprocessing. Waterjet cutters can cut thicker materials than laser cutters or plasma cutters. They don’t heat the base material, and they produce clean-cut edges. However, waterjet cutters are even more expensive than laser cutters.

Are Laser Cutters Required to be Registered?

No, laser cutters do not need to be registered. Their operation must, however, be in accordance with relevant occupational health and safety requirements. If unsure, consult with the local regulating authorities, as different states or countries may have different and specific legal requirements. 

Summary

This article presented laser cutting and designing, explained what it is, and discussed the guidelines, rules, and safety tips to consider when using this manufacturing process. To learn more about laser cutting, contact a Xometry representative.

Xometry provides a wide range of manufacturing capabilities, including sheet cutting and other value-added services for all of your prototyping and production needs. Visit our website to learn more or to request a free, no-obligation quote.

  1. Lightburn® is a trademark of  LightBurn Software, LLC
  2. Glowforge® is a trademark of Glowforge Inc.
  3. Inkscape® is a registered trademark of Software Freedom Conservancy, Inc

Disclaimer

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.

Xomety X
Team Xometry
This article was written by various Xometry contributors. Xometry is a leading resource on manufacturing with CNC machining, sheet metal fabrication, 3D printing, injection molding, urethane casting, and more.