A Comprehensive Guide to Laser Vaporization Cutting
Learn more about this process and how it's used for manufacturing.
Laser cutting is a manufacturing process that produces complex cuts and patterns by using a powerful laser to melt or vaporize the material. It is a versatile process that can be used to completely cut through materials to produce parts or to etch and engrave text, logos, and illustrations on a wide range of materials. The ability to cut various profiles and features on several different materials offers manufacturers unprecedented flexibility. However, there are various types of laser cutting—with each type having its own set of advantages and disadvantages. It’s important for manufacturers to select the right type of laser cutting for their particular project and manufacturing capability. This article will offer a comprehensive guide to laser vaporization cutting—discussing everything from what it is and how the process works, to the materials that can be used, to comparisons between other laser cutting methods.
Laser vaporization cutting is a type of laser cutting that heats the surface temperature of a material so rapidly that the material avoids melting and instead, boils away. Not all the material will be vaporized, however. Some unvaporized material will be blown away by the auxiliary gas flow below the workpiece. Due to the nature of the process, it should only be used when it is necessary to avoid any molten material during cutting. Therefore, laser vaporization is often used when cutting thin workpiece materials or non-metals like wood, plastics, papers, and fabrics.
For laser vaporization cutting to be successful, a very powerful laser must be used. The process starts with a laser beam focused on a fixed area on the workpiece material. The laser heats up the area to exceptionally high temperatures until the material begins to boil. As the material boils, a small hole is made in the workpiece. The formation of the hole leads to an increase in absorptivity—allowing for the workpiece to absorb more radiation from the laser and heat rapidly. Consequently, the hole rapidly deepens. As the hole deepens, the intense heat vaporizes the adjacent material. This process is repeated until the entire profile of the intended design is cut.
Laser vaporization cutting differs from other types of laser cutting due to the way the process works. Unlike laser fusion cutting—in which the workpiece material is melted and liquid material is blown away by a pressurized gas—and laser flame cutting—in which oxygen gas is used to force oxidation and generate a large amount of heat to cut the material—laser vaporization cutting works by heating a particular point of the workpiece material so hot that it boils away. While laser fusion cutting is great for cutting both non-oxidizable and active metals, and laser flame cutting is great for steels and other easily oxidizable materials, laser vaporization cutting is preferred when cutting thin sheets of metal or non-metals. This is perhaps one of the biggest advantages of laser vaporization cutting. It enables the rapid fabrication of complex geometries and profiles using thin sheets of metal or materials that cannot readily be melted.
There are many materials that can be cut using laser vaporization—notably thin sheets of metal, certain non-metals, and materials that are not easily melted. The possible materials that can be used with laser vaporization are not that different from the materials that are used with other laser cutting methods. The materials that can be used are listed below:
- Thin metals
- Textiles and fabrics
- Ceramics and glass
While thin metals and certain plastics and textiles can be vaporized, wood, paper, foam, and ceramics require special attention when using laser vaporization cutting. This is because these materials do not melt and instead are susceptible to burning and catching fire rather than vaporizing if the material is not heated fast enough. Use a powerful laser when cutting with laser vaporization to assure the workpiece material is heated rapidly. There are certain materials that should be completely avoided when using any type of laser cutting due to toxic fumes that are emitted when cutting. Materials that should not be laser cut are listed below:
- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
Nitrogen is the most commonly used gas when laser vaporization cutting or laser cutting in general. This is because nitrogen is an inert gas that does not contribute to the oxidation of the workpiece material when laser cutting. What results is a precise, high-quality, clean cut. Nitrogen is used as a shielding gas—meaning that its presence helps prevent the burning of the material during laser cutting and instead ensures that the material is vaporized.
There are several advantages of laser vaporization cutting compared to other laser cutting methods and other subtractive manufacturing methods. Those advantages are listed below:
- Rapid Fabrication of Prototypes and Parts: Manufacturers can automate laser vaporization cutting processes to quickly prototype complex new designs and manufacture complete parts.
- High Precision and Accuracy: Laser vaporization cutting enables a high degree of precision and accuracy in the final part. This is because the highly focused beam of light vaporizes material away and produces clean cuts free of burrs. Unlike CNC machining which can cause warping and distortion in machined parts, laser vaporization cutting provides an unparalleled level of precision at rapid speeds.
- Less Waste and Higher Utilization: Laser vaporization cutting produces less waste than other subtractive manufacturing methods. This is because highly precise and accurate cuts produce non-discrepant parts consistently. Consequently, manufacturers can maximize material utilization and use leftover material from a previous job for new jobs.
- Compatible With Many Different Materials: Manufacturers can use laser vaporization cutting to produce parts composed of various materials. From metals and plastics to wood and ceramic, manufacturers can leverage the power of laser vaporization cutting to produce complex geometries and designs at rapid paces.
There are also some disadvantages of laser vaporization cutting. Those disadvantages are listed below:
- High Energy Consumption: In general, laser cutting machines have higher energy consumption ratings than other subtractive manufacturing machines like CNC milling machines or plasma cutters. Laser vaporization cutting requires even higher power than typical laser cutting machines to ensure material is vaporized away.
- Requires Expertise and Extensive Training: Operating a laser vaporization cutter requires technical experts who have been extensively trained on how to use the machine. Laser vaporization requires more consideration than other laser cutting methods like fusion cutting. Operators must be mindful of every aspect of the machine setup—from laser power and speed settings, workpiece holding, and focal height to ventilation and workpiece material. Having a trained specialist to operate a laser vaporization cutter is important to avoid bad quality parts and potential damage to the laser cutter.
- Limitations on Material Thickness: Laser vaporization cutting is best used for thin sheets and plates of material. Not only is there a chance of burning or scarring the workpiece material when it is too thick, but there is also a chance of damaging the laser cutter and harming operators due to an excessive amount of reflections originating from the laser beam.
There are three main types of laser cutting machines on the market currently: fiber laser cutting machines, CO2 laser cutting machines, and crystal laser cutting machines. Each type of machine has its advantages and disadvantages. However, when it comes to laser vaporization cutting machines, fiber lasers are the best option. While CO2 lasers can work as well with laser vaporization, the versatility offered by fiber lasers in terms of the type of laser cutting and workpiece material that can be used is unmatched compared to other laser cutting machines. Fiber lasers and CO2 lasers are listed and described in more detail below:
- Fiber Laser: Fiber lasers are created by special glass fibers that retrieve energy from pump diodes. This feature allows fiber lasers to have different wavelengths which operators can optimize for any particular material—from metals to non-metals. Additionally, the method by which the laser is produced in fiber laser systems enables lasers to have a higher power density. This is ideal for laser vaporization cutting since the higher power density not only allows deep cuts to be made but also at faster paces. Finally, these lasers require little maintenance and can be utilized for as many as 25,000 operating hours.
- CO2 Laser: Lasers in CO2 systems are created by an electric current that traverses a gas mixture-filled tube. This mixture usually contains carbon dioxide, nitrogen, hydrogen, and helium. CO2 lasers come in many different sizes and power ratings, however, they are not as powerful and efficient as fiber lasers for laser vaporization cutting operations. Additionally, while these lasers are great at cutting non-metallic materials, they are not ideal for metallic materials due to the presence of reactive gases such as oxygen that can lead to oxidation at the surfaces of the workpiece.
The process of laser vaporization cutting is described below:
- The process starts with a laser beam cutting an indent or hole into the part.
- As the indent deepens, the absorptivity of the areas adjacent to the hole increases—allowing the material to rapidly heat.
- The material vaporizes, or a stream of oxygen gas is emitted once temperatures become high enough.
- Air pressure increases due to the sudden vaporization of the material.
- This increased air pressure causes the adjacent areas of the hole to erode away—causing the hole to deepen and expand.
- This process repeats until the entire part is completed.
Yes, laser vaporization cutting, in general, is faster than other types of laser cutting such as laser fusion cutting or reactive cutting. However, this benefit depends on the type of material being cut and the material thickness. Vaporization cutting causes the workpiece material to rapidly heat and vaporize—making the process much faster than other forms of cutting.
How Does Laser Vaporization Cutting Compare to Other Technologies for Cutting Metals and Other Materials?
Laser vaporization cutting, compared to other methods of laser cutting metals and other materials such as fusion cutting or reactive cutting, is a much faster process, is easier to set up, produces higher-quality cuts and less waste, and requires less maintenance. Fusion cutting, reactive cutting, and flame cutting all require gas to help facilitate cutting. In these three other laser cutting methods, molten material (kerf) must be ejected away from the part using the gas. These characteristics require the manufacturer to both spend more money on additional materials, and spend more time cleaning and maintaining the machine. Because laser vaporization doesn’t require an additional gas to facilitate cutting (the gas is used as an aid, not a necessity) and vaporizes material away, laser vaporization is a much easier and faster method of laser cutting metals and other materials.
Interest in laser vaporization cutting has increased due to the process’s ease of setup and maintenance, high-quality produced cuts, and the meager amounts of waste it produces.
This article presented laser vaporization cutting, explained what it is, and discussed the different materials and settings needed for this process. To learn more about laser vaporization cutting, contact a Xometry representative.
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