Welcome to the first of a two-part series that will explain laser cutters and how they function. While laser cutters popularity has only recently sparked, they have quickly become the standard for cutting technology within the manufacturing industry.
Let’s take a deeper look at laser cutters, illustrating what they are, how they work, and much more.
What Are Laser Cutters?
Laser cutters are Computer Numerical Controlled (CNC) machines that are used to cut various materials in specific patterns and shapes. CNC machining operates by nesting your patterns to make the laser perform at maximum capacity, tremendously reducing waste.
Lasers are optimal for cutting because of their precision. Your nested shapes will share borders/lines and be completely finished in one cut, saving you both time and materials. Significant benefits to other cutting technologies besides decreasing waste, include a single cutting step that produces polished and/or sealed edges in a single pass.
How Do They Work?
At the heart of a laser cutter is something called “a laser resonator,” which is where laser beams originate. This powerful beam is bounced through a system of mirrors all the way up to the cutting head. Inside the cutting head, the laser hits a lens, narrowing its focus down to a very concentrated and extremely thin beam. This beam is then projected downwards onto the material and can accurately or etch cut the raw stock.
3 Main Laser Cutter Types
There are three main laser cutters that are used in manufacturing. They are CO2 lasers, fiber lasers, and neodymium lasers.
- CO2 lasers have a laser cutting beam which is generated from gas mixtures that are mostly comprised of carbon dioxide and stimulated with electricity.
- In neodymium lasers, neodymium-doped crystals are used to form the laser cutting beam.
- With fiber lasers, the laser cutting beam is made from a seed laser, which is then amplified through the use of special glass fibers.
- For most work done by PSPs, the CO2 lasers are what is typically used to cut fabric and acrylic.
Laser Cutting Design Software
Laser cutters might seem complicated, but they share mannerisms with commonly used inkjet printers and traditional flatbed cutters. Equipped with specific drivers, they can take computer depictions and convert them into a readable format for the laser cutter, thereby allowing it to perform it’s programmed job once the correct information has been provided.
There are many design software packages which support laser cutters and laser cutter drivers. It is very common for 2D design programs to be compatible with laser cutter drivers, and even some 3D packages are also able to support the drivers for laser cutters when dealing with prototyping sketches or 2D drawings.
Once your file has been sent to a laser cutter, only the lines that come up as a vector, hairline graphics with the smallest line thickness possible, will be created. All the other graphics, including thicker line and images, typically will be “rastered.” Because a laser completely cuts through the material, vector cutting is an alternative for both prototyping and cutting out the holes or features of larger parts. For this reason, a laser cutter is also commonly used to cut the outline of parts.
Laser Etching and Engraving
When a laser cutter etches something, rather than cutting completely through the workpiece, the laser burns off the top layer of material, which creates two color images by using what’s termed the raster effect.
When it comes to laser etching and engraving, there are two main methods people typically employ. The first uses pixel files in order to effectively create a grayscale image made up of detailed dot patterns. The other method creates thin vector lines, as it would for cutting, but instead uses reduced power and doesn’t burn the material to create a different but similar pattern.
Setting On a Laser Cutter
The four main settings you’ll want use on a laser cutter are frequency, speed, power, and resolution.
- Speed controls how fast the laser head will be moving along its gantry.
- Power controls how strongly your laser will be firing.
- Frequency is only relevant when you are cutting something and it controls how fast the laser will be pulsing while it is cutting.
- Resolution, on the other hand, is only applicable when rastering, and it will determine the quality and resolution of the operation.
Laser cutters are revolutionizing the manufacturing industry, already deeming more basic cutting technology obsolete. In order to thrive in the manufacturing industry, you need to have an in-depth knowledge of laser cutters and about how they work.
In part 1 we have discussed the basic definition of a laser cutter and how it works, as well as the types of laser cutters on the market, the design software used within them, their different capabilities, and their settings. Stay tuned for part 2 where we will discuss the design capabilities of laser cutters in more detail.