Lasers come in a wide array of types and strengths, producing extremely accurate cuts that facilitate the creation of intricate shapes. This thermal cutting process is favored for a variety of applications and particularly useful with soft and mild metals that are prone to excess damage from more traditional cutting tools. Lasers can cut through mild steel, stainless steels and aluminum with only a small kerf without otherwise damaging the remaining material.
This article will describe the laser cutting process and how it works.
What is a Laser?
Though the full term is rarely used anymore, the word “LASER” is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. This form of light doesn’t exist in nature and was artificially created to harness the unique properties of light in a controllable device. Lasers vary in light type, intensity, and diameter to facilitate uses across a wide variety of recreational, commercial, and industrial applications.
Each laser beam is a collection of light beams with identical or nearly identical wavelengths. The waves are in phase, which means they travel uniformly with the peaks of each wave occurring in sync. This manipulation of the light waves gives a laser its signature brightness and narrow focus. This focus produces very uniform light that will travel long distances. Laser beams also concentrate energy, or power, into a small surface area.
The Laser Cutting Process
Concentrated energy is the core premise of laser cutting. Laser cutting machines generate a ¾-inch wide laser beam. This beam is pushed through a nozzle, which contains compressed oxygen, nitrogen, or another gas, and potentially through beam bender mirrors.
Laser cutting machines use precise setups to focus the beam within the laser cutting head. First, a curved mirror or lens concentrates the light into a single point. At this point, the light is concentrated, small, and produces significant heat. The laser cutting head’s focus concentrates the laser beam until it’s strong enough to melt through metal. It heats, melts, and vaporizes the material along its cut path.
The process may differ depending on the type of metal being cut:
- Mild steel cutting uses pure oxygen in the nozzle bore. The laser’s heat triggers an oxy-fuel burn with pure oxygen.
- Aluminum or stainless steel cutting uses pure nitrogen in the nozzle bore. The laser handles all the burning and cutting, while the nitrogen blows the kerf free of molten metal remains.
Laser cutters carefully orient the laser cutting head to facilitate the melting and cutting action. If the focal point is even slightly too low or too high, it can alter the quality of the cut. Precision aiming is facilitated using a capacitive height control system. The cutting head follows programmed instructions to create specific cuts and holes according to design specifications.
Materials for Laser Cutting
Lasers can etch and cut through many different materials. At G.E. Mathis Company, we work with the following materials:
- Abrasion-resistant steel
- Carbon steel
- High-strength steel
- Stainless steel
G.E. Mathis Company Precision Laser Cutting
G.E. Mathis Company specializes in high-quality laser cutting and etching for prototype, low-volume, and high-volume orders. Our advanced equipment and skilled laser technicians can handle a broad range of materials, product dimensions, material thicknesses, and order volumes. Our standard thickness capabilities range from 16-gauge sheet metal to steel plates 1-1/4 inches thick.
Should I use Laser cutting or should I use Plasma cutting?
This is a common question that customers ask us. They want to know the difference between the two, and which cutting process is better suited for their application or end-use. While the answer is not always cut and dry, there are some general rules that separate the two processes.
Laser cutting and Plasma cutting are both thermal cutting processes widely used in steel fabrication. Each is used to cut metals across a wide range of industries and applications. Several factors must be considered when deciding between laser cutting vs. plasma cutting for stainless steel. These can include material thickness, material type, the complexity of cuts, and tolerances required.
Each cutting solution has its advantages. Your manufacturer can help determine the best cutting solution for your application, but it is still important to understand the laser cutting and plasma cutting processes and understand the advantages each can provide to help inform your discussion.
Laser cutting is a precise thermal cutting process achieved by utilizing a focused beam of light. We often recommend this manufacturing process for applications where parts require tighter tolerances. When it comes to a specific material choice, we work with customers and in some cases make recommendations based on their specific application. When a part has tight tolerance specifications, needs precise cutouts, or requires holes that are small relative to the material thickness, we turn to laser cutting.
Stainless steel laser cutting is a popular choice for the many benefits it provides. Some of the most noted advantages of laser cutting include:
- Flexibility. Once a laser is set up and configured for a specific material type and thickness, cuts can be easily repeated on multiple parts, sheets, and plates without the need to change out tools.
- Precision. With general cutting tolerances starting at +/- 0.015”, laser cutting is well suited for precise cuts.
- Quality. Laser cutting produces component parts with greater accuracy than other thermal cutting methods.
- Repeatability. The consistent tight tolerances achieved with laser cutting ensure high repeatability between parts.
- Speed. Laser cutting can be faster than other traditional mechanical cutting processes, especially when making complex or extremely precise cuts.
- Contactless. With laser cutting, there is no mechanical friction to cause wear on tools. Only the laser comes in contact with the material being cut.
Plasma cutting uses a mixture of gases in combination with an electric arc to cut. With our high-definition plasma cutting equipment, we can perform bevel cuts on parts as required. Beveling is an important step in weld preparation and much larger or thicker component parts require beveled edges in order to facilitate a weld joint with the correct amount of weld penetration. Because of this, plasma cutting is often a better choice for parts that require weld-prep bevels, or for simple parts without complex geometry where exact tolerance is not as critical.
Plasma cutting stainless steel offers many possibilities. It offers an effective way to cut a variety of thicknesses and can cut sheets into curved or angled shapes. Some of the advantages of plasma cutting stainless steel include:
- Automation. As a CNC (computer numerical control) cutting process, plasma cutting mitigates the risk of human error over hand-held cutting methods.
- Speed. Plasma cutting cuts as much as five times faster than many comparable cutting methods. The process makes cuts rapidly while simultaneously vaporizing the cut material.
- Processing. Plasma cutting is an ideal method for quickly producing high-quality blanks for medium-to-high thickness Stainless Steel. This cutting method is also good for mild steels of low-to-medium thickness.
- Lower heat input. Plasma cutting can cut extremely hard metals, such as high-strength steel or abrasion-resistant steel, with a lower heat input than other cutting methods.
G.E. Mathis Company Metal Cutting Solutions
The advice listed here should be considered as general rules. At G.E. Mathis Company, we consider which process is best suited to cut each part on a case-by-case basis. We offer both Precision Laser cutting as well as Hi-Definition Plasma cutting options, and also have the experience to help advise you on which is better for your project or application.
At G.E. Mathis Company, our Precision Laser cutting and Hi-Def Plasma cutting services can be performed on an array of materials and thicknesses, and we can handle a wide range of production volumes. Whether you’re prototyping a new part or ramping up for a high-volume run, we can provide end-to-end production services for your laser cutting or plasma cutting project.
In addition, G.E. Mathis Company can provide the following services:
- PPAP (Production Part Approval Process) – All Levels
- FAIR (First Article Inspection Report)
- Capability Studies (Statistical Process Control)
- CMRT (Conflict Minerals Reporting Template)
Metal fabrication refers to the process of cutting, shaping, or molding raw or semi-raw metal materials into an end product. Depending upon the type and grade of metal, as well as the desired end product, metal fabricators may employ a variety of techniques to manufacture cost-effective, high-quality components for a wide range of industrial applications.
Types of Metal Fabrication Processes
Some of the different metalworking methods metal fabricators employ include:
One of the more commonly utilized metal fabrication methods, cutting involves splitting metal into smaller pieces. Since cutting is a requirement for many metal jobs, it may be employed alongside other metal fabrication techniques, such as punching, welding, or bending. There are several few different methods of cutting, including:
- Sawing is the oldest method of producing straight cuts through metal materials.
- Laser cutting employs a high-powered, focused laser beam of light to cut through the metal materials.
- Waterjet cutting operations utilize a high-powered water stream to cut through different materials, including metal.
- Plasma Cutting uses a mixture of swirling gases to cut through metal.
- Shearing uses two large blades to cut through metal like a giant pair of scissors.
- CNC cutting uses a computer-controlled machine to make precise cuts through metal via a variety of metal cutting techniques (e.g., laser cutting, plasma cutting, etc.)
- Die cutting employs steel rule (flatbed die cutting) or cylindrical (rotary die cutting) dies to cut out precise metal shapes.
Unlike cutting, forming (or bending) doesn’t remove material from the metal work-piece. Instead, the process alters the work-piece with a machine such as a press brake, or by a hand-held method such as with a hammer, or punch die to fit the required specifications.
The punching process sandwiches metal between a die and a punch. When pressed downward, the punch shears through the metal, and produces a hole in the work-piece.
Welding is a fabrication process that employs heat and/or pressure to join different metals and materials together. There are many welding methods available, each of which is suited to different work-piece and filler materials, production specifications, and other project parameters. Some of the most common include:
- Submerged arc welding (SAW): This welding method employs a continuous electrode to create an arc between the welding rod and the work-piece. The addition of a thick granular flux forms a shield that protects the weld zone from atmospheric contamination during operations.
- Shielded metal arc welding (SMAW): This welding method—also referred to as stick welding—uses a welding rod coated in flux that carriers a high-power electrical current. The coating breaks down during welding operations, forming a layer of slag and a gas shield that protects the weld as it cools.
- Gas metal arc welding (GMAW): This welding method—also known as MIG welding—relies on an adjustable and continuous solid wire electrode. During operations, the electric arc formed between the work-piece and the electrode heats and melts the base metals to form the weld.
- Gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW): This welding method—also called TIG welding—requires the use of a non-consumable tungsten electrode. It produces strong welds without fillers.
- Fluxed core arc welding (FCAW): This welding method is similar to GMAW welding, except it utilizes a tubular wire electrode filled with flux rather than a solid wire electrode. Self-shielded FCAW operations rely only on flux to protect the weld zone, while dual-shielded FCAW operations rely on both flux and an external shielding gas.
Uses a top and bottom die molded into a custom 3-dimensional shape. When the metal is pressed between the two dies, it conforms to the desired shape. This process is used to make many complex metal shapes, such as body panels for the automotive industry.
Uses CNC-controlled machinery with various cutting tools to rapidly produce a custom 3-dimensional metal component by removing unwanted materials.
Advantages and Applications of Metal Fabrication Processes
There are several different types of metal fabrication processes employed by industry professionals to produce metal parts and products. As each process utilizes different techniques and equipment, it offers distinct advantages and best use cases.
Advantages and Applications of Cutting
Perhaps the most ubiquitous of all metal fabrication processes, cutting can be employed alongside other methods. In general, cutting offers several advantages with more modern techniques providing enhanced manufacturing capabilities. Some of the advantages of using cutting to fabricate metal parts include:
- Greater precision
- Higher repeatability
- Faster production speeds
- Better cost-effectiveness
Advantages and Applications of Forming/Bending
Metal fabricators use forming operations—e.g., rolling, indenting, and bending—to produce many metal parts, such as pipes, enclosures, and boxes. The advantages of using these operations include:
- Broader product capabilities
- Greater part design flexibility, including for complex shapes and geometries
Advantages and Applications of Punching
Parts produced through punching operations find application in a wide range of industrial products, including airbags, aircraft, batteries, motors, and medical equipment. By using the punching process to produce these parts, manufacturer benefit from:
- Faster production speeds
- Smaller environmental footprints
- Easier equipment setup
- Lower costs per part
Advantages and Applications of Welding
In general, welding allows for minimal waste production, reduced labor and material costs, and process portability. Each of the individual welding techniques also offers unique benefits. For example:
TIG Welding Benefits
Commonly used for aluminum and aluminum alloys, TIG welding produces a better surface finish than MIG welding and doesn’t require a filler material to produce the weld.
MIG Welding Benefits
Commonly used on steel, MIG welding does require the use of consumable filler material (i.e., the feeding wire). However, compared to TIG welding, it is faster and easier to control.
Sticking Welding Benefits
Commonly used on iron and steel, stick welding is the simplest welding technique. As such, it is used extensively for industrial fabrication applications.
Advantages and Applications of Stamping
Stamped parts are found across a diverse set of industries. The stamping process allows for:
- Higher precision and accuracy
- Faster production speeds
- Lower per-unit production costs (for high-volume runs)
Advantages and Applications of Machining
Machining is a broad industrial term for subtractive manufacturing processes, such as drilling, milling, and turning. While some companies still rely on manual machining units, many companies have adopted the use of computer numerical control (CNC) machining equipment. The latter enables industry professionals to achieve the following:
- Tighter tolerances
- Higher production consistency
- Greater cost-efficiency (for small to medium runs)
Metal Fabrication Solutions From G.E. Mathis Company
At G.E. Mathis Company, we offer industry-leading metal fabrication services to customers across a diverse set of industries. Equipped with a 135,000 square foot, state-of-the-art manufacturing facility and over a century of industry experience, our team provides:
Precision Laser Processing
We offer laser processing capabilities for a variety of materials, from 16 gauge sheets to 1.25 inch thick plates. Our fiber optic and hybrid cutting systems produce up to 8,000 watts of power, and accommodate sheets and plates up to 14 feet wide and 100 feet long. Armed with these systems, we offer some of the tightest tolerances in the industry.
Precision CNC Plasma Cutting
We utilize 4-axis machines capable of high-definition cutting action to provide precision CNC plasma cutting services. The equipment’s 400 amp, straight, dual-head, and contour beveling capabilities help us provide superior results across a wide variety of materials, including carbon, aluminum, stainless steel, and exotic metals.
Precision CNC Punching
Our 40-ton, high-speed precision punch accommodates plates and sheets up to 60-inch wide and 0.5-inch thick. We process materials such as carbon steel, aluminum, and stainless steel with best-in-class industry tolerances.
For our precision forming/bending operations, our team utilizes eight hydraulic press brakes, including two equipped with CNC capabilities. These machines feature 400- to 1,000-ton capacities and accommodate thicknesses up to 2 inches and lengths of 20, 20, 30, 23, 25, 40, and 48 feet.
Some of the formed/bent components we fabricate include:
- Channels and angles
- Bump formed sections
We process a variety of materials in these operations, such as:
- Carbon steel
- Stainless steel
- Hardox® wear plate
Our AWS-certified welders are capable of providing precision arc and MIG welding services using CNC-controlled welding and fully automated processes, including:
- Dual-wire submerged arc welding
- Flux cored arc welding—i.e., FCAW
- Gas metal arc welding—i.e., GMAW
- Gas tungsten arc welding—i.e., GTAW
- Shielded metal arc welding—i.e., SMAW
- Submerged arc welding—i.e., SAW
We weld materials up to 12 feet wide and 50 feet long, including:
- Carbon steel
- Stainless steel
- Hardox® wear plate
Hardox® Wearparts Fabrication
Our team of certified craftsman leverages thermal cutting, laser cutting, and welding to produce wearparts in the following material grades:
- 450–500 Hardox®
- 100–110 Strenx® (Domex®)
- 100–110 Weldox®
These products are available in up to 2-inch thicknesses with industry-leading tolerances to meet even the most demanding application requirements.
At G.E. Mathis Company, we have over a century of experience providing metal fabrication solutions. If you have a metal fabrication project, we can meet your needs. Contact us today for more information about our metal fabrication capabilities or request a quote from one of our experts for your next project.
As an industry leader in the fabrication of long, close-tolerance components, G.E. Mathis Company is committed to continuously expanding its service offerings. Most recently, we’ve added an 8-kilowatt fiber-optic laser cutting system—one of the largest pallet-changing laser formats in the industry—to our facility. This new addition allows us to increase the efficiency of our processing operations for materials as large as 100 inches wide by 240 inches long as well as offers several other improvements to our laser processing capabilities.
Features and Capabilities of the 8kW Fiber Optic Laser Cutting System
The integration of the new 8kW laser into our facility has greatly increased and improved our laser processing capabilities. Employing a 3-axis flying optic (or hybrid) positioning system, LoadMaster automatic sheet loading system, and BrightLine Fiber adaptive laser beam in a full enclosure, it accommodates the following project specifications:
- Manufacturing type: prototype, contract manufacturing, and fabrication
- Materials: carbon steel, stainless steel, abrasion-resistant steel (Hardox), high-strength steel (Strenx), aluminum, and other alloys.
- Material thicknesses: up to 1.25 inches for carbon steel and up to 1 inch for stainless steel
- Tolerances: starting at +/- .015 inches
- Volume: Prototype to production
- Delivery/lead time: 1 to 2 weeks
- Industry standards: 1SO 9001:2015
- File formats: AutoCad, Inventor, PDF, DWG, DXF, STEP
Benefits of the 8-kW Fiber Optic Laser Cutting System
Using the new system for our laser processing operations provides us with a number of benefits, including:
- Broader material capabilities. The laser system allows us to cut a variety of steel and steel alloys in greater thicknesses (up to 1 inch for stainless and 1.25 inch for carbon).
- Higher cut quality. The system’s BrightLine Fiber adaptive beam mode facilitates the production of higher quality cuts in even thick plates, simplifies the removal of individual parts, and reduces the contours created throughout cutting operations.
- Safer and more environmentally sound operations. As the system’s critical components are fully contained within an enclosure, laser processing operations that employ it offer a lower risk to personnel and the surrounding environment.
Industries Served by the 8kW Fiber Optic Laser Cutting System
Equipped with the new system, we are able to provide more advanced laser processing services to the following industries:
- Contract manufacturing
- High-quality component manufacturing
Laser Processing Solutions From G.E. Mathis Company
At G.E. Mathis Company, we are dedicated to providing high-quality laser processing solutions to our customers. Craig Mathis—President of G.E. Mathis Company—best states how we go about achieving this goal: “We continue to invest in the latest fabrication technology which enables us to deliver value-added products to the industries we serve.” Our current processing equipment includes three different types of lasers (including the 8kW fiber optic laser) and large-capacity gantry-type and pallet-type processing systems, which allow us to cut a wide range of designs and geometries in materials ranging from 16 gauge sheet to 1.25 inch thick plate.
In addition to our top-of-the-line laser processing services, we also offer secondary and finishing services. As a one-stop shop, we provide faster turnaround and reduced manufacturing costs. For more information on our laser cutting equipment and services, contact us today.
LASER is an acronym that stands for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.” Laser cutting is a thermal process that utilizes a focused and amplified beam of light to cut material into a variety of shapes with great precision. The thermal intensity produced by the laser beam melts material in the area of focus, while a mixture of gases forced through the torch tip of the machine eject the molten metal, creating a kerf. By moving either the laser beam or the material being cut under Computer Numerical Control (CNC), the operator creates a continuous cut on the material.
An examination of the various types and configurations of lasers used for sheet and plate metal cutting, and the advantages of the laser cutting process over plasma, oxy-fuel, and other metal cutting techniques helps illustrate the importance of lasers in metal fabrication.
Types of Lasers for Metal Cutting
In general, there are three classifications of lasers used for cutting metal, each employing different types of beam movement configurations.
The first type of laser used in cutting sheet metal, the CO2 laser generates a beam of energy within a mixture of carbon dioxide, helium, and nitrogen gas. This type of laser is capable of cutting thicker materials at higher speeds than other laser types, such as fiber lasers, and produces less of a micro-burr along the cut edges.
It is available with different beam movement configurations—which relate to the different methods of CNC movement required to create a continuous cut. The configurations available include:
Flying Optics System
This configuration is the most popular. The Flying Optics system fixes the workpiece in place, while the mirrors (or other optical components) are manipulated along the X- and Y-axes. It offers two advantages over other control systems, including:
- Easier prediction and control as the motors are always moving a fixed mass with no variation
- No limit to material weight since the workpiece does not need to move
Despite these advantages, flying optics systems have an issue with variations in beam size. Because a laser beam is never perfectly parallel and slightly diverges as it leaves the laser, slight variations in cutting performance may occur as the beam moves over different areas of the workpiece.
Fixed Optics System
Rather than moving the optical components, a fixed optics system moves the workpiece table along the X- and Y-axes, while the laser optics remain stationary. Whereas this approach overcomes the beam divergence issue, it is not an ideal mechanical design; for lighter sheets, a fixed optics system may work well, but, as weight increases, accurate positioning of the material at high speed decreases.
The development of a hybrid system was an attempt to combine the advantages of a flying optics system and a fixed optics system. In a hybrid system, the optical components move along one axis while the workpiece moves along the other. While this design improves on some of the disadvantages of the other two configurations, it does not resolve the limitation on workpiece weight. Additionally, its more complex setup causes more issues in coordination between the two components.
Advantages of CO2 Lasers
Regardless of the configuration employed, there are several advantages derived from using CO2 laser systems, including:
- Capacity to cut thicker material at the same or lower wattage of a fiber laser
- Less micro-burr along cut edges when cutting thicker metals
Unlike CO2 lasers, fiber lasers do not use mirrors within the light-generating source. Instead, they generate a beam using a series of laser diodes. The generated beam then undergoes amplification through an optical fiber, similar to the laser cavity in a CO2 laser. Collimation, which limits divergence, takes place as the amplified beam exits the optical fiber, followed by focusing through a lens or a concave to focus the beam on the workpiece for cutting.
Advantages of Fiber Lasers
Some advantages provided by fiber lasers over CO2 lasers include:
- No requirement for gas circulation
- Reduced maintenance requirements and costs of operation (no fans and no mirrors)
- 2–3 times more energy efficient than CO2
- Cuts thinner metals faster due to better wavelength absorption at the cutting surface
- No risk of back reflections from reflective metals (e.g., copper, brass, aluminum, etc.)
Direct Diode Laser
The most advanced technology among solid-state lasers is the direct diode laser. These lasers make use of several beams produces from laser emitting diodes of varying wavelengths, which are then superimposed into a single beam for cutting using beam combining techniques.
Advantages of Direct Diode Lasers
Direct diode lasers do not include a brightness-enhancing stage, which decreases optical losses and improves wall-plug efficiency. Although they produce lower quality beams compared to fiber lasers, limiting their suitability for metal cutting applications, multi-kilowatt power level direct diode lasers are available for commercial use and successfully used for cutting sheet metal.
Overall Advantages to Laser Cutting Over Conventional Cutting Methods
When cutting sheet metal laser cutting offers several advantages over other cutting methods, including:
- Limited to no contact during cutting
- Less power consumption
- Increased safety over hand-held methods
- Increased versatility on types of metal that can be cut
- Suitability for multiple types of metal with a single laser machine
- Much higher cutting precision and tighter tolerances than plasma cutting
At G.E. Mathis Company, we have large-capacity laser processing systems, including gantry-type and pallet-type equipment. Our gantry system can process metal up to 14 feet wide and 100 feet long, while our pallet equipment processes sheets and plates up to 8 feet wide and 20 feet long. Both systems are capable of producing maximum power outputs of 8,000 watts. Our CO2 and fiber lasers produce high-quality components using metal ranging in thicknesses from 16 gauge sheet up to 1.25 inch plate. With our advanced laser equipment, and the expertise of our team, we can cut nearly any shape with precision and accuracy.
For additional information regarding our sheet metal laser cutting capabilities, visit our laser processing page. To find out how we can help contribute to the success of your next project, contact us, or request a quote from one of our expert team members.
“Should I use laser cutting or should I use plasma cutting?”—that is the question. Certainly for manufacturers like us, this is a question we receive from many customers; what is the difference between the two and which cutting process is better suited for their end application? While the answer is not cut and dry, there are some general rules that separate the two processes.
Laser cutting is a precise thermal cutting process, utilizing a focused beam of light. We often recommend this manufacturing process for applications where parts require tighter tolerances. When it comes to a specific material choice, we typically work with customers and make recommendations based on their specific application.
Plasma cutting, on the other hand, uses a mixture of gases in order to form a cut. With our high definition plasma cutting equipment, we are able to perform bevel cuts on parts as required. According to this article, “Here manufacturers rely on beveling as a part of the weld preparation process.” The article continues, “Beveled edges produce a sturdier type of weld needed to support the massive weight and loads on such machines and structures.”
For parts that have simple shapes, without many cutouts or intricate notching, we typically utilize plasma cutting. When a part has tight tolerance specifications, needs a precise cut, and/or calls for a small hole diameter in relation to the thickness of the material, then we utilize laser cutting. Again, these are general rules and we consider which process is best suited to cut each part on a case by case basis.
Now, hopefully you have a better understanding of whether laser cutting or plasma cutting is better suited for your application. If not, let us help determine the right cutting process for your parts!