How Do Laser Cutters Work

How Do Laser Cutters Work? Simply Explained

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Laser cutting technology has advanced significantly since its invention. Laser cutters, on the other hand, are now more powerful and affordable than before, making them available to even hobby users. For instance, a designer can create anything in design software and then send it to laser machines to be carved out automatically with the press of a button. But how do laser cutters work?

What is a Laser Cutter?

This is a Computer Numerical Controlled (CNC) machine that vaporizes materials using a laser, resulting in a cut edge. Though it was originally designed for industrial manufacturing, it’s now used by small enterprises, architects, schools, and hobbyists.

Laser Cutter

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The Laser cutting machines guide the output of a high-power laser, most frequently through optics. Besides, laser optics and CNC (computer numerical control) are used to direct the laser beam to the material. For example, a commercial cutting laser uses a motion control system to execute a G-code or CNC of the pattern to be cut onto the material.

Furthermore, the focused laser beam is directed to the material, which either melts, vaporizes, burns, or is blown by a jet of gas, leaving an edge with a superior surface finish. On the other hand, laser cutting for metals is more precise than plasma cutting.

Now that we know what a laser cutter is let’s check out how it works.

How Do Laser Cutters Work

The laser is generated by a laser resonator, which emits a strong light beam reflected by a mirror system to the cutting head. The laser is then focused through a lens within the cutting head and reduced to an incredibly thin, concentrated beam.

Then, the beam is directed at the material and can cut the raw stock. The cutting head is often installed on an XY gantry, a mechanical system powered by a chain or belt that allows the cutting head to move precisely within a defined rectangular area the size of the work bed.

Furthermore, the XY gantry allows the laser head to move forward and back, back and forth across the material surface, allowing it to make accurate cuts anywhere on the bed. The focus point of the lens must be on the material surface being cut through for the laser to cut. All laser cutters require a focusing technique to ensure that the laser cuts effectively.

Laser Cutting Process

When the laser beam gets into contact with the surface, the workpiece material usually absorbs and converts it into heat energy. Then, the heat energy raises the temperature of the material until it melts and vaporizes. There are three laser cutting processes depending on the auxiliary gas used.

1. Flame Cutting

 Flame Cutting

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In this flame-cutting process (also known as reactive cutting), the auxiliary gas (oxygen) actively participates in the burning and melting of the material. The laser beam usually heats the material while the oxygen reacts with it to generate a fire. This boosts the energy input to the material and helps the laser beam cut through it.

2. Fusion Cutting

Fusion Cutting

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In fusion cutting (also referred to as melt and blow cutting), the auxiliary gas doesn’t help to melt the material but only comes into play after the laser has melted it. Generally, an inert gas (nitrogen) is used as auxiliary gas to help in the cutting process.

The pressurized auxiliary gas usually blasts the molten metal out of the kerf, boosting cutting speed and minimizing the amount of laser power needed to cut through the material.

3. Sublimation Cutting

Sublimation Cutting

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Sublimation cutting (also referred to as vaporization cutting) is cutting thin sheets of material without needing an auxiliary gas. A high-energy pulsed laser beam usually evaporates the material layer by layer, preventing a molten pool from forming.

What Are the Main Types of Laser?

Types of lasers

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1. CO2 Laser Cutters

A CO2 laser is a glass tube containing a gaseous combination of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, hydrogen, and helium. A high-voltage electric current is usually passed through the glass tube that stimulates the atoms of these gases.

CO2 Laser Cutters

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Then, the atoms emit excess energy in the form of light. This light is reflected between a partially reflective mirror on one end of the glass and a fully reflective mirror on the other. The partially reflecting mirror end produces a high-energy laser beam with a 9,300 – 10600 nm wavelength.

2. Fiber Laser Cutters (DPSSL)

Fiber Laser Cutters (DPSSL)

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A fiber laser [also referred to as a solid-state laser (DPSSL)] uses a semiconductor diode to emit light. The light produced by the diode gets into the core fiber, doped with a rare-earth element (erbium, ytterbium, or thulium). Besides, these rare-earth components absorb the light and convert it into the required wavelength laser of 950 nm – 2200 nm).

3. Diode Laser Cutters

Diode Laser Cutters

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This solid-state laser that directly uses the light generated by a semiconductor diode without a doping medium. This laser is mainly used in low-cost laser engravers with low laser-power output and can cut and engrave thin sheets of materials. However, recent advancements have made it possible to have high-power diode laser cutters that can cut through dense materials.

4. Nd: YAG Laser Cutters 

Nd: YAG laser cutter is a solid-state laser made up of an Nd: YAG rod and a krypton arc lamp housed within an elliptical reflector. The light energy emitted from the arc lamp is usually reflected by the elliptical reflector’s walls and absorbed by the Nd: YAG rod.

Nd: YAG Laser Cutters

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This stimulates the Neodymium ions in the Nd: YAG rod, and surplus energy is emitted in the form of bright light. Then, similarly to a CO2 laser, the light is reflected between a partially reflective mirror on one end of the elliptical reflector and a fully reflective mirror on the other. Besides, the partially reflecting mirror end produces a high-energy laser beam that has a wavelength of 1060 nm.

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Jacky Chou

Jacky Chou is an electrical engineer turned marketer. He is the founder of Indexsy, Far & Away, Laurel & Wolf, a couple FBA businesses , and about 40 affiliate sites. He is a proud native of Vancouver, BC, who has been featured on Entrepreneur.com, Forbes, Oberlo and GoDaddy.