Laser Cutting vs Plasma Cutting: What Should I Use

Laser Cutting vs Plasma Cutting: What Should I Use

Both laser cutting and plasma cutting have their pros and cons. The method you choose mostly depends on the material you intend to cut.

Laser cutting usually allows for more precise, narrower cuts than plasma cutting, especially with thin sheet metal, but it’s inefficient with medium to thick sheet metal, and it can be expensive in terms of the initial purchase price and maintenance costs.

Plasma cutting, the more affordable option, is easier for inexperienced operators and the most suitable cutting method for many types of metal. But plasma cutting machines are a little less precise than laser cutters.

So, how do you decide whether to use a plasma cutter or a laser cutter? In this in-depth guide, we’ll explain the differences between the two options to help you invest your money wisely.

What Is Plasma Cutting?

First developed back in the 1950s as an alternative to flame cutting, plasma cutting is one of the oldest forms of metal cutting. A plasma cutter shoots a heated, ionised gas (plasma) out of its nozzle towards the workpiece. An electrical arc that forms within the gas creates a conductive channel of plasma, which creates enough heat to melt through most metals and the workpiece. Compressed gas and plasma blow the molten metal away from the workpiece. In general, plasma cutters are suitable for cutting medium to thick sheet metal with a relatively low tolerance specification.

What Is Laser Cutting?

The technology behind laser cutting was first developed during the 1960s as a way to cut diamond dies. It’s a thermal cutting process that uses a high-precision, high-powered laser as well as nitrogen, oxygen and compressed air to melt, vaporise or blow away the metal being cut. The laser beam is reflected by a series of mirrors into the laser head before being emitted out of a tube. Inside the laser head, there’s a lens which focuses the beam onto your metal surface for engraving or cutting. The two most common types of laser cutter are Fibre and CO2. 

Laser Cutting vs Plasma Cutting: Key Differences at a Glance

Now that you know how laser and plasma cutters work, let’s quickly look at the differences between the two options with regards to their real-world applications:

  • Laser cutters cut metal by using a focused laser beam while plasma alternatives utilise a mixture of gases that creates an electrical arc.
  • In most cases, especially when working with thin sheet metal, laser cutters are more precise.
  • Laser cutters usually cost a lot more than plasma cutters to purchase and maintain.
  • CO2 laser cutters don’t work on reflective surfaces, making them ineffective when working with aluminium, brass and copper. Fibre laser cutters are a little more versatile than their CO2 counterparts.
  • Plasma cutters can be used to cut all types of metal.
  • Laser cutters can be more efficient when used to cut thin sheet metal, making them more eco-friendly.
  • Plasma cutters can cut thicker metals than laser cutters. A laser cutter can efficiently cut metals with a thickness of up to 25mm. Plasma cutters, on the other hand, can cut through metals as thick as 80mm.

Do you need to cut metals with varying thicknesses? The plasma cutter remains one of the most versatile metal cutters available and costs less to purchase than the laser-powered alternative. However, there are some jobs that a plasma cutter can’t handle, such as cutting the ridges on a saw blade.

Laser Cutting Advantages and Disadvantages

Laser cutters are more expensive than plasma cutters, and they’re a little more limited when it comes to cutting metal. However, certain jobs require a laser cutter that offers more precision than the plasma alternative. Let’s look at the pros and cons of laser cutting in more detail.

Advantages:

  • Laser cutters are capable of cutting smaller slots than plasma cutters, and there’s no need to grind the cutting surface before welding.
  • They can reach impressive cut speeds with thin sheet metal.
  • They provide a high-quality cut, resulting in low surface roughness, small deformation and a low oblique cutting edge
  • Positioning accuracy can reach 0.05mm.
  • They can cut through many metals as well as PVC, leather, textiles, plastic, wood and organic glass.

Disadvantages:

  • Laser cutters tend to cost more to purchase than plasma cutters.
  • Laser cutters also usually incur higher maintenance costs than the plasma alternative.
  • You can’t cut through reflective metals using a laser cutter.
  • Laser cutters are inefficient when used with a medium and thick plate, though they can be more efficient than plasma cutters when used with thin sheet metal.
  • Shields are required around laser cutters as they emit high energy laser beams capable of causing serious eye and skin injury if the beam is not contained within the device.

Plasma Cutting Pros and Cons

Compared to laser cutters, plasma cutters are cost-effective and more versatile when used for metal cutting. There are certain types of jobs that a plasma cutter can’t handle, though you’ll find that most of the latest Hypertherm products offer superb precision.

So, how do plasma cutters stack up against laser cutters?

Advantages:

  • When used to cut medium and thick plates, plasma cutters are much more efficient than laser cutters.
  • Plasma cutters are more cost-effective than laser cutters.
  • In most cases, plasma cutters are easier to maintain than laser cutters.
  • Plasma cutters can be used to cut most metals, including reflective ones.
  • Compared to laser cutters, plasma cutters are much easier to operate.

Disadvantages:

  • Plasma cutters are less precise than laser cutters.
  • Plasma cutters produce more cutting slag than laser cutters. You may need to remove the slag via grinding.

Plasma vs Laser Cutting: Our Verdict

As you can see from above, deciding whether to purchase a plasma or laser cutter mostly comes down to your intended use. If you only work with thin sheet metal and require a cutter that offers almost unrivalled precision, you may need a laser cutter. If you work with a broad range of metals at varying thicknesses, you might be better off with a plasma cutter.

At TruCut, we’re one of Australia’s leading suppliers of plasma and laser consumables as well as plasma cutting systems, which we make available at the nation’s best value prices. We’re proud to be a certified Hypertherm plasma supplier because it demonstrates our commitment to sourcing the most advanced solutions on the market. Whether you need a high-powered cutting unit or a portable handheld cutter, we’ve got you covered.

If you have any questions on the pros, cons and applications for plasma and laser cutters, don’t hesitate to give us a call, 07 3893 4184.

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