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Laser Cutting vs Plasma Cutting: Which Is Better

Laser Cutting vs Plasma Cutting Which Is Better

Laser Cutting vs Plasma Cutting: Which Is Better

When people come to us with projects, a question we often hear is: “Should I use laser cutting or plasma cutting in metal fabrication?”. As a metalworking machinery company, we have the knowledge and know-how to provide you with professional advice based on your budget, needs, and the final project. Now let’s take a moment to talk about the difference between laser cutting metal and plasma cutting, and on which projects we will use these techniques.
Table of Contents
How do they work

How Do They Work?

Before we learn more about the difference between laser cutting and plasma cutting, let’s take a look at how they work.

What is laser cutting?

Laser cutting is a technique that uses a laser to cut material, typically for industrial manufacturing applications. This is achieved by directing the output of the most common high-power lasers. Laser optics and CNC (Computer Numerical Control) are used to direct the laser beam onto the material. The high-power beam rapidly heats, melts, and partially vaporizes metal, or is blown away by a gas jet, leaving an edge with a high-quality surface finish. We manufacture laser cutters for cutting flat material as well as structural and piping materials.
Laser cutting has always been considered a safe, efficient, and reliable cutting process. Laser-cutting machines use high-power, computer-operated lasers, and the core component is a fiber laser equipped with elements such as erbium, thulium, and dysprosium. When used with nitrogen, oxygen, or compressed air, fiber lasers can cut a variety of metals with high precision. Laser cutters are generally versatile and can be used for a variety of jobs.

What is plasma cutting?

Plasma cutting is a low-cost cutting method that provides high speed and high precision through the melting process. Here, a jet of ionized gas is used to melt and expel the material from the cut. Typical materials cut with a plasma torch include steel, stainless steel, aluminum, brass, and copper, but other conductive metals can also be cut. Plasma cutters are commonly used in manufacturing workshops, automotive repair and restoration, industrial buildings, and more. Like laser cutters, plasma cutters ultimately cut metal by melting it.
Plasma cutters are one of the most delicate and versatile tools for cutting heavy and thick materials more easily. Plasma cutting is performed by forcing compressed air and inert gases such as hydrogen and nitrogen through a thin nozzle at high speed. The combination of gases, high velocity, and areas of concentrated pressure create plasma, which is an electrically conductive ionized gas.
Fiber Laser Cutting VS Plasma Cutting

Fiber Laser Cutting VS Plasma Cutting

With the upgrading of downstream industry demand and the decline in the cost of high-power lasers, the demand for laser-cutting applications has shown signs of rapid growth in recent years.
On the one hand, plasma cutting is prone to large deformation when cutting sheet metal below 6mm, and requires high cutting accuracy.
On the other hand, laser cutting has obvious process advantages, especially for high melting point materials, heat-resistant alloys, super-hard alloys, semiconductor materials, non-metallic materials, and composite materials.
Comparison of Fiber Laser Cutting and Plasma Cutting
Item Fiber Laser Cutting Plasma Cutting
Principle High power density laser beam is used to scan the surface of the material, heat the material to thousands to tens of thousands of degrees Celsius in a very short time, melt or gasify the material, and then blow the melted or gasified material away from the slit with high-pressure gas. With oxygen or nitrogen as the working gas, and high-temperature and high-speed plasma arc as the heat source, the metal to be cut is locally melted, and at the same time, the melted metal is blown away with high-speed airflow to form a narrow slit.
Material Metal materials, special metal materials, non-metallic materials Carbon steel, stainless steel, aluminum, copper, cast iron, and other metal materials
Cutting Thickness Medium thin plate Medium thick plate
Cutting Accuracy Finish machining (within 0.2mm) Rough machining (within 1mm)
Slit Width Very small (0.2-0.3mm) Small
Heat Affected Zone Very small (width 0.1mm) Small
Plate Deformation Very small Small
When laser cutting replaces some punch functions, subsequent bending operations cannot be completed. Therefore, when customers buy a laser cutting machine, they often need to buy a bending machine.
Application

Application

Plasma cutting is suitable for cutting various metal materials, mainly for cutting medium and thick plates. The advantages of plasma cutting are fast cutting speed, a narrow cutting groove, a small heat-affected area, small deformation, and low operating cost. The disadvantage of plasma cutting is the 0.5~1.5° angle at the vertical section and hardened cut.
Laser cutting is mainly used for cutting medium and thin sheets, and the range of cutting materials is very wide (metals, non-metals, ceramics, glass, etc.). Because the laser has the characteristics of high direction, high brightness, and high intensity, the laser cutting speed is fast, the processing accuracy is high, the cutting seam is very narrow, and no subsequent processing is required.
In general, the range of materials that can be cut by laser is wider than that of plasma; in thin plate cutting, the advantages of laser cutting are more obvious; in terms of cost, plasma cutting is much cheaper than laser cutting.
Security

Security

Both plasma and laser cutting machines require special facilities to operate safely. While plasma cutters require personal safety gear to protect from glare, noise, and gas, the technology does not require specialized gears and a safety enclosure around the entire system, as lasers sometimes do.
Start-Up Cost

Start-Up Cost

If you’re looking for the best value metal fabrication shop, you can’t beat plasma when it comes to your initial investment. Most shop-quality CNC plasma cutters cost between $50,000 and $100,000 to purchase, depending on the type and size of the machine and its capabilities. At the same time, lasers are much more expensive. While used laser cutters can sometimes cost around $250,000, a new machine can often cost over $300,000, sometimes as much as $1 million. When it comes to the cost of laser vs plasma, plasma is by far the cheapest upfront investment.
Operating Costs

Operating Costs

In the field of medium and heavy plate cutting, the cost of laser cutting is significantly lower than that of plasma cutting. Plasma cutting is one of the main cutting methods in the field of thick plates. There are two reasons why laser cutting costs less than plasma cutting:

  1. There are few auxiliary equipment and auxiliary personnel for laser cutting, and the fixed cost is greatly reduced.
  2. The laser cutting efficiency is higher.
Taking the cutting of a 30mm thick carbon steel plate as an example, the operating cost of 12KW laser cutting is 3.05 yuan/meter, the operating cost of 20KW laser cutting is 1.32 yuan/meter, and the operating cost of plasma cutting (300A) is 3.13 yuan/meter. Among them, 20KW laser cutting saves 57.8% of operating costs than plasma cutting (300A), which has a significant cost advantage.
The cutting cost is calculated based on the price in China, and the price may vary in different countries and regions.
Cost Comparison Between Laser Cutting And Plasma Cutting
Cost item Laser Cutting (12KW) Laser Cutting (20KW) Plasma Cutting (300A)
Vulnerable Parts of The Equipment (yuan/hour) 5 5 70 (electrode, nozzle, vortex ring, etc.)
Average Power Consumption of Equipment (yuan/hour) 60 80 80
Oxygen Consumption (yuan/hour) 10 (plate thickness > 20mm) 10 (plate thickness > 20mm) 12
Handling (1 person) + Polishing (2 persons) 0 0 60
Drilling/Positioning/Transfer (3 persons + equipment) 0 0 60
Fixed Cost (yuan/hour) 65 (75) 85 (95) 282
Cutting Speed (14mm carbon steel) 4m/min 6m/min 3.4m/min
Operating Cost Per Meter 65/60/4m=0.27 yuan/m 85/60/6m=0.24 yuan/m 282/60/3.4m=1.38 yuan/m
Cutting speed (30mm carbon steel) 0.41m/min 1.2m/min 1.5m/min
Operating cost per meter 75/60/0.41m=3.05 yuan/m 95/60/1.2m=1.32 yuan/m 282/60/1.5m=3.13 yuan/m
Advantages And Disadvantages of Plasma Cutting

Advantages And Disadvantages of Plasma Cutting

As a common cutting method, plasma cutting also has its advantages and disadvantages.

Advantage

In the process of cutting medium and thick plates, very high cutting speeds can be achieved, much higher than laser cutting and flame cutting. The initial equipment investment of the plasma cutting machine is lower than that of the laser cutting machine, but the maintenance cost in the later stage is slightly higher.

Disadvantages

  • Poor verticality of the cutting surface: There will be a larger beveled edge on one side of the cutting surface, and the verticality is poor.
  • Generates more dross: dross is generated at the bottom of the cut surface during the cutting process. In order not to affect the quality of the subsequent process, this slag must be removed by grinding, which also increases labor costs.
  • Generates harmful gas and arc light: The principle of plasma cutting determines the harmful dust and arc light that will be generated during the cutting process. However, underwater plasma cutting has also been used to avoid this defect.
  • Consume more nozzles: Plasma cutting consumes more nozzles in the later stage, and the cost is high.
Advantages And Disadvantages of Laser Cutting

Advantages And Disadvantages of Laser Cutting

Compared with general cutting methods, laser cutting machines have some obvious advantages and disadvantages.

Advantage

  • Precise edges: When cutting with traditional methods such as blades, burrs, or rough surfaces are often seen and must be polished and smoothed. When using laser cutting, this is not a problem.
  • Fast cutting speed: The thin plate cutting speed can reach 10m/min, which is much faster than plasma cutting.
  • Good cutting quality: small deformation, low surface roughness, low cutting edge slope.
  • High precision: the laser beam does not wear out. This improves accuracy. Furthermore, due to the size of typical lasers and the fact that they are guided by high-performance computers, this allows the creation of complex designs that would not otherwise be possible. The positioning accuracy can reach 0.05mm, and the repositioning accuracy can reach 0.02mm.
  • Wide range of cutting materials: In addition to being able to cut metal, it can also cut wood, plastic, rubber, PVC, leather, textiles, plexiglass, etc.
  • Low maintenance: Traditional cutting methods require routine maintenance and blade sharpening. Lasers do not require this maintenance and can operate for extended periods without maintenance.
  • Maximum efficiency: Whether you’re prototyping or going into full-scale production, the laser doesn’t need to be adjusted or reworked. This allows for optimum efficiency at the time of manufacture.
  • Fast Setup: The setup time for laser cutting is relatively fast compared to other metal cutting techniques. It is also much easier to make adjustments when custom manufacturing is required.

Disadvantages

  • High cost.
  • Both the initial investment and subsequent maintenance require higher costs.
  • Laser cutting is more cost-effective when cutting thin plates, but when cutting thick plates, the cutting efficiency is low, and laser cutting is not suitable unless the quality requirements are high.
Comparing Laser Cutting And Plasma Cutting

Comparing Laser Cutting And Plasma Cutting

  • Lasers are typically more expensive to operate but offer a level of detail that plasma cutting does not. Therefore, lasers are great for engraving details or cutting out small shapes from metal, whereas plasma is better for more simple cuts.
  • Plasma cutters can cut through thicker sheets of metal. In general, a plasma cutter can cut through metal up to 1.5 inches thick. Lasers, on the other hand, can cut through half-inch thick aluminum, three-quarters-inch thick stainless steel, and one-inch thick steel.
  • Plasma can only cut materials that conduct electricity, whereas lasers have been used to cut wood, plastic, glass, and other materials. This is because the plasma uses electrically conductive gas to create the cuts, rather than a beam of optic light.
  • Lasers cannot cut highly reflective materials like copper, so plasma cutting may be the best option for materials like this. However, plasma can cut through any conductive metal, regardless of the surface.
  • Laser cutting has a tighter tolerance of just .002 inches, making it ideal for precise cuts or parts that have intricate notching.
  • Both laser and plasma cutters at our shop use CNC, computer numeric control, to control the machines. This means that your project can be completed quickly and accurately.
Advantages of Fiber Laser Cutting Over Plasma Cutting
Item Fiber Laser Cutting Plasma Cutting Fiber Laser Advantages
Positioning Accuracy 0.14mm 0.4mm High accuracy
Section Perpendicularity 0.2mm (40mm) 5mm (40mm) No finishing required
Slit Width 0.2-1.5mm 2-5mm Save materials
Reserved Edge And Common Edge 3-4mm 10mm Save materials
Heat Affected Zone 0.1-0.4mm 0.5-2.0mm Small deformation
Section Quality Excellent, less slag hanging Normal No grinding required
Cutting Speed (Within 20mm) Very fast Normal High production efficiency
Cut A Small Hole Diameter depth ratio: 10-20% Unable to cut hole Save the drilling machine and transfer
Beveling Beveling Generally not Saving beveling machine
Work Environment Clean Smoke filled the house Health and environmental protection
High Power Laser Cutting Machine

High Power Laser Cutting Machine

The popularity of high-power lasers has made laser-cutting equipment break through the thickness limit. Before 2015, sales of high-power lasers were extremely low, and the application of laser cutting was long limited by thickness. It is traditionally believed that flame cutting can cut the widest range of plate thicknesses, and a speed above 50mm has obvious advantages. It is suitable for thick and extra-thick plates that do not require high processing accuracy. Plasma cutting has obvious speed advantages in the range of 30-50mm and is not suitable for processing very thin plates (<2mm). Laser cutting mostly uses kilowatt-level lasers, which have obvious advantages in speed and accuracy below 10mm.
In recent years, with the gradual popularization of high-power lasers, laser-cutting equipment has gradually penetrated the medium and heavy plate-cutting market. As the power increases, so do the cutting thickness and efficiency of the laser cutting machine. According to statistics, the 20KW watt laser cutting machine has broken the optimal cutting thickness of mild steel and stainless steel to 50mm and 40mm respectively.
Considering that the steel plate is generally divided into the thin plate (<4mm), medium plate (4-20mm), thick plate (20-60mm), and extra-thick plate (>60mm) according to the thickness. The 10KW laser cutting machine has been able to cut medium plates and most thick plates, and the application scenarios of laser cutting equipment continue to extend to the field of medium plates. In addition to increasing the upper limit of the thickness of the cutting material, the high power of the laser also makes the cutting efficiency continue to improve. For example, when cutting 50mm mild steel, a 30,000-watt laser cutter can be 88% more efficient than a 20,000-watt cutter.
Advantages of High Power Fiber Laser Cutting Machine
Thickness 15KW (m/min) 20KW (m/min) 30KW (m/min) Efficiency Improvement (30kW over 20kW)
8 11 15 22 47%
10 8 11 17 55%
14 5 6 7.5 25%
20 1.5 2.5 4.5 80%
30 0.9 1.2 1.6 33%
40 0.35 0.6 1 67%
50 0.2 0.4 0.75 88%

Conclusion

So which is better, plasma or laser? While the ultimate answer depends on the material you’re cutting, the type of cuts you’ll be making, and your budget, for most metalworking, laser cutting machines are the clear winner. Lasers can cut all types of metals and non-metals quickly, with high quality and precision, not to mention the continued price drop of laser cutters in recent years. You can’t beat a laser for a great cut with great value and precision. If you’re ready to investigate which laser cutter is best for your requirements, give us a call today. Our team of experts will guide you through your selections and find the ideal machine for your store so you can build great products.
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