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Waterjet or Laser Cutting – Which is The Right Option for My Project?

March 31, 2016MainPathNewsComments Off on Waterjet or Laser Cutting – Which is The Right Option for My Project?

When planning a new project, it is important to identify the best processes and machinery to use to carry it out. There is often some confusion about whether to use a waterjet or a laser to complete projects that involve precise cutting of materials. Both laser and waterjet are effective, powerful and capable of producing numerous different types of finalized machinery, but they also have strengths and weaknesses. When deciding on which option to use for your project, consulting with an expert is often the best course of action; but you can also read below to understand the differences between each technique, and the advantages and disadvantages they have to offer in preparation.

waterjet or laser cutting

General Guidelines

The differences in laser and waterjet cutting capabilities lies in the material type, thickness of the material, and the precise accuracy required.

Determining whether to use lasers or waterjets for your next project will depend entirely on your specifications. This means asking yourself a number of questions, including:

  • What kinds of materials will you be using?
  • What is the thickness of your materials?
  • What sort of edge finish and tolerance are required for your task?
  • Will heat impact the part?

With the answers to these questions in hand, you will be more prepared to evaluate which option is the best for your project.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Laser Cutting

To cut material with a laser, CO2 gas energy creates a rapid heating process, which either vaporizes or melts the metal into shape. The beam of the laser focuses on a specific area through the use of a lens, in order to allow for precise cutting, excellently finished edges, and highly efficient results.

Laser cutters work best with materials between 0.12″ and 0.4″ thick, and can handle a wide variety of materials including glass, wood, plastic, and metal. However, it’s important to note that some sensitive metals may warm under high temperatures – leading to delamination, metallurgical changes and discoloration. What’s more, composite materials are often not a good fit for the use of a laser.  

Because, at their core, laser beams are intense beams of light, they will not cut reflective materials. However, in the right circumstances, laser cutting can provide exceptional precision — especially when cutting small items or thinner materials. Because of the high-pressure water flow of a waterjet, thinner materials can bend under the force of the stream – making lasers the better option.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Waterjet Cutting

Referred to sometimes as “abrasive jet” cutting, waterjet cutting adds an abrasive material (like garnet) to a water stream in order to shape harder materials. Perhaps the most significant thing people appreciate about waterjet cutting is that it requires no use of heat, and therefore cuts sensitive materials without the threat of warping. What’s more, because waterjet machines produce such a clean cut, there is no need for sanding or grinding around the edges — leading to reduced costs, easy production of prototypes and great efficiency.

Waterjets are capable of cutting almost any material — including composite materials that may not be appropriate for lasers. They are ideal for ablation, structuring and cutting with thick metals, ceramics, and stone, or materials between a thickness of 0.4″ and 2.0″.

Unfortunately, however, some people find that waterjet cutting isn’t always as precise as laser cutting, as the minimum cut-size slit is .02″. Similarly, because of the high level of force used, smaller, thinner parts may not fare as well. Though burring will not occur in the cut, and thermal stress isn’t an issue, the surface of the material can appear sand-blasted as a result of added abrasive to the jet.

On the other hand, waterjet cutting produces almost no waste whatsoever, and releases no harmful residue or chemicals — leading to increased protection for the environment — as well as the people working near the machine.

Making the Right Choice

Unfortunately, there is no basic answer on whether waterjet or laser cutting is the right solution for your new project — as only you can determine which is ideal for your needs by working with an expert. Hopefully, the above guidelines will give you some direction when determining what your upcoming project needs and what to expect.

If you’ve used laser and waterjet cutting before, let us know what you thought of each method, and whether there was a particular element you preferred in the comments below!


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