While people often think laser cutting is a new, modern technology — it isn’t necessarily a new concept. In fact, the use of lasers in manufacturing began with the ideas of physicist Max Planck in 1900, when he published his findings regarding the connection between radiation frequency and energy. These findings inspired Albert Einstein’s theories on the concept of stimulated emission, and the principle of harnessing the energy produced by light.
Although Einstein published his ideas in 1917, it wasn’t until much later — in the late 1940’s — that his theories came to life, through the innovations of engineers searching for ways to harness the energy of the “photoelectric effect.” From these first explorations into the world of light and lasers, emerged the first working laser, created by Theodore H Maiman in 1960.
Let’s take a look at how the laser arrived on the manufacturing floor, and how it has affected modern production.
What is Laser Cutting?
Material cutting is one of the most crucial steps in completing a project in manufacturing, or fabrication. The need for accuracy, speed, and efficiency is what prompted the development of laser technology for the industry.
Lasers are high-powered beams of light that can cut through various materials. Today, these machines are generally controlled by computers, and used to melt, vaporize, or burn through components according to a pre-set path, or set of instructions. Once little more than science fiction, laser cutting has proven to be one of the most versatile inventions of the modern world.
History of Laser Cutting
The first laser designed for the purpose of production was introduced by Western Electric in 1965. A leader in the manufacturing and electrical engineering spaces, this company has been a trailblazer in the industry for years, contributing to advanced forms of production. Western Electric began using lasers as a way of drilling holes into diamond dies in 1965, and the technology took off from there.
By May of 1967 (just two years later), a German scientist named Peter Houldcroft had begun developing his own laser-cutting nozzle. This nozzle used a CO2 laser beam and oxygen assist-gas to experiment with industrial cutting. Thanks to these experiments, Houldcroft became the first person to use laser cutting to cut through a 1mm steel sheet. Western Electric quickly jumped on these advancements, making improvements to Houldcroft’s technology — soon enough, lasers were being sold to companies for industrial applications.
In 1969, the Boeing company released a paper discussing the possibilities of using laser cutting on harder materials — such as ceramic and titanium. The paper suggested that, with significant development, laser cutting could become an effective tool for industrial cutting. This groundbreaking paper prompted many companies to begin evaluating the possibilities of laser cutting.
As techniques advanced during the 1990’s, new possibilities emerged in the technique of laser sintering, and the first SteroLithography Apparatus, which allowed companies to create quick prototypes for future technology. By the time the millennium arrived, there were numerous techniques and methods available, raising the standards in laser cutting.
Laser Cutting as We Know It Today
At the beginning of the century, many industries worried that laser systems didn’t have the precision required for complicated designs — those issues are now a thing of the past.
Today’s laser cutting technologies are often integrated with computer-based programming systems, allowing for complete control when cutting various materials. Due to these precise solutions, lasers can now create various shapes and components without distortion, making them ideal for a number of modern industries. Thanks to its non-contact technology, laser machining is a valuable tool in the processing and manufacturing industries. Through its evolution, laser technology has allowed the world of manufacturing to achieve a level of speed and accuracy that Einstein himself may not have imagined — and with engineers constantly working on advancements, who knows where we’ll end up next.
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.
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!