Laser cutting is a technology that uses a laser to cut materials, and is typically used for industrial manufacturing applications, but is also starting to be used by schools, small businesses, and hobbyists. Laser cutting works by directing the output of a high-power laser most commonly through optics. The laser optics and CNC (computer numerical control) are used to direct the material or the laser beam generated. A typical commercial laser for cutting materials would involve a motion control system to follow a CNC or G-code of the pattern to be cut onto the material. The focused laser beam directed at the material, which then either melts, burns, vaporizes away, or is blown away by a jet of gas, leaving an edge with a high-quality surface finish. Industrial laser cutters are used to cut flat-sheet material as well as structural and piping materials.
Generation of the laser beam involves stimulating a lasing material by electrical discharges or lamps within a closed container. As the lasing material is stimulated, the beam is reflected internally by means of a partial mirror, until it achieves sufficient energy to escape as a stream of monochromatic coherent light. Mirrors or fiber optics are typically used to direct the coherent light to a lens, which focuses the light at the work zone. The narrowest part of the focused beam is generally less than 0.0125 inches (0.32 mm). in diameter. Depending upon material thickness, kerf widths as small as 0.004 inches (0.10 mm) are possible. In order to be able to start cutting from somewhere else than the edge, a pierce is done before every cut. Piercing usually involves a high-power pulsed laser beam which slowly makes a hole in the material, taking around 5–15 seconds for 0.5-inch-thick (13 mm) stainless steel, for example.
The parallel rays of coherent light from the laser source often fall in the range between 0.06–0.08 inches (1.5–2.0 mm) in diameter. This beam is normally focused and intensified by a lens or a mirror to a very small spot of about 0.001 inches (0.025 mm) to create a very intense laser beam. In order to achieve the smoothest possible finish during contour cutting, the direction of beam polarization must be rotated as it goes around the periphery of a contoured workpiece. For sheet metal cutting, the focal length is usually 1.5–3 inches (38–76 mm).
Advantages of laser cutting over mechanical cutting include easier workholding and reduced contamination of workpiece (since there is no cutting edge which can become contaminated by the material or contaminate the material). Precision may be better, since the laser beam does not wear during the process. There is also a reduced chance of warping the material that is being cut, as laser systems have a small heat-affected zone. Some materials are also very difficult or impossible to cut by more traditional means.
Laser cutting for metals has the advantages over plasma cutting of being more precise and using less energy when cutting sheet metal; however, most industrial lasers cannot cut through the greater metal thickness that plasma can. Newer lasers machines operating at higher power (6000 watts, as contrasted with early laser cutting machines' 1500 watt ratings) are approaching plasma machines in their ability to cut through thick materials, but the capital cost of such machines is much higher than that of plasma cutting machines capable of cutting thick materials like steel plate.
There are three main types of lasers used in laser cutting. The CO2 laser is suited for cutting, boring, and engraving. The neodymium (Nd) and neodymium yttrium-aluminium-garnet (Nd-YAG) lasers are identical in style and differ only in application. Nd is used for boring and where high energy but low repetition are required. The Nd-YAG laser is used where very high power is needed and for boring and engraving. Both CO2 and Nd/ Nd-YAG lasers can be used for welding.
Common variants of CO2 lasers include fast axial flow, slow axial flow, transverse flow, and slab.
CO2 lasers are commonly "pumped" by passing a current through the gas mix (DC-excited) or using radio frequency energy (RF-excited). The RFmethod is newer and has become more popular. Since DC designs require electrodes inside the cavity, they can encounter electrode erosion and plating of electrode material on glassware and optics. Since RF resonators have external electrodes they are not prone to those problems.
CO2 lasers are used for industrial cutting of many materials including mild steel, aluminium, stainless steel, titanium, paper, wax, plastics, wood, and fabrics. YAG lasers are primarily used for cutting and scribing metals and ceramics.
In addition to the power source, the type of gas flow can affect performance as well. In a fast axial flow resonator, the mixture of carbon dioxide, helium and nitrogen is circulated at high velocity by a turbine or blower. Transverse flow lasers circulate the gas mix at a lower velocity, requiring a simpler blower. Slab or diffusion cooled resonators have a static gas field that requires no pressurization or glassware, leading to savings on replacement turbines and glassware.
The laser generator and external optics (including the focus lens) require cooling. Depending on system size and configuration, waste heat may be transferred by a coolant or directly to air. Water is a commonly used coolant, usually circulated through a chiller or heat transfer system.
A laser microjet is a water-jet guided laser in which a pulsed laser beam is coupled into a low-pressure water jet. This is used to perform laser cutting functions while using the water jet to guide the laser beam, much like an optical fiber, through total internal reflection. The advantages of this are that the water also removes debris and cools the material. Additional advantages over traditional "dry" laser cutting are high dicing speeds, parallel kerf, and omnidirectional cutting.
Fiber lasers is a type of solid state laser thats been rapidly growing within the metal cutting industry. Unlike CO2, Fiber technology utilizes a solid gain medium, as opposed to a gas or liquid. The “seed laser” produces the laser beam and is then amplified within a glass fiber. With a wavelength of only 1.064 micrometers fiber lasers produce an extremely small spot size (up to 100 times smaller compared to the CO2) making it ideal for cutting reflective metal material. This is one of the main advantages of Fiber compared to CO2.