Cutting is one of the most basic manufacturing processes. And amongst the many options available, you may have heard about the precision and efficiency of laser and CNC cutting. Apart from clean and aesthetic cuts, they also offer programmability to save you several hours and boost your workshop’s productivity. However, the cutting offered by a tabletop CNC mill is quite different from that of a laser cutting machine. How so? Let’s take a look.
Before diving into the differences, let us first gain an overview of the individual cutting machines:
As the name indicates, laser cutting machines employ lasers to cut through materials. It is heavily used across several industries to deliver precise, high-quality, top-notch cuts.
Laser cutting machines are programmable to control the path followed by the laser beam to realize the design.
CNC stands for computer numerical control, where a computer controls the router of the machine. It allows the user to set up a programmed path for the router, which introduces greater scope for automation in the process.
Cutting is one of the many functions that a CNC machine can perform. The tool used for cutting actuates contact-based cutting, which is no different from your regular cutting action. For added safety, the inclusion of a table will secure the workpiece and add stability.
The following are the primary differences between laser cutting and cutting with a tabletop CNC mill:
In laser cutting, a beam of laser elevates the surface temperature to the extent that it melts the material, thereby carving a path through it to make the cuts. In other words, it makes use of heat.
While cutting with a CNC machine, you need to create the design and map it to any compatible software using CAD. Then run the software to control the router having the cutting attachment. The cutting tool follows the path dictated by the programmed code to create the design. The cutting takes place through friction.
The cutting tool for laser cutting is a concentrated laser beam. In the case of CNC cutting tools, you can choose from a wide array of attachments, such as end mills, fly cutters, face mills, drill bits, face mills, reamers, hollow mills, etc., which are attached to the router.
Laser cutting can slice through various materials ranging from cork and paper to wood and foam to different types of metals. CNC cutting is mostly suited for softer materials such as wood, plastic, and certain types of metals and alloys. However, you can amp up the power through devices like CNC plasma cutting.
A CNC router offers greater flexibility as it can move in diagonal, curved, and straight lines.
A laser beam performs contactless cutting while the cutting tool on the CNC machine router will have to come physically in contact with the workpiece to start cutting.
Laser cutting works out to be costlier than CNC cutting. Such an assumption is based on the fact that CNC machines are cheaper and also consume comparatively lesser energy.
Laser beams require high-energy electric inputs to deliver appreciable results upon converting them into heat. In contrast, CNC tabletop milling machines can run smoothly even on average power consumption.
Since laser cutting utilizes heat, the heating mechanism allows the operator to offer sealed and finished results. However, in the case of CNC cutting, the ends will be sharp and jagged, requiring you to polish them.
Even though laser cutting consumes more electricity, it translates it into heat, which in turn offers greater efficiency while cutting. But CNC cutting fails to deliver the same degree of efficiency. It may be because the cutting mechanism involves the parts coming in physical contact, which will lead to heat generation and may cause a further loss inefficiency.
CNC routers move as per the directions compiled in a code. As a result, the finished products would be near identical. In the case of laser cutting, manual operation of the machine causes some amount of trade-off in terms of repeatability. Even the programmability is not as accurate as imagined. Apart from scoring points in repeatability, CNC entirely eliminates human intervention, which also ups its accuracy.
Laser cutting is typically used in large industries that have a heavy requirement. However, it is now branching out into the fashion industry and also the carpet industry. On the flip side, a CNC machine is generally used on a smaller scale by hobbyists or in schools.
From the above, it is apparent that even though laser cutting clearly thrives in certain aspects, a good ol’ CNC machine does manage to rack up a few solid points in its favor. So with either machine making a solid case for itself, the choice between laser and CNC cutting purely rests on the project, its design, and the budget to identify a suitable option.
With the above comparison, reaching this decision would be an easier task.
About the Author:
Peter Jacobs is the Senior Director of Marketing at CNC Masters. He is actively involved in manufacturing processes and regularly contributes his insights for various blogs in CNC machining, 3D printing, rapid tooling, injection molding, metal casting, and manufacturing in general.