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A Guide to Laser Cutting Technology, Part 1

(April 2009) posted on Tue Apr 21, 2009

Laser cutters have evolved from prototyping tools to highly-productive finishing systems. Read on to learn about developments in lasers, control software, and other facets of the technology that make laser cutting systems a viable option for any shop currently using conventional, tool-based cutting machines.

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By Markus Klemm

For example in 200 x 200-mm working fields or greater, the laser spot size can be as small as 210 microns in high-end systems. While any die-based cutting system would have difficulties in producing corners that are less than 30°, this is not in any way challenging for a laser cutting system. And laser cutting technology also allows one to skip the step of creating mechanical knicks to facilitate parts extraction as is typically required with a tool-based cutting mechanism.

Laser cutting systems do have limitations, but there also are mistaken notions about what these limitations are. In some quarters, laser cutters are thought of only as prototyping tools and not up to the requirements of full production runs. While there are many applications where laser cutting may be slower compared to platen diecutting presses, rotary die cutters, or optically-registered gap presses, they are considerably faster than the earlier generations of laser cutting systems. In fact, most users of today’s laser systems are employing them in full production.

This is possible, in part, because today’s laser cutters generally incorporate galvanometric (galvo) lasers that make minute adjustments in mirror angles to direct laser beams around artwork. This galvo mechanism is considerably faster than gantry systems with XY plotters that physically move lasers as a whole or move the whole sheet of material being cut, not just the laser beams. Newer galvo technology takes this speed improvement to the next level by fine tuning software to shave milliseconds off of most operations, with a combined effect of significant speed improvements.

Additionally, higher laser wattage means faster cutting in most applications. And today, 200- and 400-watt lasers, which were prohibitively expensive five years or so ago, are now available at competitive prices. These new lasers also produce a higher quality beam, which in turn ensures that cutting quality is maintained even at higher cutting speeds. The upshot of all these combined improvements is that today’s laser cutters do far more than prototype samples; they can be used for full production runs without creating production bottlenecks. Keep in mind that manufacturer claims about linear cutting speed are not meaningful in most instances. Actual cutting speed is determined both by the complexity of the artwork and ability of the control software to optimize cutting in the desired geometry.


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