As customers push for ever more complex shapes and faster turnaround on the labels and other cut parts they order, screen shops have begun relying on sophisticated laser cutting systems to meet their clients
By Bill Knotts
Laser cutting systems can make cuts as small as the laser beam diameter, which can be as little as 210 microns in high-end systems. Material limitations are sometimes an issue. Although the precise definition of thick is changing and dependent on material grade, laser cutting on thick polycarbonate substrates continues to be beyond the current systems’ capabilities because material discoloration usually occurs. If polycarbonates are too thick for laser cutting, the best technology fit is usually with the highprecision, optically registered steelrule die or hard-tool cutting systems that can de-liver high registration accuracy.
For especially long runs with many hundreds of thousands of linear feet, the expenses for tooling are insignificant contributors to the overall job cost, and the delays for making tooling are easy to absorb. Tool-based cutting systems (rotary die cutters, optically registered gap presses, platen presses) will continue to be the cutting method of choice for these types of jobs. On large orders, if dies can be fashioned to reliably handle the required details of part geometries, there is usually little advantage to laser cutting systems, because even the highest wattage modern systems are still a bit slower.
What does a laser cutting system cost?
A high-end, full-featured laser cutting system can cost $250,000 or more, which is comparable to the cost of a high-precision, optically registered gap die-cutting press. There are no additional costs for tooling, however, which makes a laser cutting system comparably lower-priced over its lifetime.
How do the various brands and models of laser cutting systems differ, and how does a company determine which will best fit its needs?
Buyers beware! The range of capabilities in today’s laser cutting systems is wide and is largely determined by the sophistication of the software that drives the systems. This means that you need to test various options thoroughly before you purchase a system.
One way to do that is by providing materials to get samples cut to your specifications and to look at the range of samples provided by manufacturers and the cutting precision they demonstrate. Better yet, enlist the contract manufacturing services that are provided by reputable laser cutting-system manufacturers. These will not only demonstrate the equipment’s ability to generate the features your applications require, but they also will give you details on expected operating efficiencies and throughput for your applications.
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