Laser Cutting Metals vs. Plasma Cutting Metals

Laser cutting and plasma cutting machines can save you time and money. Both share similar qualities, but there are unique features that differentiate the two. Before choosing which machine best fits your needs, you should understand the ins and outs of each. We hope to help you find the right fit.

Our relationships with customers are just as solid as the metals we work with, forged on quality service for the highest quality parts. Glenn Metalcraft is an extension of each customer. We want to grow in the right direction, so we are careful about the type of work we accept and strive to achieve a good fit above all else.

Have you ever harnessed sunlight to create a laser beam?

If you have ever used a magnifying glass to direct sunlight into a concentrated beam, you created a laser! Channeling direct sunlight through a lens produces a focused column of light. This column is also known as a laser beam.

When you think of lasers, you might be reminded of sci-fi movies or laser light shows. The lasers you envision are similar to those that laser cutting machines use. A concentrated beam is directed through the machine and onto the material you desire to cut. This beam is controlled by a complex network of parts, all controlled by a computer.

The computer controls the machine and directs the laser beam with fantastic accuracy. Laser cutting metals is a process well known for clean cuts and tight tolerances.

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Plasma cutting machines work differently.

Plasma cutting machines create a stream of electricity flowing through gas and force it through a small orifice using compressed air. That stream jumps from an electrode in the nozzle to the conductive material being cut. It is why plasma cutting is limited to only conductive materials.

Plasma cutting machines offer powerful cutting capabilities but provide less accuracy than laser cutting machines. Unlike laser cutting machines, many plasma cutting machines are handheld. They are an affordable and effective way to cut through metal sheeting easily.

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Differences in precision: Laser vs. Plasma cutting metals

As you might imagine, laser cutting is the more precise option. 

A laser can cut a metal sheet with extreme accuracy because the cut width is so thin. Most lasers are only one-thousandths of an inch thick. This thin cut width results in an ideal cut.

Plasma cutting machines are mighty but do not meet the same level of accuracy as lasers. The propelled spray that plasma cutting machines send out to cut through materials is one-hundredths of an inch thick. This is close to ten times less accurate than laser cutting.

Cut quality comparison: Laser cut metals vs. plasma cut metals

Plasma cutting requires more “clean up” time.

Plasma cutting often leave jagged edges and imperfections on parts. This means that you may revisit the piece after cutting to clean up the cut edges.

When watching a laser cutting machine and a plasma cutting machine go head-to-head, the differences in cut quality and speed are apparent. 

Material restrictions for laser cutting machines:

Laser cutting machines create crisp edges, but they’re picky eaters.

Unlike plasma, laser cutting machines can only work with materials generally less than ½” thick. Any larger and you may need a very big, extremely specialized laser. Laser cutting metals are limited to clean, rust-free, non-mirrored metal materials.

Laser cutting machines cut a variety of metal materials. 

These range from typical cardstock paper to thick acrylic boards. When considering how well it can cut metals, the ideal thickness is ¼” steel or aluminum sheeting. The cardinal rule is that these surfaces need to be unblemished and unpainted for the laser cutter to work correctly.

Material restrictions for plasma cutting machines:

Plasma cutting machines require a conductive material to get the job done.

The favorites of these machines are steel and aluminum. One perk to plasma cutting is that they do not require clean cuts of the material and will work appropriately, trimming through rust and blemishes on the surface.

Thicker materials that require simple cuts are ideal candidates for the plasma cutting machine. Plasma cutting is possible at thicknesses up to 6 inches. The maximum thickness possible for each plasma cutter varies the machine’s power and setup. Plasma cutters can be handheld or table-mounted systems.

Here to address your questions about laser metal cutting and plasma metal cutting.

Our relationships with customers are as solid as the metals we work with, forged on quality service for the highest quality parts. Glenn Metalcraft is an extension of each customer. We want to grow in the right direction, so we are careful about the type of work we accept and strive to achieve a good fit above all else.

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