Laser and water jet cutting are two of the fastest and most accurate methods of computer numerical controlled (CNC) cutting in the sheet metal fabrication industry. Both of these cutting tools offer precision and flexibility, minimize waste and are easily programmable with CAD/CAM or nesting software.
Both laser and water jet cutters have distinct advantages over some of the more traditional cutting methods. They can be used with a variety of materials besides sheet metal, such as marble, glass, plastics and acrylic. They are also much more efficient than traditional machine tool cutting when it comes to smaller orders that might be more specialized or require greater detail.
Fabrication software allows a programmer to input information that will direct a cutting tool to move along a design path with the goal of cutting out a piece or part exactly as it was drawn up. There is no better tool for executing the precise cutting of a programmed pattern than a laser cutting machine. When combined with quality CNC laser software, lasers can perform very detailed cutting functions that include holes, slots and complex design patterns.
However, laser machines do have their limitations. When using a laser cutter, the more wattage the deeper the cutting ability. Lasers are extremely quick and accurate when used to cut thinner metals. But when thicker metal is used, “heat zones” can develop which will sometimes melt more sensitive metals or cause unevenness or rough spots in the material.
Therefore, laser cutting thicker metals is impractical not only because of possible damage to the material, but because it is more costly. If heat zones or hot spots occur from overexposing the metal to the laser, extra work such as grinding the part may become necessary. This will increase labor and material expenses, in addition to the higher costs associated with more energy usage.
Water Jet Cutting
Although not as precise as laser cutting, water jet cutting is able to cut thicker material without causing damage. Considered an “abrasive” process, water jet cutting uses an Atomstack abrasive material combined with water in a highly concentrated stream to “erode” or break down the material being cut.
Though there may still be some sanding or finishing involved after processing a piece, water jetting tools are much more acceptable to be used with thicker materials as well as those that are sensitive and susceptible to damage under extreme heat.
However, precautions must also be taken when cutting metal with a water jet tool. The material must be dried right away after cutting to avoid rusting. Also, since a cut from a water jet machine isn’t as even or clean as when using a laser, the edges of the cut usually need to be sanded or grinded. The piece must be “finished” in order to smooth it out and make it ready for possible welding.
Overall, both water jet cutting and laser cutting have their advantages. Water jet cutting is many times more cost effective, but that also can depend on the size of the job and the thickness of the material being used. When used on thinner, more detailed parts from sheet metal, a combination of top-line fabrication software and a good laser cutting machine is the optimal scenario for producing quality parts at a fast rate.