Custom Sheet Work: Laser versus CNC Plasma

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HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT MACHINE FOR YOUR

CUSTOM METAL SHEET WORK: LASER OR CNC MACHINE

Before we dive into which machine best suits your needs, let’s first consider if this purchase should be made. Do you really need to invest in a cutting machine? 

The answer can be found by looking at three factors; control, costs and space. If you simply don’t have the space for this operation, it’s going to be pretty hard to convince management to purchase it. If you do have the space, you’ll have to look at all of the costs that come with this purchase. You have to consider how this machine will affect your labor, maintenance costs and general overhead. 

Who is going to run this machine? Will it require a part-time or full-time employee? Overtime?

How much maintenance does this machine require and how much will it cost? How much power will this machine use in a day, a month…a year?  

Another price factor that tends to sneak through is the software it takes to run these machines. The software is most likely not going to cost as much as the machine, but it could potentially be an annual fee instead of a one time purchase. You’ll have to factor that into the overhead costs of running the machine. Both the laser cutter and plasma cutter are compatible with Adobe Illustrator and AutoCad. There are other programs available, but just know that almost all of them come with a price tag. 

You’ll also have to consider the ROI (return on investment) of this machine. Would you produce enough volume to justify the purchase? The last thing you want to do is spend a ton of money upfront and never get a solid ROI. When pitching this purchase to your management team, make sure you have worked out how long it’ll take to make your money back from this purchase.  

The final reason you may find yourself looking to buy a cutting machine is control. If you are constantly battling to get your orders to come in on time or cut correctly, it might save you more money and a few headaches to just take on the job inhouse. You don’t want to lose business because a supplier is not reliable or they too get hit with a large order. That being said, if you do choose to take over control, you also take over all of the risks, maintenance and costs.

Now that you’ve done your research and decided that it’s time to buy a machine; it’s time to decide which machine to buy. How do you decide whether to buy a laser cutter or a cnc plasma cutter?

Quality: 

A laser cutter has high precision when cutting. Lasers are incredibly accurate and efficient, especially compared next to the product a plasma cutter would cut out. The reason a plasma cutter is not as precise is because of it’s slot size and accuracy. The slot width for a plasma cutter is 5.0mm for a 16mm mild steel cutting project. The same project done by a laser cutter would have a slot width of 0.6mm. If you need to cut intricate, detailed parts, the plasma cutter might not be able to make those for you as they could be too close together. If the plasma cutter can get the job done, it will most likely require additional work such as grinding down the edges. The plasma cutter is also more likely to make deformations in its cuts. In short, a laser cutter will always outperform a plasma cutter when it comes to quality.

Speed: 

A laser cutter is going to cut faster than a plasma cutter. A laser cutter can reach up to speeds of 10 metres per minute while a plasma cutter can only reach 20 metres per minute.

Conditions: 

A plasma cutter is more flexible in its size and mobility than a laser cutter. Both machines come with their own set of safety hazards, so you’ll want to make sure you have the proper safety gear for either machine. Plasma cutters generate harmful gases and arc light, so they tend to be more dangerous than a laser cutter. Both machines will also come with their own set of maintenance requirements. The maintenance costs are higher for the laser cutter, but a plasma cutter will require more maintenance over time.

Cutting Abilities: 

A laser cutter is going to cut more of a variety of material than the plasma cutter will. A laser cutter can cut a variety of metals such as stainless steel, aluminum, copper alloy, low alloy, carbon steel and more) as well as other nonmetal materials such as wood, plastics, rubber, paper, cloth, ceramics etc. Plasma’s can also cut nonmetal materials, but only if they are of a higher thickness. Any material that is brittle such as glass could not be cut by a plasma cutter. They do however, cut metals up to 80mm whereas the laser cutter can only cut up to 25mm.

Capabilities: 

We’ve mentioned the kinds of cuttable materials that the laser and plasma cutter can cut, but there are other capabilities to take into consideration. A plasma cutter can only cut materials, but the laser cutter can be used for a variety of other jobs. Laser cutters can drill and engrave/scribe.  

 

If you just need simple cuts at a small volume, this factor shouldn’t sway your decision. If you frequently produce intricate cut designs as well as use the other capabilities listed, you might want to factor the additional capabilities of a laser cutter machine into your final decision. 

Costs: 

You are probably wondering right now why wouldn’t you get the laser cutter? It’s faster, produces better quality and has a wider range of capabilities. At first this choice may seem like a no brainer, but all of those advantages come with a price tag. A laser cutter is substantially more expensive than a plasma cutter. 

 

For example: 

A laser cutter with a 4’ x 3” platform would run for around $18,000 while a plasma cutter of the same size would go for around $3,000. 

 

There is a lot to think about when it comes to this decision. Ultimately it’ll come down to costs and your needs.

Let’s review one more time the advantages and disadvantages of both machines.

CUSTOM METAL SHEET WORK: LASER OR CNC MACHINE

advantages of a laser cutter

  • Produces higher quality cuts 
  • Cuts at a faster rate
  • Cuts both metals and nonmetals
  • Can cut very narrow widths
  • More capabilities (engraving, etc.)

advantages of a plasma cutter

  • Cuts a wide variety of metals
  • Lower initial costs
  • Cuts thicker metal

disadvantages of a laser cutter

  • Expensive 
  • Higher power consumption

disadvantages of a plasma cutter

  • Less accurate
  • Poor edge quality

Both machines have their place when it comes to custom sheet metal work. You will have to determine which machine is best for your line of work and which machine will give you the better ROI. The final decision all depends on your company’s needs. 

It might make sense to keep outsourcing your custom metal sheet work. It might make sense to buy both a laser and plasma cutter. You get to decide! Take your time to weigh all of the options and costs. Below are more resources for you to look over if you are still struggling with your decision: 

https://www.machinemfg.com/laser-cutting-vs-plasma-cutting/

https://mfgtechupdate.com/2015/05/which-metal-cutting-method-is-better-laser-or-plasma/

If you don’t know where to purchase your cutting machine ask your local partnerships for references. Steffensmeier Welding & Manufacturing Inc. purchased our laser cutting machines from Cincinnati. We have used them to increase efficiency and quality. We also use plasma cutters for small jobs. Our hand held plasma cutters also come in handy when a torch won’t make a clean enough cut. 

Steffensmeier Welding & Manufacturing takes on jobs that involve almost anything that deals with custom metal fabrication. Our core competencies include welding, machining, laser work, bending, forming and repairs. We are known for helping our clients with build to print jobs, reverse engineering and assisting with companies on product development. Our goal is to offer solutions that save our partners time and money.

The skills you learn
working in a custom fabrication shop

What are the skills you learn from working in a custom fabrication shop? A better question might be, “What skills don’t you learn from working in a custom fabrication shop?” Working in a custom fabrication shop forces you to improve your communication, critical thinking and technical skills. 

1311 Pilot Grove Rd Pilot Grove, IA
weld@steffweld.com
(319) 469-3961

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