Custom Sheet Work: Laser versus CNC Plasma

  • (319) 469 - 3961
  • Mon - Fri: 7:00 - 4:00
  • 1311 Pilot Grove Rd, Pilot Grove, IA



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?


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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:

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
(319) 469-3961

© 2019 Steffensmeier Welding & Manufacturing All rights reserved

Stop Wasting Time and Start Outsourcing Your Custom Metal Work

  • (319) 469 - 3961
  • Mon - Fri: 7:00 - 4:00
  • 1311 Pilot Grove Rd, Pilot Grove, IA



You just realized that you have to complete a custom metal project. You have to decide whether or not you are going to take on the project or outsource it. What should you consider in order to make this decision?

Does your team have the expertise to collaborate on this project and come to a solution? Before jumping head first into a project, first take a step back and look at the overall scope of the project. Based on your team’s background, do you feel as though they could even discuss the possibility of doing this project themselves? Could they complete the project? Would they catch the same mistakes an expert would? If the answer is yes, continue reading.

Does your team have the time to take on the project? 

If you’re team is already swamped with their current workload, it may not be a great idea to add onto their plate. If this project will require them to work a significant amount of overtime, is it worth the potential damage to employee morale? 


How much time will it take your team based on their level of experience?

Now that you’ve decided your team is capable of completing the project, it’s time to decide how efficiently they can complete it. Your team may be able to complete the project, but it may take them more time than it would if you were to outsource the project. Time is money, so if it’s going to take them significantly more time to complete the metal work; save yourself the money and headache and just outsource the project.

Do you have the proper equipment to get this metal project done safely? 

When you don’t have the proper equipment to complete a metal project, things can get very dangerous, very quickly. The equipment it takes to work with metal is usually heavy, flammable, and hazardous. Not only will you need the proper equipment to get the job done, you may also need more safety equipment such as welding sleeves, helmets, booths, guards, etc. 

Another aspect to think about in regards to safety, is the position the job may require the workers to work in. Will they be bending over frequently? Will they be lifting heavy materials? What injuries could they endure from this project? How much would those injuries cost your company?

Are your workers qualified to do this kind of work?

There is a reason people are qualified to do certain work. It’s a safety hazard to have an unqualified worker, working with equipment they shouldn’t be. Especially when it comes to metal work, because there are a lot of things that could potentially go wrong.

Do you have the equipment needed for this project? 

If this project requires you to buy new equipment, you’ll have to factor that into your decision. If you foresee taking on multiple projects like this, it might make sense to buy the equipment. If you won’t ever use the equipment needed, it’s probably not a good investment. If you do decide to buy the equipment, make sure you mull over where the equipment will go and what other costs/maintenance that equipment will require. 


Do you already have the metal on hand? 

You may have all of the equipment to complete the project, but you’re also going to need metal. If you don’t have the needed metal on hand, you’ll have to order it. If you don’t normally order metal, it may cost you more than it would a custom metal fabricator. You’ll also have to think about what you’ll do with the surplus you may acquire from your metal order. You will most likely have to order metal in full quantities (by the box, stick, plate, etc.). 

If you do decide to take on the project yourself, remember that you are now taking on the risk of losing time, money and resources. If something goes wrong, you are responsible. If you had outsourced the project, the risks and responsibility would be put on another company. They now have to worry about their expertise, time, safety, materials and risks. 

There are a lot of things to consider when deciding whether or not to outsource your custom metal projects. Ultimately, it’s up to you whether or not it’s worthwhile. At the end of the day, you want to do what’s best for your company. You know your company and know which option will yield the most efficient, quality results. At this point if you think it makes more sense for your company to take on this project internally, go for it! If you think you are going to outsource this project, we invite you to continue reading.

Now that you’ve decided you need to outsource your work, who do you outsource it to? We recommend reviewing the following components of a company before you decide:

Do they have the equipment and manpower to complete the task at hand?  First and foremost, you’ll want to find out whether or not this company is capable of completing your project. 

When you are looking at the capabilities of a company, make sure to look not only at the capabilities of the current project you need done, but also potential projects you may need done in the future. If they do a great job on this project, you can use them again, knowing that they are a reputable company.

Is their experience relative to your project scope? How long have they been in business? Do they have a good reputation? Does their team have enough experience to give you advice on the project? Do they have the know-how to deal with problems that may surface later into the project? 

The level of experience a company brings to the table can really help you decide whether or not to partner with them.

Do you prefer working with larger corporations or smaller businesses’? Will their facility be able to stock or hold the project you need done? Does the size of their company limit their capabilities or increase them?

Is this company easy to communicate with?

 It’s not a good sign if you are trying to work with a company and it’s hard to get ahold of them or you can’t seem to get on the same page about the details of the project.

Will this company be able to get the job done on time? Make sure you know what the lead time is when looking to outsource your project. You may initially want to work with Company A, but if Company A isn’t able to complete your order on time, you may want to look elsewhere. It doesn’t mean you can’t work with them in the future, the timing may not be right for this project.

Will outsourcing to this company save you time and money? 

The reason you are looking to outsource is to save you time and money, so if a company can’t do that, it’s not worth outsourcing to them. Unless, you are simply too busy to complete the project, there are too many risks involved or no one else can get the project completed on time (including you).

Can’t Decide?…

So you’ve analyzed all of the above but still can’t seem to make a decision on who to choose as your service provider. What do you do? 

  • If you are having a hard time deciding who to partner with, a good practice is to tour their facility and meet some of their team members to get a good read on whether or not they would be a good fit. Ask them a lot of questions and see first hand how they deal with processes/projects. 
  • What was their quoted cost? If they are way underbid, they may not have a good grasp of what your project actually encompasses. If they are spot on or a little high, they know their value and most likely understand your project. If they are exceptionally high, they did not understand the entirety of the project and/or purposely quote high because of their own market demand. 
  • Ask around for recommendations. Ask some of your most trusted colleagues, business partners and community members for referrals. If they have had a good experience with your potential provider, you most likely will too. A person close to you shouldn’t purposely steer you in the wrong direction. 
  • Take turns! Maybe you really wanted to use two companies, because they both seemed like a good fit. You wanted to give them both your business, but don’t know who to choose. Well, then just take turns using them!

Not every outsource will be 100% success, but as you build those B2B relationships, your partnerships and communication skills will grow. You should become more efficient as a team and as a community. 

Outsourcing can feel like giving up control, but it can actually give you more control! And more time to focus on your core competencies. We hope this article gave you a few things to think about and factor into your decision-making process.

1311 Pilot Grove Rd Pilot Grove, IA
(319) 469-3961

© 2019 Steffensmeier Welding & Manufacturing All rights reserved

The Skills You Learn Working In a Custom Fabrication Shop


3 Struggles of a Make-to-Order Manufacturer