In the quest for the best cutting method and tool for cutting metals, there are basically two advanced alternatives to consider when traditional methods are unsuitable: cutting with plasma or cutting with a laser.

As such, many industrial manufacturing companies struggle with the dilemma, “but which method is better?” And so, we’re left to ponder the plasma cutter v. the laser cutter.

Precision is a characteristic of laser cutting as it uses focused light.

Plasma Cutting

Historically, plasma cutting had a bit of a head start as it was used the first time in the 1950s. It was developed independently by engineers in both Germany and the United States as an alternative to using a flame for cutting. The first plasma cutter patent was awarded in the US in September 1957 to Dr. Robert Gage at Union Carbide.

How Does It Function?

Plasma cutting basically works thanks to firing gas through a nozzle which creates an electric arc that will ionize the gas and create plasma. This plasma will cut through conductive metal that is able to transmit heat or electricity. The Plasma torch melts or cuts the metal while gas flow removes molten metal from the cut’s bottom. Plasma cutting only works with metal.

However, there are quite a few metals that plasma can cut making it quite versatile as a tool. Metals that can be cut with plasma include aluminum, brass, copper, cast iron, mild steel, and stainless steel among others.

These tools are able to cut through these metals in a variety of thicknesses that may measure anywhere from 1mm and 80 mm. Plasma cutters function quite rapidly arriving at cutting as much as 65 feet per minute if not more.

Plasma cutting is a fantastic method for cutting thick metals.

Requirements When Using a Plasma Cutter

Plasma cutters are potentially dangerous tools to operate if the proper precautions are not employed. These are noisy machines, so ear protectors can be helpful and protective eyewear is obligatory whenever operating a plasma cutter. Plasma Cutter Safety use filtered lenses that protect eyes from light radiation as well as flying sparks and debris during use. 

Plasma cutters are cutting a iron board

Laser Cutting

Laser cutting appeared on the scene in 1965 when Western Electric presented a production laser to drill holes into diamond dies. Experiments in laser cutting that is gas-assisted took place the same year and were intended for military use, but industrial uses were gaining consideration. By the end of the decade, gas-assisted laser cutting was used on metal.

Precision is a characteristic of laser cutting as it uses focused light. The cutting procedure has a computer-controlled laser that together with nitrogen, oxygen, and compressed air is capable of burning, melting, or vaporizing materials including steel. The laser light flows from a tube and reflects on mirrors within the laser head. The head’s lens then will focus onto the material surface for cutting or engraving.

plasma cutter using a cutting board

Types of Lasers and What They Do

Three kinds of lasers are used in cutting: CO2, fiber optic, and crystal lasers. Fiber lasers can cut all types of metal but are particularly indicated for thin sheet metal cutting. CO2 lasers cannot be used with any metal. For example, it cannot be used to cut aluminum, brass, or copper because it cannot be used to cut surfaces that reflect. 

On the other hand, CO2 lasers are able to cut through acrylics and wood, meaning that if you require a multi-purpose cutter, the CO2 cutter is great if you need to cut a variety of materials. Crystal lasers have shorter lives and cost more.

Extra Functions

Lasers are not limited to only cutting. They are regularly employed to drill, weld, engrave, and more. A laser will permit you to do a lot more than just cut. 

What Lasers Cannot Do

The principal limit to a laser cutter is how thick of a material it is able to cut.  Laser cutters normally only provide a quality cut up to 25mm thick. This is where a plasma cutter surpasses a laser cutter.

Plasma Cutter vs Laser Cutter

Both of these cutting tools offer considerable benefits. 

Plasma cutters offer more hazards, and require safety precautions and PPE, but can cut through many types of metals and is an exceptional performer when cutting thick metals even up to 80mm.

Laser cutters may offer more accuracy but cannot cut all metals. The laser is extraordinary when used on thinner metals, or if you need to cut materials that are not metal such as wood. It is an ecology-friendly choice as it uses less energy, however metal thickness is limited to 25mm.

Another feature to consider when considering a laser cutter is that they can do various types of cuts, engrave, and can be used for 3D printing. It is also faster when cutting.

Plasma vs Laser – How to Choose

Both the plasma cutter and the laser cutter are important and valid tools for cutting and both offer benefits. Your final choice will depend on which material you want to cut, as well as its thickness.

Here is a summary of the principal differences between the two cutters

PlasmaLaser
Uses compressed gas for cuttingUses powerful optical light
Cuts only metalCuts various metals including wood, metal, and acrylic
Emits radiation, PPE necessaryHigher precision. Detailed cutting possible.
Cuts thicker metals to 80mmCuts metals to 25mm
Uses more energy Eco-friendly using less energy because they cut more rapidly
Less expensive than a laser cutterMore expensive

Conclusion

Neither of these cutting machines is “better” than the other. They are both technologically advanced useful tools. Your choice will depend on the application you use and the specific necessities of your cutting project

Before selecting consider the material you need to cut, the thickness of that material, and if you require great detail and accuracy in the cut. 

Plasma cutters will require less economic investment and are quite versatile when cutting metals of various thicknesses. They are suitable for cutting reflective surfaces in simple shapes.

Lasers work well on metals and materials that require precision cutting of thin to medium thicknesses. 

Which cutter is better? It all depends on your specific cutting needs.

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