Laser cutting and waterjet cutting are two of the fastest and most accurate computer numerical control (CNC) cutting methods in the sheet metal working 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 waterjet cutters have clear 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, plastic and acrylic. They are also much more efficient than traditional machine tool cutting when it comes to smaller orders that may be more specialized or require more detail.
Fabrication software allows a programmer to enter information that will direct a cutting tool to move along a design path with the goal of carving out a piece or part exactly as it was designed. There is no better tool to accurately cut than a programmed model of a laser cutting machine. When combined with quality CNC laser software, lasers can perform highly detailed cutting functions including holes, slots and complex design patterns.
However, laser machines have their limitations. When using a laser cutter, the greater the power, the greater the cutting capacity. Lasers are extremely fast and accurate when used to cut thinner metals. But when a thicker metal is used, “heat zones” can develop which sometimes melt more sensitive metals or cause irregularities or rough spots in the material.
Therefore, laser cutting of thicker metals is not practical not only because of possible damage to the material, but because it is more expensive. If heat zones or hot spots occur due to overexposing the metal to the laser, additional work such as grinding the part may be required. This will increase labor and material costs, as well as the higher costs associated with increased energy use.
Water jet cutting
While not as accurate as laser cutting, waterjet cutting is capable of cutting thicker materials without causing damage. Considered an “abrasive” process, waterjet cutting uses an abrasive material combined with water in a highly concentrated stream to “erode” or break down the material being cut.
While grinding or finishing may still be required after machining a part, waterjet tools are much more acceptable for use with thicker materials, as well as those that are sensitive and susceptible to damage in extreme temperatures.
However, precautions should also be taken when cutting metal with a water jet tool. The material must be dried immediately after cutting to avoid rust formation. Also, because a cut from a waterjet machine isn’t as smooth or clean as when using a laser, the edges of the cut usually need to be smooth or ground. The piece must be “finished” to be able to smooth it and make it ready for any welding.Water Jet Cutter
Overall, both waterjet cutting and laser cutting have their advantages. Waterjet cutting is several times cheaper, but this can also depend on the size of the job and the thickness of the material used. When used on thinner and more detailed sheet metal parts, a combination of top-notch fabrication software and a good laser cutting machine is the optimal scenario for producing quality parts at a fast pace.