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Plasma Cutting vs. Laser Cutting, What's Better?

Chandramita Bora Feb 15, 2019
Plasma and laser cutting are two metal cutting processes that have found a wide range of applications in the industrial and the manufacturing sectors. Both the processes have their own advantages and disadvantages, and vary in the technology used for cutting materials.
Laser and plasma cutting systems are two types of metal cutting processes that are widely used in the industrial manufacturing applications. Some other processes used for cutting metals are, mechanical and thermal machining, welding, flame cutting, abrasive jet cutting, and electro discharge machining (EDM).

Plasma Cutting Process

The plasma arc cutting (PAC) process was developed in 1950. This process was especially developed for cutting stainless steel, aluminum, and copper, which cannot be cut easily by other processes like flame cutting.
PAC uses gases, like argon, hydrogen, nitrogen, air, and oxygen that can conduct electricity, and thus transmit energy from an electrical power source. This system basically uses a source of electrical energy, an arc starting circuit, and a plasma cutting torch.
The torch is connected to the power source and the circuit with the help of leads and cables. The electrically conductive gases transmit energy from the source of electrical power through the plasma cutting torch, which is then used for cutting the material.

Laser Cutting Process

This technology uses laser beams to cut materials, and is used in many industrial applications, like cutting, drilling, engraving, welding, ablation, and structuring. The material on which the high-powered laser is applied usually burns, melts, or vaporizes.
In gas lasers, carbon dioxide along with other gases, like helium and nitrogen, are used as a medium. On the other hand, neodymium ions and Yttrium-aluminum-garnet (YAG) crystals are used in solid-state lasers.

Which One is Better

While choosing between these two processes, it is important to evaluate their pros and cons. The laser cutting process is known for its precision and accuracy. It is highly efficient in cutting metals and metal surfaces with accurate precision. It is known to cause only negligible surface cracking.
The process is also faster, and it can cut all metals, except the reflective metals, like aluminum and copper. Such reflective metals can reflect a major portion of laser energy. Other than metals, it is suitable for cutting plastics, glass, and wood.
Though laser cutting has the advantage of using less energy and being more precise than plasma cutting, most industrial lasers cannot cut thicker metal sheets, as compared to plasma cutting. The new laser machines that operate at higher power (6000 watts) can cut thick metal sheets, but their capital cost is much higher than plasma cutting machines.
Plasma cutting, on the other hand, can cut any metal up to 6.0 inch thickness. It can also be used for cutting aluminum and copper, that cannot be cut with the laser cutting process. But it affects a large area surrounding the cut, while laser cutting affects a very narrow zone.
Plasma cutting can lead to the formation of dross or re-solidified metal at the lower edge of the cut. Laser cutting cannot cut materials with different melting points easily, but plasma cutting can be effectively used for this purpose.
As far as safety is concerned, laser cutting can be termed much safer, as the workers do not come in contact with the machine. Therefore, safety glasses may not be required, though it is advisable to wear them. On the other hand, protective safety glasses are a must in plasma cutting.
So, both the processes have certain advantages and disadvantages. A proper assessment of the various aspects of these metal cutting processes is therefore, required before coming to a conclusion.
Some important determinants in this regard are, the amount of investment, operating cost, and the requirements of a particular type of industry. So, before making a concrete decision, you can consider to talk to a professional in this field.