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Laser Cutting vs. Plasma Cutting: The Differences Explained

Working Principle

Working principle of the plasma cutting machine:

Laser Cutting vs. Plasma Cutting: The Differences Explained 1

A processing method that takes oxygen or nitrogen as working gas, makes use of high-temperature plasma arc heat to melt and evaporate the incision of the metal part and by means of the momentum of high-speed plasma flow to remove the molten metal in order to form slotting seam.

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The working principle of the laser cutting machine:

Laser Cutting vs. Plasma Cutting: The Differences Explained 2

The laser beam generated by the laser device is transmitted through a series of reflectors, then focus on the workpiece surface by focus lens and produces local heat at the focal point, to cause the hot spot of the workpiece to melt or vaporize to form a slot.

At the same time, the auxiliary gas is used in the cutting process to blow out the slag from the slot and finally achieve the purpose of processing.

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Application

Laser Cutting vs. Plasma Cutting: The Differences Explained 3

Plasma cutting is suitable for cutting all kinds of metal materials.

It is mainly used to cut the medium-thickness plate.

The advantage is fast cutting speed, narrow cutting slots, small heat affected area, small deformation, low operation cost.

The disadvantage is that it is a 0.5-1.5° angle at the vertical cross-section and hardening incision.

Laser cutting is mainly used to cut medium-thin plates, and the cutting materials are in a very wide range (metal, non-metal, ceramic, glass, etc.).

Because the laser has the characteristics of high direction, high brightness and high intensity, the laser cutting speed is fast, the machining precision is high, and the cutting seam is very narrow, and there is no need for subsequent processing.

To sum up,

In terms of cutting materials: laser-cut materials have a wider range of choice than plasma cutting;

In terms of thin sheet cutting, laser cutting has more obvious advantages;

In terms of cost, plasma cutting is much cheaper than laser cutting.

Laser cutting advantages and disadvantages

Laser Cutting vs. Plasma Cutting: The Differences Explained 4

Compared with the general cutting method, a laser cutting machine has some obvious advantages:

① Small cut slots, the cutting surface can be used directly for welding without grinding.

② Fast cutting speed: it can reach 10m/min for the thin sheet which is much faster than plasma cutting.

③ Good cutting quality: Small deformation, low surface roughness, low oblique cutting edge.

④ High precision: positioning accuracy can reach 0.05mm and re-positioning accuracy can reach 0.02mm.

⑤ Wide cutting materials: in addition to cutting metal, it can also cut wood, plastic, rubber, PVC, leather, textiles and organic glass etc.

However, laser cutting also has its disadvantages:

High cost ranks first.

Both initial investment and later maintenance require higher costs.

At present, laser cutting for the thin plate is more cost-effective.

However, when cutting the thick plate, the efficiency is low, so laser cutting is not suitable unless the quality requirement is high.

Plasma cutting advantages and disadvantages

Laser Cutting vs. Plasma Cutting: The Differences Explained 5

For plasma cutting, it also has its advantages and disadvantages:

Advantages

In the process of cutting a medium-thick plate, it can achieve a very high cutting speed, much higher than laser cutting and flame cutting.

The initial equipment investment is lower than the laser, and the later maintenance cost is also much lower.

Disadvantages

① Poor perpendicularity of cutting surface: on the side of the cutting surface there will be a large oblique cutting edge, and the perpendicularity will be poor.

② Produce more cutting slag: the cutting slag will be produced during the cutting process at the bottom of the cutting surface.

In order not to affect the quality of the post-process, this slag must be removed by grinding, which also increases the labor cost.

③ Generate harmful gases and arc light: the principle of plasma cutting determines the harmful dust and arc light that will be produced during the cutting process.

However, underwater plasma cutting is also been used to avoid this defect.

④ In the later period, it will consume more cutting nozzle, and the cost is very high.

Fiber laser cutting vs plasma cutting

Laser Cutting vs. Plasma Cutting: The Differences Explained 6

With the upgrading of the demand of downstream industries and the decline of the cost of high-power lasers, the demand for laser cutting applications has shown signs of rapid growth in recent years.

On the one hand, plasma cutting is easy to produce large deformation when cutting sheet metal below 6mm and requiring high cutting accuracy.

On the other hand, laser cutting has obvious process advantages, especially for high melting point materials, heat-resistant alloys, superhard alloys, semiconductor materials, non-metallic materials and composite materials.

Comparison between fiber laser cutting and plasma cutting

Fiber laser cuttingPlasma cutting
PrincipleHigh power density laser beam is used to scan the surface of the material, heat the material to thousands to tens of thousands of degrees Celsius in a very short time, melt or gasify the material, and then blow the melted or gasified material away from the slit with high-pressure gas.With oxygen or nitrogen as the working gas, high-temperature and high-speed plasma arc as the heat source, the metal to be cut is locally melted, and at the same time, the melted metal is blown away with high-speed airflow to form a narrow slit.
MaterialMetal materials, special metal materials and non-metallic materialsCarbon steel, stainless steel, aluminum, copper, cast iron and other metal materials
Cutting thicknessMedium thick plateMedium thin plate
Cutting accuracyFinish machining (within 0.2mm)Rough machining (within 1mm)
Slit widthVery small (0.2 ~ 0.3mm)Small
Heat affected zoneVery small (width 0.1mm)Small
Plate deformationVery smallSmall

When laser cutting replaces some punch functions, the subsequent bending process cannot be completed.

Therefore, when customers buy a laser cutting machine, they often need to buy a press brake machine.

Laser Cutting vs. Plasma Cutting: The Differences Explained 7

Advantages of fiber laser cutting over plasma cutting

ItemFiber laser cuttingPlasma cuttingFiber laser advantages
Positioning accuracy 0.14mm0.4mmHigh accuracy
Section perpendicularity0.2mm(40mm)5mm(40mm)No finishing required
Slit width0.2-1.5mm2-5mmSave materials
Reserved edge and common edge3-4mm10mmSave materials
Heat affected zone0.1-0.4mm0.5-2.0mmSmall deformation
Section qualityExcellent, less slag hangingNormalNo grinding required
Cutting speed (within 20mm)Very fastNormalHigh production efficiency
Cut a small holeDiameter depth ratio: 10-20%Unable to cut holeSave drilling machine and transfer
BevelingBevelingGenerally notSaving beveling machine
Work environmentCleanSmoke filled the houseHealth and environmental protection

High power laser

The popularity of high-power laser makes laser cutting equipment break through the thickness limit.

Before 2015, the sales volume of high-power lasers was extremely low, and the application of laser cutting was limited by thickness for a long time.

Traditionally, it is believed that flame cutting can cut the widest range of plate thickness, with obvious speed advantages over 50mm, which is suitable for processing thick and extra thick plates with low accuracy requirements;

Plasma cutting has obvious speed advantage in the range of 30-50mm, which is not suitable for processing extremely thin plates (< 2mm);

While laser cutting mostly uses kilowatt level lasers, with obvious advantages in speed and accuracy below 10mm.

In recent years, with the gradual popularity of high-power lasers, laser cutting equipment has gradually penetrated into the medium-thick plate cutting market.

Limit cutting thickness and optimal cutting thickness of 20kW watt laser cutting machine (mm)

Laser Cutting vs. Plasma Cutting: The Differences Explained 8

With the increase of power, the cutting thickness and efficiency of the equipment rise.

According to statistics, the 20kW watt laser cutting machine has broken through the optimal cutting thickness of mild steel and stainless steel to 50mm and 40mm respectively.

Considering that steel plates are generally divided into thin plates (< 4mm), medium plates (4-20mm), thick plates (20-60mm) and extra thick plates (> 60mm) according to their thickness, the 10000 watt equipment has been able to cut medium plates and most of the thick plates, and the application scenario of laser cutting equipment has been continuously extended to the field of medium plates.

In addition to raising the upper limit of the thickness of the cutting material, the high power of the laser also makes the cutting efficiency constantly improve.

For example, on the cutting of 50mm mild steel, the efficiency of 30000 watt laser cutting machine can be increased by 88% compared with 20000 watt cutting machine.

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Advantages of fiber laser cutting over plasma cutting

Thickness15kW
(m/min)
20kW
(m/min)
30kW
(m/min)
Efficiency improvement
(30kW over 20kW)
811152247%
108111755%
14567.525%
201.52.54.580%
300.91.21.633%
400.350.6167%
500.20.40.7588%
Laser Cutting vs. Plasma Cutting: The Differences Explained 9

Fiber laser cutting cost vs plasma cutting cost

In the field of medium thick plate, the cost of laser cutting is significantly lower than that of plasma cutting.

Plasma cutting is one of the main cutting methods in thick plate field.

There are two reasons why the cost of laser cutting is lower than that of plasma cutting:

(1) Laser cutting auxiliary equipment and auxiliary personnel are few, and the fixed cost is greatly reduced;

(2) Laser cutting is more efficient.

Taking the cutting of 30mm thick carbon steel plate as an example, the operating costs per meter of 12KW laser cutting, 20kW laser cutting and plasma cutting (300A) are 3.05 yuan / meter, 1.32 yuan / meter and 3.13 yuan / meter respectively.

Among them, 20kW laser cutting saves 57.8% of operating costs compared with plasma cutting (300A), which has a significant cost advantage.

Cost comparison between laser cutting and plasma cutting

Cost itemLaser cutting (12KW)Laser cutting (20kW)Plasma cutting (300A)
Vulnerable parts of equipment (yuan / hour)5570 (electrode, nozzle, vortex ring, etc.)
Average power consumption of equipment (yuan / hour)608080
Oxygen consumption (yuan / hour)10 (plate thickness > 20mm)10 (plate thickness > 20mm)12
Handling (1 person) + polishing (2 persons)0060
Drilling / positioning / transfer (3 persons + equipment)0060
Fixed cost (yuan / hour)65(75)85(95)282
Cutting speed (14mm carbon steel)4m/min6m/min3.4m/min
Operating cost per meter65 / 60 / 4m = 0.27 yuan/m85 / 60 / 6m = 0.24 yuan/m282 / 60 / 3.4m = 1.38 yuan/m
Cutting speed (30mm carbon steel)0.41m/min1.2m/min1.5m/min
Operating cost per meter75 / 60 / 0.41m = 3.05 yuan/m95 / 60 / 1.2m = 1.32 yuan/m282 / 60 / 1.5m = 3.13 yuan/m

Laser cutting machine vs. plasma cutting machine

Laser Cutting vs. Plasma Cutting: The Differences Explained 10

According to our previous experience, laser cutting machines and plasma cutting machines are compared as follows:

The laser cutting machine does not damage the workpiece, while the plasma cutting machine has damage to the plate.

Especially during the cutting process, when the torch and nozzle of the plasma cutting machine have problems, it will cause obvious defects to the plate.

Because the laser beam is focused into tiny light points, so the cutting slot of the laser cutting machine is narrow.

The cutting slot of the plasma cutting machine is slightly larger than that of the laser cutting machine.

Laser cutting machine has faster-cutting speed: the speed can reach 10m/min of laser cutter which is much faster than the plasma cutter.

The cutting surface of the laser cutting machine is smooth, without burr, with good cutting quality, is a non-contact cutting.

The heat-affected area of the cutting edge is very small, and there is almost no thermal deformation of the workpiece, which completely avoids the turned-down edge when punching and shearing the material.

Generally, the cutting edge does not need secondary processing, but the plate thickness is limited and the processing cost is high.

However, the plasma cutting machine can cut 6-40mm steel plates with various models and power. The processing cost is relatively small.

The laser cutter has high precision: the positioning accuracy of the laser cutting machine is 0.05mm, and the re-positioning accuracy is 0.02mm, but require higher working environment condition.

Although the machining accuracy of the plasma cutting machine is not equal to that of the laser cutting machine, it has a low requirement for the working environment and strong mobility, and it has a wide range of cutting and requires lower skills for operators than that of the laser cutting machine.

The advantage of the laser cutting machine:

The cutting precision is higher, the speed is fast, and the sheet deformation is small, suitable for the parts with a complicated shape, but the cutting thickness is limited.

In general, for the plate under 8mm, the laser cutting machine is been used for blanking the workpiece which requires high precision, because the blanking cost is higher, and the cleanliness of the plate is also required.

The advantage of plasma cutting machine:

Wide cutting range, all metal plates can be cut; fast cutting speed and high efficiency; cutting precision and fineness are higher than NC oxyfuel cutting.

The disadvantage is cutting thick plate, especially for the 20mm+ plate, will be difficult.

At this time, higher plasma power will be needed, which definitely will increase the equipment costs.

1. Comparison table for laser cutting and plasma cutting

  Laser cutting (CO2 laser 4kW) Plasma cutting (O2 plasma 230A)
Cuttable materials Metal: carbon steel, low alloy steel, stainless steel, high alloy steel, aluminum, copper alloy etc;

Nonmetal: ceramics, plastics, rubber, wood, leather, cloth, paper, film etc.

High alloy steel such as carbon steel, low alloy steel and stainless steel.

Other non-metallic high viscosity materials (rubber, film, etc.), brittle materials (ceramics, glass, etc.) cannot be processed.

Max. cutting thickness 25mm(mild steel) 150mm(ss, ms)
Cutting speed
(mm/min)
Thickness < 1 >10,000 Can’t cut
2 7,000 Can’t cut
6 3,000 3,700
12 1,800 2,700
25 500 1,200
50 Can’t cut 250
> 100 Can’t cut
Slot width Narrow Very wide
Around 0.6mm for 16mm mild steel cutting Around 0.5mm for 16mm mild steel cutting
Cutting size precision(cut off deformation) Very good Normal
Error ±0.15mm Error 0.5~1mm
Advantage ・Capable of high precision machining. ・Portable
・There is very little thermal deformation. ・High speed cut-off with low cost
Disadvantage ・With the increase of plate thickness, the hole drilling time increases sharply.

・The state of the material surface determines the processing quality.

・The difference in the composition of the material affects the quality of the cut surface.

・Short service life of the electrode and nozzle (2 changes per day)

・Wide incision and big deformation.

・The width and shape of the incision are changed due to the consumption of the nozzle and electrode.

・The noise is loud when cutting.

・Large amount of dust production

・Big hole dia.(φ12mm-16mm)

・Can’t cut easily magnetized material.

2. The cutting slot comparison for laser cutting and plasma cutting

The cutting slot comparison for laser cutting and plasma cutting

3. Oxygen plasma consumable life.

Cutting method Type of electrode The processing of electrodes. Electrode life Nozzle life
Oxygen plasma cutting. S-type Early developed 60 min 45 min
F-type Insert the modified version 120 min 60 min
LL-type Insertion of special metals. 180 min 60 min
Water-adding type oxygen plasma cutting Similar to F-type Insert the modified version 120 min 150 min

1 cycle of arc opening/closing, 1 min longevity comparison of endurance tests (Cut off current value: 250A)

4. The relationship between plate thickness and cost.

The relationship between plate thickness and cost

5. The incision width and cutting precision of various cutting methods.

The incision width and cutting precision of various cutting methods

6. Cutting conditions of various cutting methods.

Cutting conditions of various cutting methods

Conclusion

In the above, we introduced laser cutting and plasma cutting from various angles.

I believe that after reading this article, you will have a new understanding of these two sheet metal cutting methods.

Whether to use plasma cutting machine or laser cutting machine depends on the production purpose, cost considerations, and processing accuracy requirements.

If you are still unsure, you can contact us and let our experts decide for you.

Need a price quote? Any questions?

Send us a message to let us know your deailed requirement.

10 thoughts on “Laser Cutting vs. Plasma Cutting: The Differences Explained”

  1. Great, thanks. I’m in sheet metal industry for over 20 years, started with tin snips in one hand and a hammer in other. Moved to punching machines than to laser. We have came long way since then as industry. Have some experience with water jet cutting along the way, but not much with plasma. Fast and efficient way of cutting metal.

  2. The company I work for has been considering switching to laser cutting services since our other manufacturer relocated from the state. It really intrigues me when you mention laser cutting gives good cut quality and it is a faster procedure. I will take your advice into consideration and advise the company of a solution to our problems.

  3. I am glad that your article goes into the key differences that arise between laser and plasma cutting, such as how plasma is more centralized on metal while the former option is more suited to general types of materials. My brother is looking into hiring a laser cutting service in the future to assist with some construction projects he has going on. I will assist by doing my own research as well.

  4. Outstanding information here, very exciting to find a good info source!!
    I just purchased a plasma CNC table/ 85 amp Hypertherm, having difficulty producing in my opinion too mush slag.
    I lowered the water level away from the bottom of the 16 ga. cold rolled plate, helped some, changed to a fine cut tip, helped some.
    I watch vids on the net and they seem to produce ALOT less slag, very little grinding, and their metal appears very silver compared to the blue on my plate.
    Is there a better grade of sheet metal to use to improve my grinding time.

  5. I thought it was interesting when you mentioned that one of the benefits of using a laser cutting machine is that the precision of cuts is higher. It seems that knowing the proper techniques of operating one of these machines would be really important to stay safe while using it. It would be interesting to learn about what industries use laser cutters.

    1. General, Laser cutter is more used in 1-25mm metal plate cutting that been applied by different industrial manufacturer, professional metal working cutting service provider.

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