Laser cutting and mechanical metal cutting are the two most popular metal cutting techniques in metal fabrication and machining. Both are effective but both also excel at different types of cutting for different types of parts and products. Let’s take an in-depth look at when you should choose one over the other.

Mechanical Cutting

Mechanical cutting or milling on CNC or manual machines can create parts in countless shapes and configurations and in 3 dimensions. Using machines like lathes, mills, boring bars, and other parts can be made with steps, perfect angles, drilled and tapped holes, beveling, and radii. In many instances all of these steps can be performed on one machine. These CNC and manual mills can also hold incredibly tight tolerances within 1/10 of 1/1000th of an inch with proper techniques and tooling.

When Should you Use Mechanical Cutting?

Milling machines like lathes and CNC mills are used for parts that have a complex shape and require very tight tolerances. Round objects like hubs, shafts, rollers, and cylindrical objects need to be machined on a lathe. Square or more complex shaped objects with stepping and holes that are three dimensional should in most cases be milled on a CNC or manual mill. In some cases these parts can be cut out on a laser at larger than specified dimensions and then trimmed and cut down on a CNC mill to the exact dimensions and this is done in custom fabrication and machining frequently.

Laser Cutting

Laser cutting is mainly used to cut sheets of material like steel, aluminum, wood, and even plastic, though the vast majority of materials cut on a laser is metal. Lasers use a highly focused beam to cut this material using gases like CO2, oxygen, nitrogen, or even argon in rare cases. By focusing this beam through a lens, it can penetrate very thick and dense material like steel that is up to an inch in thickness.

When You Should Use Laser Cutting

Laser cutting is great for mass production of parts that can be cut from sheets of material, but some lasers have the capability to cut material like pipe. Parts like washers, plating with complex holes and slots throughout, latches, and more can be cut out on a laser table in vast quantities relatively quickly. Some parts that are cut on a laser may end up needing further work on machines like CNC mills.

This is common if the parts require facing, milling, drilling of undersized holes and tapping. Laser cutting actually edges and finishes material while it cuts the parts out from the sheet of steel. In these cases, if no other work is required for the parts, it might be as simple as cutting and delivery or assembly.

Lasers when cutting do not contact the actual material, with the head of the laser above the material by a small distance. This is beneficial for cutting parts out of stainless steel, where contamination can be an issue when using mechanical cutters and requires additional steps and precautions. This is important when it comes to parts being manufactured for certain industrial applications or more importantly, the food industry where contamination prevention is critical.

Conclusion

While both mechanical and laser cutting do similar things their functionality can be actually very different. Mechanical milling and cutting is used for very complex parts that require very tight tolerances. Lasers like mechanical machines also can hold very tight tolerances but are more suited to parts that are cut from sheets of material, whereas mechanically cut parts can be made from a variety of stock choices.

Prototech Laser located in Chesterfield MI is a national leader in laser cutting and metal fabrication services. Our innovative team is particularly adept at taking existing technologies and modifying or customizing them to meet unique customer needs. With over two decades of laser and program management expertise, our full-service offerings include state of the art laser, plasma cutting, forming, machining, welding and more.

If you have questions regarding metal fabrication and laser cutting services, call us and speak with a Laser Welding Specialist today.