Laser cutters are becoming more and more popular with both hobbyists and professional manufacturers. Perhaps you have seen them at maker-faires, or marveled at the precision of a laser cut product. If not, you may be wondering what all the excitement is about and what exactly they do. So let’s take a look at the core laser applications of a laser cutter.
Most people understand that something called a laser “cutter” will indeed, cut. That is to say, the laser slices all the way through the material. But what can it cut? Well, it depends on the power of the laser tube. Typically, low to mid wattage CO2 laser tubes can cut wood, fabric, paper, leather and other organic materials. They can also cut acrylic, however be careful with unknown plastics and PVC, as these can produce toxic fumes. Fiber lasers, can cut through metal and alloys, as well. The uses for cutting are vast and can include cutting out patterns, parts and prototype pieces.
Engraving is different than cutting in that the laser does not cut through the material, but instead removes surface points of the material to expose 3-dimensional cavities that create an image. The same materials that can be cut, can also be engraved. The depth of the engraving can be adjusted by running the laser through multiple passes or with more power. Engraving is used to create a variety of amazing textures and images for crafts and novelty items, but engraving also has many useful practical applications. For example, firearms are required to display certain manufacturing information that won’t rub off or dissipate over time. Engraving creates a permanent engraving that does not alter the precision of the tool.
Marking is when the laser beam alters the properties of the surface of the material to slightly alter the appearance and create an image, such as a picture. This process does not disintegrate the material, like cutting and engraving does, but rather creates a chemical change in the material. The result creates a high-contrast “coloration” on the surface, without disrupting the material itself. For example, medical tools can be marked with valuable information without created cavities where bacteria can collect.
Metal, and certain other materials, have unique properties that allow laser etching. Etching is when the heat from the laser touching the surface of the material causes melting, which expands to create a raised mark. This typically is done to alter the surface of the metal to alter its reflectiveness and enhance contrast. This technique works on bare metal, anodized metal surfaces, polymers, and even clay.
Of course, a project is not limited to just one of these applications. They can be combined for a vast and diverse set of jobs.