Plasma or Laser?

Are you considering bringing your metal profile cutting in-house this year? Or maybe you’re looking to upgrade an existing CNC cutting machine.

The next question to ask is: Plasma or Laser?

This isn’t as simple a question as one process versus the other. With many variables such as:

  • Applications
  • Quality
  • Initial Investment
  • ROI
  • Health and Safety

All of the above, are points on a sliding scale that will determine which thermal-cutting machine will be the best option for your business.

How does it work?

LASER

The most common type of industrial laser cutter now is a Fibre Laser. So named after the fibre optics used to generate and amplify the laser beam. Within the fibre optic core, are fibres that have been ‘doped’ (covered) in rare-earth elements.

These rare-earth elements, such as; neodymium, ytterbium & erbium are stimulated by light to release photons of a specific wavelength. The amplified light is emitted as an intense, high-energy laser beam from the cutting head. This, in turn, is what pierces the material and produces such precise results.

PLASMA

KUTAVAR specialise in two forms of plasma. The first is air plasma. As the name suggests, these plasma machines use compressed air, which is ionised and heated to create plasma (>20,000°C).

Air plasma is typically found in handheld machines and basic mechanised systems (CNC XYZ tables). Hypertherm Powermax Series and Kjellberg CutFire 100i are examples of air plasma used on our CNC machines.

The second form of plasma is High Definition (HD) plasma, which replaces air with either O2, N2 or a combination of mixed gases, namely F5 (5% hydrogen, 95% nitrogen).
HD plasma systems utilise a separate gas control system. Thus resulting in superior hole quality, less prominent edge taper, reduced dross, and a narrower kerf width compared to air plasma systems.

In 2023 KUTAVAR invested heavily in HD plasma, namely the Kjellberg Smart Focus series and Hypertherm XPR range. We remain the only British manufacturer of compact CNC plasma tables with access to the entire range of plasma power sources from both Hypertherm & Kjellberg.
The well-known “True Hole technology” from Hypertherm is only available on HD plasma systems.

Applications & Quality

CNC plasma cutting offers more flexibility compared to fibre laser regarding the condition and quality of the workpiece. When cutting with a fibre laser, specific cleaning and pre-treatment for the metal sheets is often recommended or required.

Plasma, however, will cut rusty and greased mild steel as effectively as clean stainless steel.

Laser is best used when cutting thin mild & stainless steel and aluminium 0.5mm > 15mm, particularly with extreme precision, speed and intricate shapes.

The process of laser is fundamentally different to that of plasma. Laser being solid-state, lends itself to customers who require maximum uptime, producing high volume mass-manufactured parts, relying heavily on OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness) and SMED (Single Minute Exchange of Dies) to ensure the cost per part remains low.
The operational cost of running a laser will always be greater than running an air/HD plasma, based on the power requirements, efficiency and the volume of mixed gases required in the cutting process.

From 10mm upwards, a fibre laser will be comparable to plasma cutting, after 15mm thick, a modern CNC plasma machine will start to edge out a fibre laser and eventually completely outclass it. As a general rule of thumb, the thinner the material, the better a fibre laser will perform over a CNC plasma machine.

ROI & Payback

Unsurprisingly, this varies massively and is dependent on external factors, (price of materials, electricity, gas, etc.) and internal factors, such as how frequently the machine is in use.

According to one of the UK’s largest manufacturers of industrial laser cutting systems, the approximate payback of their fibre laser machines is around 5 years and an average cost of ~ £412,000.00

KUTAVAR machines start at <£30,000.00 and we expect our machines to pay themselves off within the first year. 

Henry Mace, director at S & H Steel Frames Ltd expects his new KUTAVAR machine to pay itself off within the first six months.

Air plasma and HD plasma power sources have a significantly lower operational cost compared to laser and do not require the high-volume demands of a laser. 

Essentially, plasma offers the flexibility to produce one-off/low-volume parts and higher production demands. 

Regardless of the price of the machine. The plasma-cutting process can easily pierce 25 mm+ mild steel (MS) with air plasma through to 50 mm with high-end HD plasma. 

To pierce this range of material thicknesses with a laser would require at least a 12 kW power source and would have an increased cost by a minimum factor of 10.

If you’re still unsure which process is the best choice for your business, Book A Demo and see firsthand the results that can be produced on the world’s finest compact CNC plasma cutting machine, KUTAVAR.

Plasma vs Laser Summary

CAD > CAM > CNC

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