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Mechanical Cutting vs. Laser Cutting vs. Milling

Both mechanical and laser cutting are common fabricating processes used in today’s manufacturing industries. Each method employs its own distinct equipment, and has its own advantages and disadvantages. Preference among the two usually depends on a range of factors, such as application requirements, cost-effectiveness, and production capabilities.

Mechanical Cutting Tools and Processes

Mechanical cutting, which includes tooling and machining, is a process that uses power-driven equipment to shape and form material into a predetermined design. Some common machines used in mechanical cutting include lathes, milling machines, and drill presses, which correspond to the processes of turning, milling, and drilling, respectively.

Lathe

A lathe is a metalworking machine that spins material, usually with a computer-controlled motor, while a hardened cutting blade removes excess stock to create the desired shape. Cutting fluid can be used to help maintain temperature control, lubricate the moving parts, and remove debris, or “swarf,” from the workpiece.

Milling Machine

A milling machine features a stationary cutting tool and a movable table to which the workpiece is secured. Manual or computer directions move the table around the rotating blade to make the desired cuts. Milling machines are capable of creating complex or symmetrical shapes across axes. The four main categories of milling machine are hand-milling, plain-milling, universal, and omniversal models.

drill bit cnc cuttingDrill Press

A drill press is a stationary drill mounted to a table, or bolted to the floor, and driven by an
induction motor. It consists of a base, a pillar, a table, a spindle and a drill head. A three-pronged handle raises or lowers the drill bit to produce cylindrical holes in a workpiece. As the bit spins and cuts the metal, the fluting on the drill carries the debris, or swarf, up and out of the hole.

Laser Cutting Equipment and Methods

Laser cutting uses an energy emission device to focus a highly-concentrated stream of photons onto a small area of a workpiece and cut precise designs out of the material. Lasers are typically computer-controlled and can make highly accurate cuts  with a quality finish. The most common laser cutters are of the gaseous CO2 or Nd:YAG variety.

CO2 Lasers

The carbon dioxide (CO2) laser emits a gas discharge that serves as a medium for a light beam. It is one of the highest-powered continuous wave lasers in use today, largely due to its high output-to-pump-power ratio. Carbon dioxide-based beams fall on the infrared side of the light spectrum, with wavelength bands measuring between 9.4 and 10.6 micrometers. They are commonly used for welding, cutting, and engraving metals, as well as resurfacing biological tissue. 

Nd:YAG Lasers

laser cutting sheet metalUnlike CO2 lasers, neodymium-doped yttrium aluminum garnet, or Nd:YAG, lasers are solid-state devices that use a crystal as a light medium. They also feature laser diodes or flash lamps that optically pump their beams, which emit an infrared wavelength of 1064 nanometers. Nd:YAG models are some of the most common lasers used in manufacturing, with applications in welding, cutting, engraving, marking, and etching a variety of materials. In addition, these lasers also have numerous medical uses.

Mechanical Cutting vs. Laser Cutting

Since laser-cutting can not only cut material but apply finish to a product, it can be a more streamlined process than its mechanical alternatives, which often require post-machining treatments. In addition, there is no direct contact between the laser device and the material, reducing the chance of contamination or accidental marking. Lasers also create a smaller heat-affected zone, which lowers the risk of material warping or deformation at the cutting site.

Laser-cutting can, however, be a costly and technically challenging fabrication method, while drill bit cnc cuttinge mechanical cutting processes tend to be cheaper and easier to integrate into manufacturing services. Laser equipment usually requires a powerful energy source and consumes energy at a rapid pace. This typically requires a shop to maintain extensive battery or capacitor units in addition to standard power sources. Laser devices are often expensive, and peripheral equipment, such as gold mirrors or zinc selenide windows and lenses, can yield additional expenses.

When choosing between laser and mechanical cutting, it may be helpful to remember that the processes are not exclusive of one another, and that many machine shops provide a combination of the two cutting services. Manufacturers weighing the benefits of one type of cutting versus the other are essentially balancing laser cutting’s precision and reliability against its costs and energy usage, and mechanical cutting’s ease of use and cost efficiency against its risk of damaging or deforming a given material.

For a look at mechanical cutting, check out the video clip below:

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