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What is Involved in Sheet Metal Laser Cutting?

Jillian Peterson
Jillian Peterson

When it comes to cutting sheet metal, laser cutting is the preferred processing method for producing precision machined parts because it creates more precise and smoother lines than mechanical cutting. The process of laser cutting flat sheet material uses a machine that sends a laser beam through the material that cuts using heat. Once the subject of science fiction stories, laser machining is becoming more and more prevalent in industrial applications as laser cutting machines are becoming more affordable.

Even though sheet metal laser cutting machines are becoming more accessible, they still use significant amounts of electrical power to produce lasers hot enough to melt sheet metals such as steel. Laser cutting machines can use from 1,000 watts to over 8,000 watts of power to produce a laser. Laser beams used in industrial laser cutting can range in thickness. Usually, the thinner the laser, the more heat it can produce, so very thin lasers are generally used for sheet metal laser cutting.

A laser cutter is used to cut a sheet of metal.
A laser cutter is used to cut a sheet of metal.

Most industrial laser cutting machines come in three types: moving material, flying optics, and the hybrid configuration. The moving material configuration is popular in sheet metal laser cutting because the flat sheet material moves while the laser stays stationary at a fixed distance from the sheet metal. Flying optics laser cutting machines work the opposite way, with a moving laser and fixed sheet metal. The hybrid configuration for sheet metal laser cutting machines lets both the sheet metal and the laser move.

Laser cutting is often used to make precision machined parts out of sheet metal.
Laser cutting is often used to make precision machined parts out of sheet metal.

Several different types of lasers can be used for sheet metal laser cutting and engraving. Lasers used in cutting sheet metal like steel or aluminum are the same kinds of lasers also used in welding, called carbon dioxide (CO2) lasers, neodymium (Nd) lasers, or neodymium yttrium-aluminum-garnet (Nd-YAG) lasers. Usually, Nd and Nd-YAG lasers are used for boring and engraving, while CO2 lasers are more commonly used for cutting sheet metal and other materials.

In sheet metal laser cutting, there are several factors which affect the type of laser that is used in different applications. The type of metal can greatly affect the thickness and intensity of the laser beam used because certain metals like aluminum can conduct heat away from the laser, making laser cutting less efficient. For thicker sheet metal, laser cutting machines sometimes use a method called reactive cutting to efficiently cut hard or thick metal. Pulsing lasers can also cut precise holes in sheet metal.

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Discussion Comments


@David09 - There are a lot of practical applications. The only downside I can see is the immense amount of heat that is needed to produce the custom laser cutting. In industrial settings, you’re not so much concerned with artistic designs as you are with just basic cutting through sheet metal.

So if you use a lot more electricity to accomplish the same results as you could with regular machining, then what’s the point of laser engraving? I’m not saying it’s useless. I’m not just saying that you have to do a cost/benefit analysis based on the type of cutting that you’re doing.


@nony - I think it would be worthwhile for him to get into the business. We have a few shops in our area that provide laser cutting services and they seem to have a lot of business. I am not an expert but I think lasers are so much better than traditional machining for the increased precision, especially for very detailed artistic designs as you pointed out.

There are some specialty gift shops that provide a service where they’ll take some item that you give them and will engrave it with a name, a message or whatever. This is only possible with laser engraving in my opinion.


I have a friend who’s a graphic artist who has also done some work in the industrial sector. There, he gained exposure to CNC machining and laser cutting. He is not an expert CNC machinist but he knows the basic operation.

But he told me that he is really excited about laser cutting, from a design perspective. As an artist he has seen laser engraving machines in use, which are used to create intricate engravings in glass.

These include glass vases and things like that. At one point he was going to get into a business and start selling these laser engraving services to local businesses, but the laser engraving machines are quite expensive from what he’s told me.

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    • A laser cutter is used to cut a sheet of metal.
      By: Kadmy
      A laser cutter is used to cut a sheet of metal.
    • Laser cutting is often used to make precision machined parts out of sheet metal.
      By: Kybele
      Laser cutting is often used to make precision machined parts out of sheet metal.