Laser cutting is a technology that uses a laser to cut precise patterns in most all types of materials such as metal, plastic and paper. Laser cutters are used in a large variety of industrial applications and are the number one industrial use of high power lasers. With its increased flexibility, high level of accuracy and high quality cut, laser cutting is replacing conventional machining processes such as plasma and oxy-fuel cutting
There are two types of lasers used for cutting; the gaseous CO2 laser and the solid-state Nd:YAG laser. CO2 lasers work by "pumping" the atoms of the gaseous mixture into an excited state within the laser's chamber. Once the gas is pumped, it contains a collection of atoms with some reflected back and forth multiple times within the laser's chamber. A laser cutter uses mostly a thermal process in which the light emerges from the laser's aperture and the beam is focused by a lens on to the surface of the material being cut. The laser beam either melts, burns or vaporizes the material in a localized area. Gas assisted laser cutters use a jet of gas coaxial with the laser beam to eject the molten material from the cut. This leaves an edge with a high quality finish.
Typical laser cutters cut as small as 1 mm in size and specialized lasers can cut even smaller. Most industrial lasers can either cut with a pulse or cut with a continuous wave (CW). A pulsed laser outputs a high power burst of energy for a short time. This is useful for cutting very small holes, piercing the material to start a cut in the interior, or for cutting material that may all melt if a constant laser beam was used.
Industrial laser cutting systems can be implemented in batch manufacturing but also lend themselves very well to automation controlled by computer software in a production line system. Some of the benefits of using a laser cutter over other means of cutting include: the flexibility and precision cutting of simple or complex parts; a non contact cut which means no marks or contamination of the material; a high quality cut with no extra finishing required; and the ability to cut virtually any material.