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How to find the best laser cutter for your needs

A laser cutting machine is, essentially, a CNC router that uses CO2 or solid-state laser to cut and etch material. The typical working area for these machines is between 600mm and 1200mm in the X and Y directions respectively. If you build it yourself, expect to pay close to one thousand pounds, depending on the quality of components used and the level of control offered by the computer attached to it (number of axes). There are also commercial units that can cost well into five figures, so this begs the question… what kind of laser cutter do you need?

There are many different types of laser cutters in the UK. They range from large and expensive units able to cut several metres of material at a time down to small hobbyist machines that can only cut smaller objects.

In this article, I will try to help you work out what type of laser cutter you need for your application, whether it be professional or recreational.

There are three main types of laser cutter: the tube-style, the sheet-style and the engraver style.

Tube Laser Cutters

A tube laser works by sending a beam along a tube up into a head containing mirrors. The head moves around on an X-axis while the platform holding the material moves back and forth on a Y-axis, controlled by a third servo motor. Tube lasers are generally price friendly and produce a good cut quality, but there are several limitations that prevent them from being used in professional settings:

The equipment is bulky and takes up a lot of space, often making it unsuitable for most workshops; The maximum cutting size on these machines is usually around 25 cm x 30 cm or 10″ x 12″, so you won’t be able to cut anything bigger than a small poster. It is difficult to achieve good penetration, especially on lighter materials such as paper and acrylic; They require specialized power supplies which can be problematic if you ever want to take the machine outside your workshop, they also produce more waste heat than high-powered CO2 lasers and need active cooling.

There’s one reason why tube lasers are still popular though: the price. If you’re looking for a laser cutter on a budget, these machines will give you maximum value for your money. If you only need the laser cutter from time to time or don’t plan on using it very heavily, this might be all you need. However, as with most things in life, what you gain on the front end you lose on the back end. This might not be a problem if your usage is limited, but a lack of reliability and long-term power consumption issues could turn out to be costly in the long run.

The other alternative would be a diode laser or even better yet, a high powered CO2 laser tube replacement called a fibre laser. In most cases, these lasers produce more heat than traditional diode lasers because they use special optical fibres to deliver their beam. Fibre lasers are able to use much more powerful gas discharge lamps as the energy source which translates into bigger cuts and thicker materials that can cut clean through. Although still rare for home CNC users, an increasing number of professionals have begun adopting them as a cheaper alternative for industrial use.

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