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Sheet Metal Laser Cutting: What Will You Pay?

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Use Laser to cut through the competition cost-efficiently.

So you’ve got a project that needs to look great. Tight tolerances and incredible precision are on your mind. We bet the potential cost is riding your brain waves, too.

Perhaps you’ve already opted to go with sheet metal laser cutting instead of plasma or waterjet cutting -- or perhaps an older, cheaper process. Here’s what you can expect with sheet metal laser cutting in terms of cost -- both short- and long-term.

How Does It Compare?

Laser cutting is certainly more cost-effective than using hand tools to cut metal. And despite being a high-end process that costs more than plasma cutting, it’s still cheaper than waterjet cutting. Mechanical or machine cutting processes tend to be cheaper. Many quality manufacturers offer a combination of machine and laser cutting services so you can choose the best fit for your project.

How does laser compare with plasma? The answer depends.

Laser cutting offers a lower cost for material about 12 gauge and thinner, while the advantage for punch plasma cutting increases as your material of choice gets thicker. At the heaviest metal thickness (more on this in a bit), punch plasma holds a 40 percent cost advantage over laser. In this scenario, precision plasma cutting has a higher cost than both.

What Else Goes into Laser Costs?

1. Equipment and Labor

The main reason you’re paying more for laser cutting is the cost of the technology. A laser cutter is probably setting back the manufacturer at least $200,000. Depending on size, power, and sheet-handling capacity, that number can skyrocket past $500,000.

Thankfully, lasers have a low overall tooling cost. The gases we use to produce the laser are inexpensive, and increased demand has driven down component costs. Nonetheless, peripheral equipment -- think gold mirrors or zinc selenide windows and lenses -- can add expenses.

As far as operating costs, you’re in luck. It's more common for fabrication companies to allow a laser cutter operator to perform secondary operations or to run additional machines than with other cutting processes. More efficiency equals more finished product and a lower overall cost for you.

2. Production

Conducting laser cutting can range from $13 to $20 an hour in manufacturer costs. Typically a laser cutting manufacturer pays 65% to 85% of the production cost of waterjet.

The most expensive part of this production process is all the power it needs to convert electricity into light. You’re best to leave this to a metal manufacturing company and not try it at home, folks.

When assessing what laser will cost you, here’s the question that affects you most: What you are cutting?

Every machines has a limit of what level of thickness and, perhaps, material type it can handle. The more resilient the machine, the more you’ll pay to reap its benefits. Notably, lasers don’t cut through thick materials very well, so their cost-effectiveness loses steam in those applications.

Some newer laser machines can approach plasma’s ability to cut thick material, but you might have to sell the kids to afford such a service.

When a manufacturer does start the process, laser's blazing speed plus pinpoint precision obviously make it more efficient than waterjet. How obvious?

  • It takes 16 seconds for a laser to cut through a ⅛” sheet.
  • It takes 75 seconds for a waterjet to cut through a ⅛” sheet.

Quicker work results in less money spent on labor and electricity.

After the laser cut is complete, there’s little to no cleanup to be done. A small amount of dust is all that results, and that’s easily removed with vacuuming and filtering, so you won’t be paying to facilitate special disposal of waste like what’s produced with waterjet cutting.

Long-Term Maintenance and Viability

Lasers don't dull, so there's no pause during manufacturing to switch out tooling. And additional tooling replacement costs just don’t exist. What’s this all mean? You’ll have a new product in your hands no time.

We will say this: Laser use is technically demanding. If you don’t find a good servicer, you may end up later on with components that need replacement or repair.

So here’s another question to ask yourself: Can you justify the price of going laser by profiting long-term from the fruits of your provider’s labor?

Need Top Quality? Try Laser

Though it might be more expensive than some other styles we’ve mentioned, laser’s precision and versatility are unmatched. So If you have a project that requires very tight tolerances and clean cuts, sheet metal laser cutting should be at the top of your list -- just be prepared to pay the price.

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