Metal laser cutting is a rapidly growing industry in the world of industrial manufacturing. Estimates project over $78 million of growth in the aluminum laser cutting machine market from 2020 to 2024.
By using lasers to cut metal, manufacturers can automate the production of intricately shaped pieces. But is aluminum laser cutting a realistic option?
Aluminum is the fourth most commonly produced metal in the world. The metal’s unique physical properties make it useful for a wide range of applications.
To use aluminum in manufacturing, production facilities need to be able to cut it into specific shapes. In this article, we cover the practicality of laser cutting aluminum, as well as tips for cutting aluminum using other methods.
Read on to learn more about how to cut aluminum and the best aluminum-cutting methods!
What is Aluminum?
Aluminum is the most abundant metal on earth. It is soft, lightweight, and extremely malleable.
Due to its low weight and electrical conductivity, aluminum is useful for automotive, aerospace, and electrical applications. Other everyday uses of aluminum include drink cans, foil, and some kitchenware.
Unlike steel, another commonly used metal, aluminum is resistant to corrosion and rusting. Aluminum is also much more reflective than steel.
What is Laser Cutting?
A laser is a special type of light focused into a narrow beam to direct all the energy to one point. With regular white light, on the other hand, the light particles spread out.
With a strong enough laser, it is possible to weld and even cut metal for fabrication. Laser cutting is most commonly used with steel, but it is possible to laser cut aluminum as well.
Lasers cut metal either by melting, burning, or vaporizing it. In addition to steel and aluminum, lasers can cut through other metals like tungsten and brass.
Advantages of Aluminum Laser Cutting
There are several advantages to laser cutting aluminum over traditional ways of cutting.
Since lasers focus heat onto one point, metal tends to warp much less than with other cutting methods. Additionally, the smaller point of focus creates much cleaner and more precise edges.
Most laser cutting machines are primarily automated, meaning there is less chance for human error than with a saw or shear. Much like a CNC, laser cutters can be programmed to cut specific shapes automatically.
Other cutting equipment that uses a blade or bit, such as a shear, saw, or press, requires regular maintenance. Lasers, however, don’t use mechanical tools to cut, so they need no sharpening or retooling.
The lower requirement for maintenance also makes laser cutting faster and more efficient than other cutting methods. Since laser cutters are mostly automatic, they are much faster than a manned machine.
Disadvantages of Aluminum Laser Cutting
While there are many benefits to cutting aluminum with lasers, there are some drawbacks to this cutting process.
The most immediate disadvantage of laser cutting equipment is the upfront costs. Although the process can save money on operation costs over time, the equipment is much more expensive than traditional cutting methods.
Along with the initial investment cost of the machine itself, laser cutting requires specialized experience and expertise. Not only does the machine need to be programmed, but setting up and monitoring it is far beyond the average fabricator’s expertise.
Another important disadvantage to consider when laser cutting aluminum is the limitation of material thickness. While lasers can cut through several inches of steel, the most powerful laser cutting equipment available can barely cut aluminum plate thicker than half an inch.
The reason laser cutting is only suitable for thin pieces of aluminum is due to the metal’s physical properties. Because aluminum is so reflective, it can scatter the light particles of the laser. Aluminum’s thermal conductivity also rapidly disperses the laser’s heat.
The repeatability of laser cutting makes it extremely efficient for cutting many of the same parts. However, if many different shapes or only a few of one shape are required, laser cutting can be inefficient.
Other Ways to Cut Aluminum
In addition to laser cutting, there are several other ways to cut aluminum. Which one is appropriate for you depends on the type of project you’re working on.
One of the simplest cutting methods, a shear is essentially a hydraulic pair of scissors. A hydraulic press pushes the top blade into the material and pinches off a piece.
For simple shapes like rectangles or lengths of round bar, shearing is a quick and inexpensive cutting method for aluminum. Shearing machines, also called “ironworkers,” are easy to operate and require little training.
Because of the shearing force used to cut materials, the edge is often warped and rough, requiring sanding.
Another low-cost option for cutting aluminum stock is a bandsaw. While inefficient for many cuts, a bandsaw can be a good way to make one clean cut without much setup.
Because a saw tears away layers of material bit by bit, it is time-consuming and not the best option for a large number of cuts. Saw cuts are clean but usually leave a sharp metal “tag” that should be sanded away for safety.
An unusual cutting method, high-pressure water jets can cut as cleanly as lasers without using any heat. Water jet cutting machines can be programmed and automated like CNC machines but can incur high operation costs.
In addition to the higher operation costs, water jets are slower than laser cutting and require regular maintenance to keep the equipment clean.
The Bottom Line on Aluminum Laser Cutting
Aluminum is a unique metal with a wide variety of uses. There are several ways to cut it, including a saw, shear, water jet, and laser.
Aluminum laser cutting has many advantages, like efficiency, accuracy, and clean cuts. However, there are some disadvantages, such as the upfront cost and limited material thickness.
No matter what your metal fabrication needs, trust New Age Metal Fabricating to deliver quality service. We’ve been providing reliable metal machining and fabrication services since 1979.
Contact us today to find out more about how we can help with your metal fabrication needs.