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Choosing the right cutting machine

Cutting machines consist of a working table and a frame supporting the cutting head. They are used to cut plates, sheets, sections or panels of materials. Depending on the material to be cut and the production parameters, you can choose between several cutting technologies such as laser cutting, water-jet cutting, plasma cutting, etc.

Please note that sawing machines are not covered in this guide.

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  • How to choose a cutting machine?

    In order to choose the right cutting machine for your requirements, you must first of all base your choice on the main characteristics of the material(s) to be cut. To give just a few examples, metal cutting machines, plastic cutting machines, fabric cutting machines and wood cutting machines do not all use the same technology.

    You will also need to choose a machine calibrated in relation to the thickness to be cut and with a work table with dimensions adapted to the parts to be cut. Lastly, you must choose the cutting technology based on the precision you will need, the quality of the cut and the desired productivity.

  • What are the main types of cutting technology?

    To cut metals, you can choose between laser cutting, plasma cutting, electrical discharge machining and oxyacetylene cutting. For rigid materials, metallic or otherwise, you can turn to water-jet cutting which allows you to cut thick materials. If you need to cut softer materials such as fabric, leather, soft plastic, paper or cardboard, you might be interested in knife cutting.

    You will find a table below summarizing the compatibility of the different types of technology with the main industrial materials:

    Plasma Laser Water-jet Electrical discharge machining
    (EDM)
    Oxyacetylene Knife
    Steel x x x x x
    Stainless steel x x x x x
    Aluminum x x x x x
    Copper x x x x
    Brass x x x x
    Hard plastic x x
    Soft plastic x x
    Leather x x x
    Textile x x x
    Glass x x
    Ceramic x x
    Wood x
  • When should you choose a laser cutting machine?

    Farley Laserlab laser cutting machine

    Laser cutting machines use the heat emitted by a laser beam guided by mirrors or optical fibers. Depending on the type of laser, you can cut different types of materials.

    • CO2 laser cutting machines are generally used for cutting plastic, foam, wood, glass, textile or soft steel. A CO2 laser cannot cut reflective metals such as copper or brass.
    • The more powerful  fiber laser cutting machines are reserved for cutting sheet metal, steel, stainless steel, aluminum and some plastics.

    Laser cutting allows you to cut different materials without having to change tools, simply by setting the laser parameters. It is a very precise process, with a very small notch width allowing for complex contours. Depending on the material to be cut, the cutting speed can be very fast. Laser cutting machines are fully automated and require very little human intervention, which greatly limits the risk of accidents.

    The main limitation of laser cutting is its shallow cutting depth of around 25 millimeters. As a result, the main applications of laser cutting are the manufacture of sheet metal (especially for the automotive industry) and frames (for electrical cabinets, computers, etc.). For workpieces thicker than 25 mm, plasma cutting is the most suitable method. The area heated by the laser beam is not very large, but since it is subject to a strong temperature increase, it can become highly deformed.

    Laser cutting produces gaseous emissions, so it is important to ensure that the room in which the machine is located is well ventilated.

    Main advantages:

    • High cutting accuracy
    • High speed
    • Good cutting quality
    • Low noise level
    • Low vibration
  • When should you choose a plasma cutting machine?

    Voortman plasma cutting machine

    Plasma cutting machines are only used for ferrous (steel, stainless steel, etc.) and non-ferrous metals (brass, copper, aluminium, etc.) with a maximum thickness of 160 mm.

    Plasma cutting is faster than laser cutting for medium or thick plates, and is faster than oxyacetylene cutting for thin or medium plates. In general, plasma cutting is suitable for cutting plates of thick metal.

    The principle of plasma cutting is relatively close to that of TIG welding: it involves creating an electric arc that ionizes a gas projected through a nozzle between the electrode and the workpiece to be cut. For plasma cutting air, argon, nitrogen, oxygen or hydrogen are generally used. Regardless of the gas used, you will have to replace the nozzle and electrode regularly.

    Portable plasma cutting machines are available for spot applications. Because of the heat generated and the fumes from the vaporized metal, plasma cutting can only be carried out in very well ventilated areas or outdoors.

    Main characteristics:

    • Thick metal cutting (up to 160 mm)
    • High speed
    • Requires good ventilation
    • Frequent nozzle and electrode replacement
  • When should you choose a water-jet cutting machine?

    LDSA water-jet cutting machine

    Water-jet cutting machines use water pressure to cut all types of materials (except tempered glass which would shatter under the pressure) up to 600 mm thick. However, we advise you to limit yourself to cutting workpieces no thicker than 200 mm in order to maintain the correct cutting speed and precision with this method.

    For soft materials, i.e. those that could be cut with a blade, you can use pure water. For harder materials, however, you must use a liquid made of water containing an abrasive. For soft materials, the absence of abrasives extends tool life.

    Water-jet cutting does not deform the workpiece (no deformation due to a rise in temperature) and the cut edges are soft and shiny. However, it is a rather noisy process.

    Cutting can be relatively fast in a straight line, but slows down sharply when there are changes in direction.

    Investing in a water-jet cutting machine is a high cost, but is still more affordable than a laser cutting machine.

    Main characteristics:

    • Very versatile, cuts all types of materials
    • No deformation of the workpiece
    • High noise level
    • Low speed when the cut is not straight
  • When should you choose an oxyacetylene cutting machine?

    Voortman oxyacetylene cutting machine

    Oxyacetylene cutting machines send a blast of pure oxygen onto molten metal to perform cutting. This technique can only be used for certain types of steel, but has the advantage that it can cut plates up to 400 mm thick.

    It is a relatively slow process, but there are machines that integrate several oxyacetylenel cutting torches that operate in parallel to increase productivity.

    Main characteristics:

    • Can only be used for steel
    • Cutting thickness up to 400 mm
    • Low cutting speed
  • When should you choose an EDM cutting machine?

    Makino EDM cutting machine

    EDM cutting machines, also known as spark erosion machines, are used for machining conductive materials. They can make very precise cuts on parts with a maximum thickness of 300 mm. The principle is to remove material from the workpiece using electrical shocks.

    This process is recommended for cutting very hard metals, such as hardened steel.

    Main characteristics:

    • High cutting accuracy
    • Can only be used on metals
    • Cutting of very hard metals
  • When should you choose a knife cutting machine?

    Eastman knife cutting machine

    A knife cutting machine can cut soft materials such as fabric, leather, vinyl, etc. with thicknesses of up to 50 mm. For greater thicknesses, it is better to opt for a water-jet cutting machine.

    This technique allows for high-precision cuts, but requires that the tool (the knife) be changed regularly.
    This process is also used for packaging materials such as paper and cardboard.

    Main characteristics:

    • Can only be used on softer materials
    • Cutting thickness up to 50 mm
    • High cutting accuracy
    • Need to replace the knife regularly
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