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Laser Engraving Part IV: Using your System as a Cutting Tool

The same laser engraving system that engraves on many products and materials may also serve as a very powerful and versatile cutting too as well. Read on to get some ideas.

By Diane Bosworth

The same laser engraving system that engraves on many products and materials is also a very powerful and versatile cutting too. It can be used to cut through a wide range of thin materials including woods and veneers, matte board, cork, plastics, acrylic, delrin, leather, melamine, Mylar, press board, rubber, fiberglass, and solid surface material.

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  • For many laser owners, this translates into new and profitable products such as ADA signage, acrylic and vinyl letters, wooden and plastic cutouts, POP displays, matte board, frames, and more.

    The system
    Most manufacturers recommend that materials up to ¼” thick can be cut with a 25 watt laser. There may be exceptions, however. Some materials, due to their hardness and density do not cut well or are extremely slow at cutting. Multiple passes may be required or, in some cases, a more powerful laser will be needed. If you are buying your system specifically for cutting, you will want to make sure that the system you buy has enough power to cut through materials profitably. There may also be differences in the cut quality of some systems. If edge quality is important to your application(s), it may well be worth your while to take the necessary steps to finding a machine that produces the quality cuts that you desire.

    Useful options
    There are also available options for your system that will help you achieve clean, clear results. The main trick to successful vector cutting is to keep the material up and off of the machines’ table top. This will give you an advantageous air flow between the table top and the material, helping to minimize potential damage caused by smoke, debris, and the laser’s heat. The result is a cleaner and more attractive cut. There are available options known as vector cutting tables that do help to keep the material up and off of the table top. Additionally, they prevent the laser beam from reflecting directly off of the table top and the machine into the underside of the material, which can potentially cause damage to the material.

    These tables are built to allow the energy of the laser beam to diffuse over a wide area, thus reducing damage to material or machine surfaces. Your systems manufacturer can assist you with the purchase of vector cutting tables made for this purpose or you can make your own using some of the following materials: light egg crate diffuser panels, fire retardant treated paper honeycomb, aluminum or stainless steel honeycomb, or fine metal screening.

    Another similar option is a vacuum work support table. These are usually made of aluminum and drilled with numerous small holds. This will hold the material flat and is particularly advantageous for the cutting of flexible materials like paper products, cloth, and heat sensitive materials like flexible brass and engravers plastic. Keeping the material flat while laser cutting will also give you a more consistent cut and will help to eliminate any potential product damage.

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    Another option is a downside exhaust work support table. This type of option will also hold the part up off of the reflective table top as well as hold parts flat. Additionally, it will allow smoke, vaporized materials and fumes to be pulled down and away from the point of laser contact.

    This will result in less smoke damage and provide greater consistent laser power where it is needed. This also means that less of the laser power is being absorbed by heat, smoke and other debris. The result is a more consistent quality cut and less clean up time. If you are going to do a lot of cutting, a vector vacuum or downside exhaust table is highly recommended. They are built to mount directly on top of the engraving tabletop and usually will come with their own datum stops or rulers. Some of today’s systems do have such options already included with the purchase or the manufacturers can recommend one that will work best with their system.

    Another option available on many systems is air assist. This works by blowing a fine stream of air across the point of laser contact. This will assist you in keeping debris and smoke away from the material, while it is being laser cut.

    If you are going to be cutting large amounts of acrylic and/or plastics, odor will also become an issue. The best advice is to operate the system in a well-ventilated room, and use an exhaust system that will work for your application.

    Start cutting
    To use your system as a cutting tool is relatively simple. You will want use your machine’s vector mode as opposed to a raster engraving mode. The vector mode allows the laser to follow an outline and move in a point to point motion, while the raster mode allows for a continuous back and forth motion by the laser (which is ideal for engraving).

    You will want to consult your machine’s manual for instructions on cutting with your specific system. The manual will also provide initial guidelines for power, speed, resolution, and artwork generation as well as other tips for successful vector cutting. Some materials may also cut cleaner when one or both sides are masked and/or dampened.

    If you are not presently using your laser engraving machine to cut out thin materials, you might be missing out on potentially profitable opportunities.

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