Understanding Laser Cutting
Laser cutting is a fabrication process which employs a focused, high-powered laser beam to cut material into custom shapes and designs. This process is suitable for a wide range of materials, including metal, plastic, wood, gemstone, glass, and paper, and can produce precise, intricate, and complex parts without the need for custom-designed tooling.
There are several different types of laser cutting available, including fusion cutting, oxidation cutting, and scribing. Each laser cutting process can produce parts with precision, accuracy, and high-quality edge finishes, and with generally less material contamination, physical damage, and waste than with other conventional cutting processes, such as mechanical cutting and waterjet cutting. However, while laser cutting demonstrates certain advantages over more conventional cutting processes, some manufacturing applications can be problematic, such as cutting reflective material or material requiring secondary machining and finishing work. The requirements and specifications demanded by a particular cutting application—e.g., materials and their properties, energy and power consumption limits, secondary finishing, etc.—help determine the type of cutting process most suitable for use.
While each cutting process has its advantages and disadvantages, this article focuses on laser cutting, outlining the basics of the laser cutting process and the necessary components and mechanics of the CNC laser cutting machine. Additionally, the article explores various laser cutting methods and applications, the benefits and limitations of the process, and comparisons between laser cutting and other types of cutting processes.
The Laser Cutting Machine and Process
Laser cutting is a non-contact, thermal-based fabrication process suitable for metal and non-metal materials. For the laser cutting process to run smoothly and at optimum capacity, several factors should be taken into consideration, such as the flatbed CNC laser cutting machine’s configuration and settings, the material being cut and its properties, and the type of laser and assist gas employed.
Stimulated Emission: The photons that are produced by spontaneous emission travel within the medium, which is contained in a cavity of the laser resonator between two mirrors. One mirror is reflective to keep photons traveling within the medium, so they continue to propagate stimulated emissions, and the other mirror is partially transmissive to allow some photons to escape. Stimulated emission is the process in which a photon (i.e., the incident photon) stimulates an atom that is already at a higher energy level. This interaction forces the stimulated atom to drop to its ground state by emitting a second photon of the same fixed wavelength or coherent with the incident photon.
The process of one photon propagating the emission of another photon amplifies the strength and intensity of the light beam. Thus the stimulated emission of light photons (i.e., a type of electromagnetic radiation) causes the amplification of light; in other words, light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. Improperly aligned photons within the resonator pass through the partially transmissive mirror without being reflected into the medium, generating the initial laser beam. Once generated, the beam enters the laser cutting head and is directed by mirrors into the focusing lens.
The focusing lens focuses the laser beam through the center of the nozzle at the end of the laser cutting head incident to the workpiece’s surface. By focusing the beam, the lens concentrates the beam’s energy into a smaller spot, which increases the beam’s intensity (I).
Where P represents the power of the initial laser beam, and πr2 represents the cross-sectional area of the beam. As the lens focuses the laser beam, the radius (r) of the beam decreases; this decrease in radius reduces the cross-sectional area of the beam, which in turn increases its intensity since its power is now distributed across a smaller area.
Localized Heating and Melting, and Material Ejection
As the beam strikes the material’s surface, the material absorbs the radiation, increasing the internal energy and generating heat. The high intensity of the laser beam allows it to heat, melt, and partially or completely vaporize a localized area of the workpiece’s surface. The weakening and removal of the affected area of the material forms the desired cuts. Siphoned into the laser cutting head and flowing coaxially to the focused beam, the assist gas—also referred to as the cutting gas—is used to protect and cool the focusing lens, and may be used to expel melted material out of the kerf—the width of the material removed and of the cut produced—and support the cutting process. Laser cutting employs several different types of material cutting and removal mechanisms, including fus
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