In today’s world of 3D printing and home fabrication, creating your own products has not only become accessible, but trendy. Whether you’re doing it as a hobby or as a small business, there are many tools available that can help you achieve amazing results. One of the best of those tools is a laser cutter.
Laser cutters allow you to quickly create finely detailed, high precision products in a wide array of materials -- from wood, acrylic, leather, and glass to metals like stainless and mild steel. They work faster than a 3D printer and have a learning curve that’s much easier than a CNC machine.
No hobbyist or small business manufacturer serious about fabrication should be without a laser cutter. If you’re looking to buy one of these impressive machines seriously consider and answer these five questions before you make your purchase decision.
1.What are you planning to do with your laser cutter?
What’s your game-plan for your laser cutter? What are the primary materials that you plan on processing? How thick will they be? Do you need to cut or engrave or both?
There are two main types of laser cutters: CO2 and fiber.Because they each create and focus the laser beam in a unique way, they have different advantages and disadvantages.
If you plan on cutting or engraving on metal-materials such as wood, paper or leather, a CO2 laser is the way to go. Other commonly processed materials for a CO2 laser include glass, acrylic, stone, and fabric.These machines are typically thought of as more diverse in their capabilities than a fiber laser. Depending on the level of power, some CO2 lasers can also cut thick metals.
A fiber laser has a wavelength that’s perfect for cutting metals(both reflective and non-reflective), and it really shines when cutting thin metals. If you want to process thin metals on a large-scale, fiber lasers can do so quickly and efficiently. They’re also great for marking and engraving metals like aluminum, steel, gold, and silver. For the customer who is exclusively working with metals, the fiber laser is an excellent choice. With that said, fiber lasers can also etch on plastics as well, thus giving the operator some flexibility to offer more services.
Keep in mind that the thicker the material you want to process, the higher the laser power you’ll need. Laser power is measured in watts (W). Higher power usually allows you to cut faster, though it’s very much dependent on application and material. Your laser cutter manufacturer will be able to tell how much power you need for what you plan to do.
2. What is your budget?
How much are you willing to spend on a laser cutter? Fiber lasers tend to cost more than their CO2 counterparts. Many companies offer entry-level CO2 systems for under $10,000, while fiber systems start at around $15,000.Generally, the more power and size, the more expensive the machine.
When looking at USA-made machines over $10,000, you’ll find sizes of 24 inches by 36 inches and larger. These can also include premium motion systems for the laser head that allow for incredibly precise movements and cutting.
When deciding your budget, you should also think about maintenance. When proper care is exercised, a laser cutter can last a lifetime. But during that lifetime, certain parts may need to be replaced, such as the nozzle, mirrors, optics, and tubes -- these are considered consumables. Of these, your laser tubes will be the biggest expense, because they’ll need to be replaced the most frequently.
The specific costs of consumables, as well as how often they should be replaced, can vary from machine to machine. Ask your manufacturer what you should expect from your particular system in terms of maintenance costs.
3. What size machine do you need?
Where will you be installing your laser cutter? What material sizes do you plan to process? These are the two main factors that should be considered when determining what size of the machine is best for your needs.
Make sure that your installation area has ample space for your laser cutter. It shouldn’t be a tight fit. You want to be able to easily walk around every side -- for both maintenance purposes and in case you need adjust the material on the bed at any point. It goes without saying, but you should also check all doorways leading to the installation location and ensure that your machine will fit through them.
Your laser cutter’s bed size needs to be large enough to accommodate the material that you’ll be processing. Make sure you take this into account when deciding machine size.
If you’re unsure about your material size, it’s better to go with a larger laser cutter now, rather than later regret a system that’s too small. You can always upgrade your laser’s power, but you can’t increase its size.
4. What type of laser tube do you need?
The type of laser tube you’ll need depends on what types of applications you plan on running. Put simply, if you have a CO2 machine, you’ll need a CO2 laser tube. For a fiber machine, you will need a fiber laser.
CO2 laser tubes last approximately 5,000 to 10,000 machine hours, depending on their wattage. Higher wattage tubes last longer.Lower power tubes have a comparatively shorter lifespan, but they also cost less. Most manufacturers offer a variety of options ranging from40W – 200W.
Lower wattage replacement laser tubes can cost in the range of $300 to $600, while very high wattage tubes can cost upwards of $4,000. When shopping, make sure that the manufacturer specifies that the tubes have been lab tested.
Most fiber lasers are rated to last over 100,000 machine hours. Popular options range from 20W – 50W for engraving machines, and 300W – 2,000W for cutting machines.Fiber lasers generally require less maintenance than CO2 lasers.
5. What company should you buy your laser cutter from?
While there are many laser cutter manufacturers out there, companies in the United States generally offer the best return for your investment. Not only do these companies place high importance on quality control and testing, they’re not shipping your laser cutter across the ocean when you buy from them. This means less chance for damage or problems during transport.
Imported laser machines may not include high-quality control standards, and technical support can be inconsistent or unavailable. In addition, ordering replacement parts may be next to difficult if not impossible.
Choose a company that has extensive quality assurance testing, tech support readily available, and a reputation of excellent customer service. Right now a growing company that fits that description, and is not too hefty on the wallet: Boss Laser. Their staff receives awesome reviews, and seem to be very helpful from in all stages of purchasing and operating a laser machine.
Purchasing your first laser cutter doesn’t have to be an overwhelming task. If you can answer all five questions above, your path to ownership should be smooth and simple. If you have any additional questions or concerns, your manufacturer will be happy to talk to you about them.