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Standard metal cutting processes: laser cutting vs. flame cutting

Laser manufacturing activities currently include cutting, welding, heat treating, cladding, vapor deposition, engraving, scribing, trimming, annealing, and shock hardening. Laser manufacturing processes compete both technically and economically with conventional and nonconventional manufacturing processes such as mechanical and thermal machining, arc welding, electrochemical, and electric discharge machining (EDM), abrasive water jet cutting, plasma cutting, and flame cutting.

Oxyfuel gas cutting consists of a number of cutting processes used to cut metals by means of the chemical reaction of oxygen with the base metal at elevated temperatures. The required temperature is maintained by via a flame obtained from the combustion of a specified fuel gas mixed with pure oxygen. A jet of pure oxygen is directed into the preheated area instigating a chemical reaction between the oxygen and the metal to form iron oxide or slag. The oxygen jet blows away the slag enabling the jet to pierce through the material and continue to cut
through the material.Oxyfuel cutting applications are limited to carbon and low alloys steel. These materials can be cut economically, and setup is simple and quick. For manual oxyfuel gas cutting there is no electric power requirement and equipment costs are low.

The table that follows contains a comparison of metal cutting using the CO2 laser cutting process and flame cutting process in industrial material processing.

Fundamental process differences

Subject

CO2 laser

Flame cutting

Method of imparting energy

Light 10.6 µm (far infrared range)

Oxygen and acetylene producing a controlled flame

Source of energy

Gas laser

Oxy-Acetylene

How energy is transmitted

Beam guided by mirrors (flying optics); fiber-transmission not
feasible for CO2 laser

Gas flame through a torch

How cut material is expelled

Gas jet, plus additional gas expels material

Gas jet

Distance between nozzle and material and maximum permissable tolerance

Approximately 0.2" ± 0.004", distance sensor, regulation and Z-axis necessary

0.02" ± 0.01"

Physical machine set-up

Laser source always located inside machine

Working area, gases and cutting torch

Range of table sizes

8' x 4' to 20' x 6.5'

8' x 4' to 20' x 6.5'

Typical beam output at the workpiece

1500 to 2600 Watts

Not applicable to this process


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Typical process applications and uses

Subject

CO2 laser

Flame cutting

Typical process uses

Cutting, drilling, engraving, ablation, structuring, welding

Cutting

3D material cutting

Difficult due to rigid beam guidance and the regulation of distance

Not applicable to this process

Materials able to be cut by the process

All metals (excluding highly reflective metals), all plastics, glass, and wood can be cut

Carbon steel and most metal alloys

Material combinations

Materials with different melting points can barely be cut

Possible on materials with different melting points

Sandwich structures with cavities

This is not possible with a CO2 laser

Not possible for this process

Cutting materials with liminted or impaired access

Rarely possible due to small distance and the large laser cutting head

Rarely possible due to small distance and the large torch head

Properties of the cut material which influence processing

Absorption characteristics of material at 10.6 µm

Material hardness is a key factor

Material thickness at which cutting or processing is economical

~0.12" to 0.4" depending on material

~0.12" to 0.4"

Common applications for this process

Cutting of flat sheet steel of medium thickness for sheet metal processing

Cutting of flat sheet and plate of greater thickness


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Initial investment and average operating costs

Subject

CO2 laser

Flame cutting

Initial capital investment required

$300,000 with a 20 kW pump, and a 6.5' x 4' table

$200,000 to $500,000

Parts that will wear out

Protective glass, gas
nozzles, plus both dust and the particle filters

Tips of the cutting torch

Average energy consumption of complete cutting system

Assume a 1500 Watt CO2 laser:

Electrical power use:
24-40 kW

Laser gas (CO2, N2, He):
2-16 l/h

Cutting gas (O2, N2):
500-2000 l/h

HR plate

30 psi oxygen @ 60 CF/M

4 psi acetylene @ 7 CF/M


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Precision of process

Subject

CO2 laser

Flame cutting

Minimum size of the cutting slit

0.006", depending on cutting speed

0.02"

Cut surface appearance

Cut surface will show a striated structure

Cut surface will show a striated structure

Degree of cut edges to completely parallel

Good; occasionally will demonstrate conical edges

Fair, will demonstrate non-parallel cut edges with some frequency

Processing tolerance

Approximately 0.002"

Approximately 0.03"

Degree of burring on the cut

Only partial burring occurs

Only partial burring occurs

Thermal stress of material

Deformation, tempering and structural changes may occur in the material

Deformation, tempering and structural changes may occur in the material

Forces acting on material in direction of gas or water jet during processing

Gas pressure poses
problems with thin
workpieces, distance
cannot be maintained

Gas pressure poses problems with thin
workpieces, distance cannot be maintained


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Safety considerations and operating environment

Subject

CO2 laser

Plasma cutting

Personal safety
equipment requirements

Laser protection safety glasses are not absolutely necessary

Protective safety glasses

Production of smoke and dust during processing

Does occur; plastics and some metal alloys may produce toxic gases

Does occur; plastics and some metal alloys may produce toxic gases

Noise pollution and danger

Very low

Low

Machine cleaning requirements due to process mess

Low clean up

Medium clean up

Cutting waste produced by the process

Cutting waste is mainly in the form of dust requiring vacuum extraction and filtering

Cutting waste is mainly in the form of dust requiring vacuum extraction and filtering


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