CNC Vs Laser Cutting: What’s the Difference?

If you need components manufactured for your business, you’ve probably heard of CNC cutting (or routing) and laser cutting. Both processes operate on similar basics. They are high-speed and capable of producing precision parts, but they work in unique ways beyond a point. So, what’s the difference between the two? Let’s find out so you can choose the proper process for your next project.

What is CNC Cutting?

Computer Numerical Control or CNC uses specialised tools to cut and produce parts to precise specifications. CNC routers follow an automated connection-based process to cut and engrave materials accurately with exact positioning and speed. They can cut through several materials, including stainless steel, metal, plastic, wood, acrylic, foam and aluminium. A CNC router can perform several functions, including that of a spindle moulder, boring unit, and panel saw. CNC cutting is fulfilled through friction.

The process starts by using CAD software to create the design of the product. Once finalised, the design is programmed into the CNC machine. A signal is sent to the router, and the computer follows a pre-set programmed path to control speed and position when cutting the material – ensuring the final product meets all specifications.

CNC cutters are a good choice for metal and steel fabrication, boat construction, defence equipment, cabinetry, plastic fabrication and shopfitters. CNC cutters can work continuously without needing additional operators. It’s easy to reprogram the software to produce different variations, allowing the operator to keep up with changes in demand quickly.

What is Laser Cutting?

Laser cutting is similar to CNC cutting. A machine guides the laser cutter to follow a pre-programmed path for cutting the material. The big difference is in the way cutting is achieved through heat and not friction.

Laser cutting is a thermal process that uses a powerful beam to cut and create final designs from the material. The material is placed on a cutting table, and a high-intensity laser beam moves across it and burns it to produce precision cuts. The computer controls the speed and placement of the beam to create an exact replica of the final design. The beam can burn, melt or vaporise the material to leave smooth edges and a high-quality finish. This fabrication process suits different materials like glass, metal, foam, gemstones, paper and wood.

Laser cutters are ideal in manufacturing processes where intricacy is necessary. They are the preferred choice for components like solar panels, semiconductors, jewellery and electronic devices.

Benefits of Laser Cutting

Laser cutting can deliver exact cuts, even down to a 0.1mm beam radius. For cuts that need high accuracy, a laser cutter is an ideal choice. A laser also does not need tool changing for different cuts, which means it can cut through different materials quicker. Even the most complex and intricate designs can be delivered with speed and precision, which is why laser cutters are well suited to industries where rapid prototyping is needed. Prototypes can easily be created in a few minutes, allowing different versions to be produced and tested quickly.

Laser cutting is more repeatable, especially for parts where high tolerances are required, and it leaves clean, sealed edges that are easy to finish. Since there are fewer moving parts and no contact with the metal due to the laser beam, producing less waste. For products that require images engraved, laser cutters have more advantages. They can directly engrave the image on the piece, which a CNC router cannot do.

Benefits of CNC Cutting

CNC cutting is a popular process because of its speed, efficiency and flexibility to suit a range of materials. Subtractive cutting reduces material waste compared to traditional cutting methods, which lowers costs and increases business productivity. 

CNC cutters also are better at cutting through thicker materials when compared to laser cutters. Technicians don’t require as much cutting skill and experience because the machine does the grunt work.

CNC cutters work better for materials like plastic that can produce hazardous fumes from the heat of a laser machine. If you need to cut to specific depths, especially in the cases of 3D objects, CNC cutting has an advantage over laser cutting. You may also want to consider CNC vs 3D printing for 3D objects depending on the final output you want to achieve.

Cost Differences Between Laser Cutting and CNC Cutting

Compared to laser, CNC is lower in cost. The laser cutting process is more power intensive and expensive, which some businesses might find prohibitive. CNC has an advantage because of its lower production costs, which is why it is popular in a range of industries. An Allied Market Research report revealed that the CNC metal cutting industry is expected to reach $83.36 billion in 2030 compared to $53.06 billion in 2020. That’s a compounded annual growth rate of 4.2% in 10 years.

While the costs may be more expensive, laser cutting remains the better choice for industries seeking a high degree of precision and intricacy.

How Elite CNC Can Help You Make the Right Choice

Both types of cutting undeniably have advantages and disadvantages, but they are efficient and accurate processes for any business needing fabrication. Choosing the right process for your business depends on several factors. The experts at Elite CNC can help you determine whether laser or CNC is the best option to suit your needs. We will consider the type of business you operate, what materials you need to cut and engrave, your budget and any other requirements you may have. You can count on us to deliver your project on time and within budget, whether you need single parts or large production runs. Give us a call today!