Both mechanical and laser cutting are common fabricating processes used in today’s manufacturing industries. Each method employs its own distinct equipment, and has its own advantages and disadvantages. Preference among the two usually depends on a range of factors, such as application requirements, cost-effectiveness, and production capabilities.
Mechanical cutting, which includes tooling and machining, is a process that uses power-driven equipment to shape and form material into a predetermined design. Some common machines used in mechanical cutting include lathes, milling machines, and drill presses, which correspond to the processes of turning, milling, and drilling, respectively.
A lathe is a metalworking machine that spins material, usually with a computer-controlled motor, while a hardened cutting blade removes excess stock to create the desired shape. Cutting fluid can be used to help maintain temperature control, lubricate the moving parts, and remove debris, or “swarf,” from the workpiece.
A milling machine features a stationary cutting tool and a movable table to which the workpiece is secured. Manual or computer directions move the table around the rotating blade to make the desired cuts. Milling machines are capable of creating complex or symmetrical shapes across axes. The four main categories of milling machine are hand-milling, plain-milling, universal, and omniversal models.
A drill press is a stationary drill mounted to a table, or bolted to the floor, and driven by an induction motor. It consists of a base, a pillar, a table, a spindle and a drill head. A three-pronged handle raises or lowers the drill bit to produce cylindrical holes in a workpiece. As the bit spins and cuts the metal, the fluting on the drill carries the debris, or swarf, up and out of the hole.
Laser Cutting Equipment and Methods
Laser cutting uses an energy emission device to focus a highly-concentrated stream of photons onto a small area of a workpiece and cut precise designs out of the material. Lasers are typically computer-controlled and can make highly accurate cuts with a quality finish. The most common laser cutters are of the gaseous CO2 or Nd:YAG variety.