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7 Differences Between Laser And Waterjet Cutting

When it comes to the differences between laser and waterjet cutting, some nuances are important to know to determine the right custom manufacturing method. Both can each take the information from your 2D file to create your object. Both are also great for rapid prototyping or production. So let’s dig into those differences.

Elemet Manufacturing specializes in 5-axis waterjet cutting services. These 5-axis waterjets can handle large production runs but mostly serve our customers with quick turnaround services. Contact us today!

Laser Cutting

Laser cutting metal involves low risk, waste, and required clean-up. The use of laser cutting machines doesn’t generally call for safety goggles, even though it’s always good to wear some and be cautious.

However, for lasers to cut some materials, the dust and smoke produced can be slightly toxic, so it’s essential to have proper ventilation. Noise pollution is also very low with laser cutting.

After the laser cutting process, the machine doesn’t need heavy cleaning. The cutting waste is mostly dust that you can quickly vacuum. One of the main concerns linked to laser cutting is the thermal stress on the heat-affected zones.

To avoid thermal stress cracking, the technician can adapt the laser’s speed. Also, metals with higher reflectivity, such as brass and copper, are more efficiently processed.

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Waterjet Cutting

Waterjet cutting is a subtractive manufacturing technique. It uses pressurized water focused on a tiny point to cut the material. The pressure can be as high as 60,000 pounds per square inch (4137 bar). The operator can mix the water with an abrasive such as garnet, which increases its cutting possibilities (more materials, closer tolerances).

Waterjet cutting is widely recognized as a complementary tool to other cutting processes. Waterjet cutting systems can use “just water.” Depending on the material, use a combination of water and an abrasive, normally garnet.

With either method, waterjets cut materials using an erosion process. 5-axis waterjets are flexible tools that can cut virtually any material at any thickness. This flexibility expands the breadth of projects that a job shop or other business can perform. Waterjets can cut stainless steel one minute and plastic the next. Also, waterjet cutting works on laminated material.

Waterjet cutting can involve more risks, higher noise pollution, and higher clean-up. Indeed, the waterjet cutting process can be extremely noisy and requires ear protection.

Protection is necessary against the pressurized waterjet (specific gear, covers, safety glasses). Moreover, the waterjet cutting area gets quite messy, with large quantities of cutting waste caused by mixing water and abrasives.

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The Differences Between Laser & Waterjet Cutting

Determining whether to use lasers or waterjets for your next project will depend entirely on your specifications. For each project, you’ll need to ask yourself several questions, including:

  • What materials will you be cutting?
  • What is the thickness of your materials?
  • What sort of edge finish and tolerance does your task require?
  • Will heat impact the part?

Let’s look at some of the main differences between laser and waterjet cutting more closely:

Engraving / Cutting Capability

A laser can engrave as well as cut material. Waterjets only allow for cutting. Laser engraving is advantageous if you want to directly add serial numbers, assembly marks, or aesthetic designs.

2D Or 3D Designs

Waterjet cutting, particularly 5-axis waterjet cutting, can handle 3D cuts. Laser cutting can’t.

The Materials Each Can Cut

Laser and waterjet cutting can each cut difficult materials. Laser cutting can cut all plastics, glass, woods, and metals, excluding highly reflective metals. Indeed, metal laser cutting is doable, and you can laser cut stainless steel, aluminum, or mild steel, for example. 5-axis waterjet cutting machines can cut all materials.

The Thickness Each Can Cut

Laser cutters can cut thick materials. The optimal thickness range is 0.12″ to 0.4″ (or 3 to 10 mm). A waterjet cutting machine can cut denser objects, the optimal thickness being 0.4″ to 2.0″ (10 to 50 mm).

The Level Of Precision

Laser cutting can be more precise than waterjet cutting machines. The minimum width of the cutting slit is 0.006″ (0.15 mm) for laser cutting and 0.02″ (0.5 mm) for waterjet. As for their processing tolerance, it is approximately 0.002″ (0.05 mm) for laser cutting and 0.008″ (0.2 mm) for waterjet cutting.

The Potential Damage To The Material Being Cut

Each technique poses its problems when it comes to part integrity. Indeed, laser and waterjet machines can cause a little damage to the material during the cutting process.

Laser cutting can cause burn marks on the material and darken the cut’s sides. In many cases, a little cleaning can remove the burn marks. As for the darkening, it merely needs to be taken into account when thinking through your object’s design. You can potentially play on the contrast of colors between the colored faces and the black sides.

On the other side, as a cold cutting process, waterjet cutting doesn’t require heat. Still, it applies very high forces on the material, which can pose problems, especially for small parts. They might get deformed or even not cut.

The Work Environment

While waterjet cutting is a relatively clean process, laser cutting can cause smoke and sparks in the environment. Proper ventilation and safety equipment are always a good idea.

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When Your Project Calls For Waterjet Cutting

We’ve looked at the many differences between laser and waterjet cutting to help guide you to the best method for your project!

To sum up, laser cutting can offer higher precision, is more fitting for detailed objects, or is preferred when you require engraving. Alternatively, waterjet cutting can cut through thicker sheets and has virtually no material restrictions. It also doesn’t cause heat-affected zones on the materials cut.

Elemet Manufacturing specializes in 5-axis waterjet cutting services. These 5-axis waterjets can handle large production runs but mostly serve our customers with quick turnaround services. Contact us today!

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