What is Laser Cutting?

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- GoPhotonics

Jan 18, 2024

Laser cutting is a process that uses a high-energy, focused laser beam to cut different materials for both industrial and artistic applications, such as etching, perforating, shaping, and drilling, etc. It is a fast cutting process that operates by directing a high-power laser onto a small area of the material through optics. This targeted energy causes the material to either melt, burn, vaporize, or be expelled by a gas jet, resulting in a precise cut with a high-quality surface finish. The thickness (usually ranges from 0.1 mm to 20 mm) and density of the material are crucial factors to consider when employing laser-cutting methods.

The concept of using lasers for cutting applications was first explored and developed in the 1960s. In 1964, at Bell Labs, Kumar Patel invented the gas laser cutting process by utilizing a mixture of carbon dioxide. The CO2 laser, renowned for its capability to generate a high-powered and focused beam of infrared light, proved particularly well-suited for cutting applications. In 1965, the Western Electric Engineering Research Center constructed the first gas-assisted laser cutting machine to drill holes in diamond dies. Subsequently, this technology shifted its focus to precision metal cutting, marking the commencement of laser cutting applications in various industries.

It is a subtractive process where material is consistently eliminated throughout the cutting process. This is achieved through vaporization, melting, chemical ablation, or controlled crack propagation. The laser optics are digitally managed via CNC (Computer Numerical Control), enabling the drilling of holes as tiny as 5 microns. Moreover, the process avoids generating residual stress in the material, facilitating the cutting of delicate and fragile materials.

In contemporary industrial manufacturing, it is widely used for cutting sheet metal, plastics, glass, ceramics, steel, acrylics, polymers, semiconductors, as well as materials such as textiles, wood, and paper.

Laser Cutting: Setup and Working

The laser cutting setup involves a systematic arrangement of equipment and components designed for precise material processing. It consists of a laser generator that emits a high-powered beam of coherent light, usually directed by mirrors or lenses to focus the energy onto the material undergoing cutting.

This process necessitates a controlled environment within a specialized enclosure to ensure safety and optimal functioning. A computer numerical control (CNC) system plays a pivotal role, governing the laser's movements with meticulous accuracy according to pre-programmed designs or patterns. The material being worked on is placed on a stable surface, often a table or platform that can move in various directions according to the CNC instructions.

Depending on the specific application, auxiliary systems for gas delivery, cooling, and exhaust may also be integrated into the setup to enhance efficiency and precision. Assist gases, like oxygen or nitrogen, may be used to improve the cutting process. Oxygen helps in the combustion process for metals, while nitrogen helps prevent oxidation and produces cleaner cuts. A ventilation system removes fumes, gases, and debris generated during the cutting process to maintain a clean working environment and ensure operator safety.

The configuration and calibration of these elements are critical in achieving the desired cutting results, adhering to stringent standards of precision and safety in industrial or manufacturing settings.

Laser Cutting Process

The process of laser cutting involves directing a high-energy laser beam, controlled via computer, towards the targeted material for cutting. Subsequently, mirrors or fiber optics guide the coherent light to a lens, which focuses the light at the work zone. This directed laser beam separates solid parts by forming a small gap, kerf, between them with an intense laser beam. The narrowest part of the focused beam is usually less than 0.3175 mm in diameter. Depending on the material thickness, kerf widths, which is the width of the material removed, can be as small as 0.1016 mm.

Thereafter, the material undergoes processes such as melting, combustion, vaporization, or expulsion via a gas jet, resulting in the creation of a finely finished edge.

In order to be able to start cutting from somewhere else than the edge, a pierce is done before every cut. When cutting on the edge, the laser typically starts directly on the material's perimeter without requiring a separate piercing action. Piercing usually involves a high power pulsed laser beam which slowly (taking around 5 - 15 seconds for half-inch thick stainless steel) makes a hole in the material. 

In order to achieve the smoothest contour cutting finish, the beam's polarization direction is rotated while tracing the periphery of a contoured workpiece. This rotation of polarization influences the distribution of heat across the material, as materials can exhibit different absorption rates based on the polarization of the laser beam. Consequently, the orientation of the beam's polarization becomes a critical factor, directly impacting the quality of the cut surface.

Material Thickness for Laser Cutting



Thickness Range

Sheet Metal Cutting

Stainless Steel

0.1 mm - 25 mm

Aluminum Alloy

0.1 mm - 12 mm

Mild Steel

0.1 mm - 20 mm


0.1 mm - 6 mm


0.1 mm - 3 mm

Diamond Cutting

Hardened Steel

0.1 mm - 10 mm


0.1 mm - 5 mm


0.1 mm - 3 mm

Polycrystalline Diamonds

0.1 mm - 2 mm

Other Applications


0.1 mm - 25 mm


0.1 mm - 20 mm

Plastics (Various Types)

0.1 mm - 25 mm


0.1 mm - 10 mm


0.1 mm - 10 mm

Types of Lasers for Laser Cutting

Laser Type



Cutting Thickness

Suitable Materials

Cutting Type

Typical Power Levels

CO2 Laser

10.6 µm

Nonmetals, plastics, wood

Thin to Thick

Plastics, wood, fabrics, etc.


20W - 20,000W

Fiber Laser

1.06 µm

Metals, thin materials

Thin to Medium

Metals (steel, aluminum)

Fusion and Flame

300W - 30,000W

Nd:YAG Laser

1.06 µm

Metals, thin materials

Thin to Medium

Metals (steel, titanium)


400W - 6,000W

Diode Laser


Low-power, precision cutting


Plastics, thin metals


10W - 300W

The wavelength of a fiber laser falls within the infrared range, making it particularly well-suited for highly reflective materials such as stainless steel, aluminum, and other metallic alloys. Smaller wavelengths are absorbed more effectively by the material to be cut compared to larger wavelengths. Consequently, the prevalence of fiber laser cutting has notably risen, displacing CO₂ laser cutting to some extent. A fiber laser cutting machine stands as an ideal choice for this application due to its superior cutting speeds and lower energy consumption when compared with CO₂ laser cutting technology.

Significance of Lens in Laser Cutting Process 

The lens used in laser cutting plays a crucial role in determining the thickness of the cut. The primary factors influenced by the lens are the focused spot diameter and the depth of focus.

  • Focused Spot Diameter (d): The lens, defined by its focal length, focuses the laser beam to a small spot. The diameter of this focused spot is a critical factor. A smaller spot diameter results in higher power density, which is essential for precision cutting. Therefore, the choice of lens and its focal length directly affects the size of the focused spot.
  • Depth of Focus (L): The depth of focus is the effective distance over which satisfactory cutting can be achieved. It represents the range where the focused spot area does not exceed 50%. The depth of focus is crucial for cutting through thicker materials, as it determines the tolerance to variations in the focus position.

Effect of Lens on Laser Cutting Thickness

  • Smaller Spot Size: A lens with a shorter focal length produces a smaller spot size. This is advantageous for intricate and detailed cuts that enables the laser to concentrate more power over a smaller area. As a result, it is effective for cutting through thinner materials.
  • Larger Spot Size: Conversely, a lens with a longer focal length results in a larger spot size. While this might be less precise for intricate cuts, it allows for a more extended depth of focus. This is beneficial for cutting through thicker materials which provides a reasonable tolerance to variations in the focus position.

Advantages of Laser Cutting

  • Laser cutting offers high precision and accuracy, allowing intricate and detailed cuts on various materials.
  • It is versatile and applicable to a wide range of materials, including metals, plastics, ceramics, and wood.
  • Laser cutting is a non-contact method, reducing the risk of material contamination or damage from tool wear.
  • Integration into computer-controlled systems enables high-speed and flexible manufacturing processes.
  • The process results in a small heat-affected zone, minimizing material distortion or warping.

Limitations of Laser Cutting

  • Laser cutting can consume considerable electrical power, although it's often less than alternative methods like plasma cutting.
  • Industrial lasers may struggle with cutting thicker materials compared to other alternative cutting techniques.
  • While efficient, laser cutting may not be the fastest cutting method for certain applications.
  • Processing quality can vary based on factors such as material type, cutting method, and equipment calibration.
  • Initial setup costs for laser cutting equipment can be high, making it less accessible for smaller-scale operations.

Applications of Laser Cutting

Laser cutting plays an important role in the field of photonics and optics. It facilitates the precision manufacturing of components essential for various technological applications:

  • Fiber Optics: Used in telecommunications and data transmission for crafting intricate optical fibers.
  • Optical Components: Fabrication of lenses, prisms, and mirrors for optical systems like cameras, microscopes, and telescopes.
  • Biomedical Optics: Crafting precise components for medical imaging and laser surgery equipment.
  • Solar Technology: Manufacturing photovoltaic cells and solar panels with precise cuts for enhanced energy efficiency.
  • Sensors and Detectors: Creating components for optical sensors in environmental monitoring and industrial automation.
  • Lasers and Light Sources: Contributing to the production of advanced laser systems for research, industry, and medical fields.
  • Display Technologies: Manufacturing components for advanced displays like OLEDs and micro-displays.
  • Metal Fabrication: Used extensively in automotive, aerospace, and machinery industries for precise metal cutting.
  • Textiles and Apparel: Enables clean and intricate cuts in fabric for fashion and textile industries.
  • Electronics Manufacturing: Essential for precise cutting of circuit boards and delicate electronic components.
  • Automotive and Aerospace Parts: Used for intricate parts, gaskets, and prototypes.
  • Art and Sculpture: Utilized by artists for intricate artwork and sculptures from various materials.

Click here to learn more about the methods of Laser Cutting.