If you’re looking to do some advanced cutting of your own, you will undoubtedly be looking for a practical and efficient machine to get the job done. As you narrow down your choices, the decision may come between a CNC router vs laser cutter.
Due to the similarities between these two options, the choice between one or the other may prove to be a bit confusing if you don’t know how each machine operates in the first place.
Firstly, both of these machines are utilized in precision engineering to produce complex products. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at what each machine does and how to best make use of each one.
As we are about to find out, both CNC machines and laser cutting machines perform precision subtractive tasks on stock material. Not only that, both employ computer-controlled parts for the job, albeit with some small yet significant differences.
What Are CNC Routers?
A Computer Numerical Control (CNC) router is a contact-based cutting process that operates in a similar fashion to handheld routers. However, it is far more complex and versatile on account of its automated configuration. As such, a decent CNC router will cut and engrave at a much faster pace and with a lot more precision than handheld devices.
The computerized control of the machine enables it to be used in high-precision engineering tasks – this is also the case with some high-end laser cutters. Unlike lasers, however, CNC routers employ a contact-based cutting method, with speed being the most important factor.
The process operates based on designs programmed into the CNC machine, which signals the router to perform the cutting/carving action. In this system, a computer controls the exact positioning and velocity of the router bits, moving them precisely according to specifications.
As you would expect, such a pinpoint system creates very little waste when compared to conventional cutting/carving methods. As a result, a CNC router will process any piece of material in a timely fashion, doing so with increased accuracy and at a decreased cost of operations.
What Are Laser Cutters?
A CNC machine – a device similar to a CNC router – is used to guide a laser cutter. One notable difference here is the way the cutting/engraving is performed. Unlike CNC routers, a laser cutter employs a non-contact, thermal-based cutting process that uses a focused laser beam for the task at hand.
Rather than carving the material, a laser beam is used to burn through the material instead. This is done regardless of the material that’s being processed – whether it’s metal, glass, plastic, wood, or paper. Bear in mind that a single laser cutting machine can perform multiple cuts across a variety of materials.
With the help of a CNC machine, a decent laser cutter can produce very complex designs and shapes compared to traditional methods. This method doesn’t require any further cleaning of the cutting surface as it produces very little debris.
It should also be noted that laser cutting produces very smooth edges, an advantage for anyone who wants to achieve a smooth and clean-looking end product. Alternatively, you can also use a user cutter to add a finishing touch to a workpiece that you’ve cut using a different method.
Also read: How much does a laser engraver cost
CNC Router vs Laser Cutter – What’s the Difference?
We talked about the similarities between the two technologies and how they operate, but how exactly do they differ?
While router machines can cut through almost any material with relative effectiveness, laser cutters may struggle with certain materials. For instance, your average laser cutter will have some difficulty cutting through PVC, ABS, or polypropylene foam.
By comparison, a standard CNC router can process these materials at similar speeds and without any real impact on accuracy (with regard to engravings). In fact, CNC routers can cut through a greater variety of materials than laser cutters, although hardier materials may require the use of a dust collector.
When used for woodworking, a CNC device will operate according to a preset that the user creates beforehand. In essence, the machine interprets the detailed directions and moves the cutter across all axes, cutting the wood into the desired shape.
When it comes to speed, there really isn’t much difference between the two. Both machines can process a relatively wide variety of materials at a reasonable speed provided that the machines are well maintained and properly calibrated.
However, it’s worth mentioning that a laser cutter can have better precision with softer materials due to the fact that it doesn’t have to come in contact with the material. This is also the case when dealing with materials of a custom shape that may prove challenging to certain CNC technologies.
Still, a decent CNC router will be a bit quicker when cutting through surfaces like wood because they can take bigger passes at the material. In doing so, they also provide a boost in engraving speed when dealing with certain materials.
With regard to power consumption, laser cutters definitely use a lot more power. In some cases, the operational cost of a laser cutter is almost double that of a CNC router. This makes sense considering that laser cutters are a bit more complex.
When we talk about the operational cost of a laser cutter, it’s important to remember that these machines are more expensive overall. They not only cost more per purchase but they also have higher maintenance costs.
Bear in mind that laser cutters can get pretty complex depending on your budget – from basic diode lasers to high-power CO2 engraving systems. Overall, these machines don’t differ too much from one another apart from speed and maybe the depth of the cuts.
Although both CNC routers and laser cutters are versatile machines by most standards, it must be said that lasers are a lot more accurate when it comes to engraving soft materials. With regard to cutting, the width of the cut depends on the engraving tool, so it isn’t so clear-cut there.
To be more precise, the smallest router bits have a radius of about 1mm, whereas the radius of a laser beam can be around 0.1mm. Router bits aside, laser cutters allow for much more precise engravings overall.
Note that when using a CNC router, the depth of the cut can be programmed to halt at a specific point, which allows the user to create intricate designs not just on an aesthetic level but to also add a bit of depth to the piece in every sense of the word.
Because CNC routers make direct contact with the processed material, you should always wear safety glasses and protective gear when operating them. At the same time, you will want the work area to be properly ventilated to avoid buildup and hazardous fumes.
Another matter to consider is the high temperature that laser engravers/cutters operate at. Because of how hot they get, laser engravers are always at the risk of setting the material on fire. This normally applies to softwood but it can happen with plastic or any other soft materials for that matter.
In this respect, you should make sure that you only process materials approved by the manufacturer with the router/cutter of your choice and that you don’t overuse them. While you’re at it, stay clear of any flammable materials for good measure.
Advantages of Laser Cutting
As previously mentioned, a laser machine will always be more accurate than a CNC router. With a precision that can go as high as a tenth of a millimeter, a laser cutter clearly has the edge when it comes to accuracy.
Additionally, your average laser cutter works a bit faster than most CNC routers. This happens across the spectrum, but mostly towards the high-end part of the market. Along with speed, a good laser cutter also delivers flexibility, precision, and effectiveness.
Know that your automation setup will also impact the laser cutter’s overall effectiveness. With the right setup and material, you can perform some pretty elaborate laser engravings in almost any material.
By far, the greatest advantage that laser cutting offers is the capacity to achieve clean, sealed edges. You see, when the high-power density laser beam burns through wood, it produces a very crisp edge. Although the process causes some discoloration, you can take steps to avoid pesky burn marks if you’re careful.
On the other hand, burnt edges can also add a bit of style to the end product, giving it a rustic look. Aesthetics aside, burns also make the surface of the material smoother to the touch.
Disadvantages of Laser Cutting
Even the best laser cutters are unable to handle thicker materials. This is by far the biggest issue that laser cutting machines face. Because of the thermal nature of the process, thicker materials will show a greater resistance to the laser beam.
At the same time, if you use the laser cutter as an engraving machine, you will notice that certain materials give out quite an unpleasant smell. The smell tends to get worse the longer you use the laser cutter, so make sure that your workspace is properly ventilated.
Advantages of CNC Routers
Due to their automation, CNC routers can work for extended periods of time with no breaks. In this regard, they are a lot more efficient time-wise, especially when processing multiple pieces within a short time frame.
By pairing them with the right software, CNC routers can replicate the desired engraving/cutting across multiple pieces, with almost no limitations on your end. The automatization also makes these machines more accessible for beginners because they require very little input from the user.
Versatile and easy to use, CNC routers can also be reprogrammed with ease, which should allow the user to operate the machine on a range of materials in one sitting. Some people have compared this to sending documents to a printer, with the added benefit of seeing the end product take shape in front of your eyes.
Another great feature is the depth of the cuts, which tend to dig into fragile materials without causing any ruptures or burns (as is the case with lasers). The depth can also be controlled via the machine itself, which even the most basic of CNC routers tend to have.
This type of accuracy allows the user to come up with very elaborate and intricate designs without the fear that a pattern that’s too complex would somehow damage the material in any way.
Disadvantages of CNC Routers
One of the greatest disadvantages of using CNC routers is that they require a solid investment on the user’s part. The machine also takes some getting used to, no matter how intuitive and user-friendly it might be.
Combine that with the material wastage the process sometimes produces and you begin to understand why CNC routers are seen as the alternative to laser cutters by some, and not as a first choice. Then again, the technological capabilities of these types of machines are constantly evolving.
All Things Considered
Given how complex both of these machines can be, the choice between a CNC router vs laser cutter will always come down to what type of project you want to undertake.
For elaborate engravings with clean edges, you should probably opt for laser cutters on account of their clean cuts. For cuts and engravings repeated across multiple pieces, you are better off using a CNC router with its reprogrammable features.
At the same time, remember that laser engravers cost a bit more than CNC routers but can be well worth the investment due to some pretty ingenious features. By comparison, a CNC router may not engrave elaborate designs the way a laser would, but it certainly does what’s required of it when operated properly.