You have probably heard of CNC cutting and laser cutting machines, right? Chances are that you have also been wondering just which of the two may be better suited for your cutting needs. If you nodded to either or both questions, you landed on the right page.
What's the difference between CNC cutting and laser cutting? In a nutshell, these two methods of cutting items differ mainly in the way the actual cutting is done. CNC makes use of a router bit or blade to do the cutting. Laser on the other hand relies on high heat to ‘burn’ through different types of materials in order to cut them.
Comparing and contrasting the difference between CNC cutting and laser cutting
- Cutting Methodology
This refers to how the actual cutting is done. As hinted above, CNC makes use of a cutting bit or blade to do the cutting. Laser on the other hand utilizes high heat to burn the materials and set the constituent parts apart from each other.
- Cutting Speed
When all factors are put into consideration, the laser takes a comparatively shorter duration of time to do the actual cutting. CNC does tarry considerably due to the need to pierce the surfaces using the cutting materials’ cutting bits or blades. This explains why most hobbyists prefer laser cutting to CNC cutting.
Cutting intensity is the degree of strength and overall efficacy that the cutting item exudes when piercing through the surfaces. Due to its use of extremely high heat, the laser cutting machines are more intense than their CNC counterparts. They are hence more likely to pierce the thicker and heavier materials with absolute ease.
- Spot size
Most laser cutters use a 2″ focus lens which is a spot size of around 0.004″, and using a 1.5″ focus lens, will provide a spot size of 0.003″. In contrast, employing a bit with a small diameter on CNC machines makes it difficult to apply a powerful cutting force, which limits the ability to create deep cuts.
Wood, acrylic, plastics, composites, HDPE, and non-ferrous metals like aluminum, copper, brass, etc. can all be processed on a CNC machine.
Acrylic, foam, leather, paper, rubber, and fabric can be cut and engraved with a CO2 Laser as well as some diode lasers. Metals including brass, aluminum, and steel can all be cut or engraved with a fiber laser cutter and fiber laser engraver. Detailed information on the best fiber laser engravers can be found here.
Softer materials like leather, foam, and paper can also be processed using a CNC, but the quality of the cut produced by a laser cutter is much better.
CNC cutters are, therefore, more suited for industrial use while laser cutters are however perfect for starting a home-based laser cutting business as it gives you flexibility on material choice.
The beam of high heat that a laser machine uses to pierce through items is generally smaller, narrower, and very precise. It is also easier to channel and direct to the desired cutting area with absolute ease. That makes laser cutters more precise and capable of delivering truly precise cutting outcomes.
- Operational expertise
A CNC cutter is generally more sophisticated than a Laser cutting machine. You require a fairly high degree of operational expertise to handle and manage it. A Laser machine though is a little bit more straightforward, especially the lower-cost diode lasers. You need not be too experienced to handle it. That said, both laser cutters and CNC cutters come with easy-to-follow user guides with lots of how-to videos to help you get acquainted with the machine.
- Power consumption
Even though both cutting machines require some electrical power to operate, the CNC machine demands higher levels of electrical energy. This of course leads to higher utility expenses that work to drive up the costs of the cutting altogether. Check out this article I wrote on laser engravers’ electricity consumption.
- Costs implications
The total cost of acquiring, operating, and maintaining a CNC cutting machine is higher than that of the Laser cutters. You can however find lower-cost desktop CNC cutters at an affordable price. These are mostly imported from China. A cost effective Diode Laser is available for under $500 and the more sophisticated Fiber Laser and CO2 Lasers for under $5000.00
Have a look at our Buying Guides Here: Best Laser Engravers Under $500 Best Laser Engravers Under $5000
In the below YouTube Tutorial, you will see the different types of cuts made by a CNC router like the Shopbot vs a laser cutter with a thin beam.
Which is better CNC or laser cutter?
It all depends on what type of cutting you want. Go for laser if the material is thin and light. A CNC cutter on the other hand comes in handy when the material is thicker and stronger. CNC would be the best option for cutting of thick materials like MDF, aluminum, wood, acrylic, etc.
Is a CNC machine the same as a laser cutter?
Not at all. CNC cutting machines rely on cutting bits and blades for physical contact to do the cutting. Laser cutters on the other hand rely on high heat to achieve the same objective.
What is the difference between a laser cutter and a laser engraver?
A laser cutter separates two portions of the same material using high heat from a laser. An engraver imprints patterns, pictures, and logos on the surface of a given material using high heat from a laser beam. So even though the results are different, the technique is somewhat similar.
Can a laser engraver cut wood?
A laser engraver can cut wood but would entirely depend on the power of the laser. Even most low-power diode lasers can cut some thin materials. A good quality 10 Watt Diode Laser can cut up to 5 – 8mm wood in a single pass. Check out this article for more info on the best laser engraver for wood.
How thick can a 100-watt laser cut?
A 100-watt laser machine can cut a non-metallic material with a thickness of 3 mm to 12 mm. However, it is a good idea to use transfer tape to guard against any forms of scorching that may arise in the course of inflicting cuts on the surfaces. Also read this article I wrote on the subject for detailed information.
So in a nutshell, laser cutters are more versatile and practical owing to their flexibility with material use, speed, and the other advantages we have identified. if you are looking to start a home-based laser cutting business, laser cutters would be the way to go.