So you want to get into the laser cutting business. At the moment there’s a huge demand for unique designs and engravings that can only be achieved by laser cutters, so it’s a great time to get started. But where do you begin?
In this article, we’re going to cover the major things you need to consider when getting into the laser cutting business. Our main talking points are:
- Cut, Engrave or Raster?
- Buy a Machine, or Use a Service?
- Types of Laser Cutters
- What You Can & Can’t Cut
Of course, though these are our major points, the first and most important step is knowing what your product will be. Once you have a basic idea of what you’re going to create—whether it’s commercial or just a hobby—you can get to the fun stuff.
Cut, Engrave or Raster?
The first thing you’ll need to decide is whether you need to cut, raster or engrave to get your look. Not sure what that means? We’ve got you covered!
Image Courtesy of Core Electronics
Cutting is the simplest of the three, and it’s exactly as you’d imagine. The laser cuts through the material to create your design. There are different types of machines that create different strength lasers (read more on this below), so it’s important you know the material you want to use and whether you will need to cut it or not before getting started.
Image Courtesy of Core Electronics
The next option is another simple one, engraving. In fact, the only difference is that the laser doesn’t cut all the way through the material. Instead, it simply etches a fine line. The depth of the cuts will depend on your design, program settings and the strength of the laser.
Image Courtesy of Core Electronics
Lastly, we have rastering. Rastering is where a shallow engraving or cut is made along the surface of the material. This usually creates a two-tone or greyscale raster effect. This is commonly done to create stunning artwork on a material without having to actually cut through it. Rastering uses a very thin laser and makes multiple runs over the material to create the effect. This means rastering can be a very time consuming process. Though it is worth the wait.
Buy a Machine or Use a Laser Cutting Service
Once you know what you want to create, and how you will create it, your next major decision will be to buy a machine or use a service. And, for the majority of people, using a service will be the way to go. There’s no way to sugarcoat it, laser cutters are expensive. This isn’t to say you can’t get cheaper machines. There are plenty of laser cutters available for less than $1000. However, most of these will be suited to cutting or engraving lighter materials, such as paper and cardboard. They will struggle to cut through wood, let alone aluminium or tougher materials.
This is where service providers come in. Many businesses offer their laser cutting services to hobbyists and commercial users alike. They have a full range of equipment available and are able to cut through basically everything, including wood, cork, cardboard, leather, paper and MDF. Simply provide your designs in the correct file format (see our software section for more info) and the service provider will create your design!
However, if you’re looking to start your own business, or have more than a passing interest in laser cutting, then investing in a machine might be the right choice. While they can be expensive, if you are good at what you do, you should be able to pay off the machine with your products in no time. In fact, according to Epiloglaser, some businesses have even recouped their costs with their first job!
Pros of buying a machine:
- No middle man
- Can modify machine to suit
- Quicker turn-around (once you know the process)
Pros of using a service:
- Quicker turn-around for beginners
- Cheaper upfront
- Wider range of machines means more materials can be cut
In general, hobbyists and small start-ups are generally better off going for a service where their upfront costs are lower, there’s a quick turn-around and no need to learn how to use a laser cutter. While larger businesses or companies looking to scale up their product range may benefit from investing in a laser cutter that suits their needs.
Types of Laser Cutters
If you do decide to buy your own laser cutting machine, you’ll need to know the different types and what they can do. There are 3 common types of laser cutters:
Each type of laser has its own advantages and factors to consider when making your decision.
CO2 Laser Cutters
The most popular and affordable of the 3 is the CO2 laser. Using electrically-stimulated gases, these machines generate a laser that is able to cut through a wide variety of materials, like wood, paper, leather, acrylic and glass. They are the most popular because of their low power consumption, relative affordability and their versatility.
Neodymium Laser Cutters
Neodymium laser cutters utilise crystals to create a laser with a smaller wavelength than CO2 machines. This means they have a higher intensity and can cut thicker materials, like metals, plastics and some ceramics. But, because they do have more power and cutting intensity, there is more wear-and-tear (on average) so maintenance costs will be higher than most CO2 models.
Fiber Laser Cutters
Fiber lasers offer basically the same wavelength and cutting capacity as neodymium cutters but, thanks to the way they’re built, they are cheaper to run as they generally require less maintenance. That said, these machines are commonly used for raster and engraving jobs, rather than cutting.
Picking the right machine for your needs will come down to:
- What you want to cut
- Your budget
- The size of your business
There are plenty of choices when it comes to laser cutters, so you won’t struggle to find a machine that suits your needs. Have a browse through our listings, talk to your local dealer, and ask other business owners about their experiences with different machines.
Once you’ve got your machine picked out and have a good idea of what products you’re going to create, it’s time to choose the right software to make your dreams come to life.
Laser Cutting Software
This may come as a surprise, but laser cutters operate and connect to your computer just like a regular printer. So, once you get your head around the basics they are actually very easy to use. One of the biggest technical challenges is getting the right software.
Luckily there are a number of free or paid programs available that will get you into the laser cutting business quick.
For free programs, you’ll want to check out:
- Fusion 360
And for the paid programs, look for:
- Adobe Illustrator
Of course, this isn’t an exclusive list, and there are plenty of other programs out there that can create the files you need. Specifically, you want an illustrator program that can create vector files.
Vector files are a type of image file that uses lines and algorithms rather than the usual pixels most people are used to. This means that vector images can be zoomed without getting the pixelation you would expect in a super-zoomed picture.
When you’re looking for a program, or have one and are getting ready to export, ensure you export it as the right file type. The common vector file types are: SVG, EPS, PDF, DXF, DWG. With SVG being the primary type.
If you’re looking to raster or engrave, rather than cut, you won’t need to worry about vector files, as your standard JPG, PNG or GIF are all raster file types.
Once you have your image, and you’ve exported it in the right file type, simply follow the instructions for your chosen laser cutter, and you’ll be able to see your design come to life right in front of your eyes. Or, if you are using a service, simply send them the file type and they’ll import it to their machines and create the product for you.
What you Can & Can’t Cut
Finally, we’ll have a look at what you can and can’t cut. While it might seem like lasers can cut through anything, there are a number of materials that are labelled as dangerous and hazardous to cut .
Never cut anything made from or containing:
- Leather or artificial leather with chromium in it
- Coated or thick carbon fibers
- Beryllium oxide
- Anything with halogens, epoxy or phenolic resins
These are all potentially hazardous to the operator and anyone in the vicinity, so avoid cutting them at all costs.
The following can be cut, but they will usually melt, burn or (in the worst case) catch fire:
- HDPE (milk bottle plastic)
- PolyStyrene foam
- PolyPropylene foam
While you can technically cut them with virtually no health risks, these products tend to melt or vaporise in a way that can damage the product or your laser cutter. And, that’s generally not worth the risk.
So, with those out of the way, the things you can cut, raster and engrave includes:
|Material||Laser Method Applicable
|Wood||Cut, Engrave & Raster|
|Plywood||Cut, Engrave & Raster|
|MDF||Cut, Engrave & Raster|
|Cork||Cut, Engrave & Raster|
|Cardboard||Cut, Engrave & Raster|
|Paper||Cut, Engrave & Raster|
|Leather||Cut, Engrave & Raster|
|Felt||Cut, Engrave & Raster|
|Cotton||Cut, Engrave & Raster|
|Acrylic||Cut, Engrave & Raster|
|Delrin||Cut, Engrave & Raster|
|Granite||Engrave & Raster|
|Marble||Engrave & Raster|
|Stone Tiles||Engrave & Raster|
|Ceramic||Engrave & Raster|
|Porcelain||Engrave & Raster|
|Glass||Engrave & Raster|
Looking for a laser cutting machine and don’t know where to start? Have a look through our new and used laser cutters to get started.
Sources: Epiloglaser, Maker Design Lab, Core Electronics, Instructables