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Six Simple Ways to Reduce Laser-Cutting Costs

March 27, 2020
Whether you're processing high-volume work or custom orders, it's not as difficult as you may imagine to lower overall expenses of laser-cutting projects.

Laser cutting is a popular choice for fabricators and machine shops to execute custom work as well as higher volume jobs, for cutting mainly but also etching and other finishing tasks.

The basic details of laser-cutting are simple: A computer numerical controller (CNC) directs the laser optics according to a defined program to cut (or etch, etc.) the material or workpiece. The beam melts the material and any residue is vacated by a jet of gas or air, resulting in a clean surface finish.

Sheet metal is the most common material treated this way, but laser-cutting projects also include wood, plastics, glass, and other materials.

Laser cutting is effective but it's not always cost-efficient. Many manufacturers realize that their laser-cutting costs are unsustainable. If that's the situation you find yourself facing, here are six straightforward ways to minimize your expenses.

1. Ask the right questions first — If you've decided to invest in laser-cutting equipment, various aspects, including the laser power and the brand, can affect the price. However, cost should not be your only concern when buying a machine.

First, consider what you need the product to do and how often you'll use it. Take the time to define your specific requirements before approaching a retailer.

When communicating with a dealer, keep your future laser-cutting projects in mind. Inquire about the features available on each machine and the laser power offered. One way to avoid unnecessary costs is to determine whether a specific function or the laser power strength is necessary for what you intend to do.

Although some people may assume a higher-powered laser is always better, that's not necessarily the case. As the power increases, so does the thickness of the cut, known as the "kerf." A higher-powered laser means a more expensive machine, but does that strength match your anticipated laser-cutting projects? For example, engineers and designers often use 100-watt lasers, but a less expensive 40-watt version can put designs into plywood.

Finally, after you learn about the machines a supplier offers, learn the track record and capabilities of the brand. When did it launch? Does it offer guarantees or warranties on its products? Does its product line draw positive feedback from the industry?

Knowing the answers to such questions will help you to make a more confident purchase and know you're investing in a product that does more than what you need (or, not enough of it.)

2. Use the flying cut when possible and appropriate — Using the "flying cut" or engaging with fly cuts while using these machines means turning on the laser when the head is still moving. For other kinds of cuts, the laser turns on and off once its head shaft shops moving. This technique keeps it moving rapidly, which can save time and money due to increased throughput.

More specifically, if your laser-cut projects involve numerous internal holes, flying cuts can reduce the machining time while optimizing productivity. However, if the material you're cutting is too thick, the flying cut won't give the desired results. It's worth considering, but only in certain circumstances.

3. Group your laser-cutting projects — Grouping is a laser-cutting technique you can use to reduce waste. It means putting the pieces into clusters to help the laser work more efficiently. This reduces the distance the laser head travels between each cut, and it also accommodates circular cuts. Those are sometimes necessary, but they're expensive.

Scrutinize the configuration of the pieces in the computer-aided design (CAD) file. When you can depend on grouping to prevent unnecessary movement by the laser, your overall costs should go down.

4. Evaluate in-house or outsourced options — Maybe you're at the point where your business most often or always depends on companies that offer laser-cutting services to meet your needs. Perhaps your in-house laser cutter is fit for the purpose most of the time, but you're working with a new material that may not suit it. Your operation's needs undoubtedly fluctuate, and things like your budget, customer requests, and the amount of time typically spent on laser-cutting projects can be factors.

You must consider every laser-cutting project individually and determine whether it's best to use any in-house resources available or outsource to an external company. Reaching a decision could become more manageable if you consider the expected laser-cutting expenses associated with each option.

For example, one jewelry designer who relies heavily on laser cutting in her craft calculated that 44% of the cost of an average piece went to laser-cutting fees. She determined that the required machine cost $3,995, then ran a successful crowdfunding campaign to cover the expenses.

That's not to suggest that crowdfunding is an option for you to explore: It's a reminder of how much you could save by being more familiar with the laser-cutting cost for each project.

5. Be sure the design calls for laser cutting — Evaluating your design before activating the laser cutter is another cost-saving step. Narrow parts or those with useless details can increase your expenses. The same is true for double lines. If you have two overlapping objects in your design file, the machine will cut the same line twice. This increases your costs, as well as the time it takes to finish laser-cut projects.

Any cutouts or designs intended for laser cutting should be at least 1x larger than your material's thickness. Otherwise, accuracy decreases and you may discover your machine won't cut them. Both of those things could make you pay more for laser-cutting projects. You can prevent them by eyeing your design closely before sending the file to your machine.

6. Stay on top of maintenance — Some people who do laser-cutting work put maintenance and repairs into the same category. However, whereas you repair a machine that breaks, maintenance is about keeping it running smoothly so that breakdowns don't happen. Statistics indicate that laser-cutting maintenance needs vary among operators, but they typically represent about 2-3% of the initial investment each year.

Skipping maintenance at the recommended intervals may seem like a cost-saving measure, especially if the machine seems to be working as it should, but it's more than likely to add to your overall expenses. Consider the scenario whereby a broken machine takes weeks to bring back into commission and causes your business to turn down new, lucrative customer orders.

Always follow the manufacturer's instructions regarding your maintenance routine. Keep a logbook so there is a clear and complete record of what happened when.

These tips illustrate how it's not as difficult as you may imagine to lower the overall expenses of laser-cutting projects. Implement them today and enjoy the extra money in your budget.

Kayla Matthews writes about the IoT, IIoT, automation and smart technologies for publications like InformationWeek, Manufacturing.net, Robotiq others. Follow Kayla at her personal tech blog, Productivity Bytes.

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