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What is Involved in Laser Cutting Plastic?

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  • Written By: Maggie J. Hall
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 08 September 2016
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Laser cutting plastic requires a machine with a carbon dioxide laser, a computer program, and a worktable. Some laser machines engrave or etch objects, while others are capable of both engraving and making full thickness cuts, depending on the power setting of the laser. These machines usually handle flat sheet material, and the size of the machines and the sheets they can accommodate vary. Modern machines often vary in the method used to make the cut. Some are self-contained, with an enclosed cutting area and an exhaust system that eliminates dust, fumes, or smoke.

Most of the machines used by hobbyists or industries are computer operated, and the technology is often referred to as a computer numerically controlled (CNC) laser. Operators indicate the type of cut or cuts desired in the preprogrammed software, and the machine produces the finished product. Templates might also be uploaded into the computer. These laser cutting plastic machines can cut through acrylic, polycarbonate, and polypropylene as well as polyethylene.

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Commercially manufactured machines usually have lasers with a variable power settings. The range of power might vary from 12 watts to 600 watts, and the setting along with the thickness of the material generally determines the speed of cutting. Laser cutting plastic machines typically cut through material at a tapered one or two degree angle because the laser beam is generally cone shaped. The heat of the laser produces two-dimensional cuts by melting or vaporizing the plastic, generally producing a polished edge.

The mechanical cutting action occurs in one of three ways: by flying optics, a hybrid configuration, or a moving material machine. A flying optics laser, also known as a Z cutter, usually has a stationary table that holds the plastic. The laser head travels along the x, y and z-axes, allowing the operator to adjust the depth of a cut or enable the machine to accommodate materials of varying thicknesses.

A hybrid laser cutter generally consists of a motorized table that moves along the x-axis, while the cutting head moves on the y-axis. The motorized table on a moving material cutter moves along the x and y-axes while the laser cutting head remains stationary. These machines usually maintain a constant distance between the laser and the material being cut. Moving material laser cutting plastic machines tend to cut more slowly than the other two types of machine.

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