Read our comprehensive guide to the best desktop laser cutters 2017, laser cutting techniques & technologies, services & more.
If you were to venture into any maker space in the world today, chances are you would find at least one 3D printer extruding away. But 3D printing isn’t the only manufacturing technology found within these innovative Fablabs. Once seen as a strictly industrial technology, laser cutting is increasingly used by small businesses, product designers, makers, and even hobbyists.
When deciding whether you should utilize 3D printing or laser cutting, there are a number of factors to consider. In some cases, a laser cutter might prove to be the most advantageous manufacturing technology for your specific application.
Here’s everything you need to know about laser cutter before pulling out your wallet.
Best Laser Cutters 2017 & Big Guide to Laser Cutting
- How Does Laser Cutting Work?
- Types of Laser Cutters
- Laser Cutter Materials
- How to Design for Laser Cutting
- Laster Cutting Techniques
- Laser Cutting vs. 3D Printing vs. CNC Routing
- Best Desktop Laser Cutters
- Laser Cutting Services
- Best 3D Printer/Laser Cutters
- What Can I Create With Laser Cutting?
Unlike 3D printing, laser cutters create designs and patterns by cutting into materials instead of building them up layer-by-layer. This subtractive manufacturing technology uses a powerful laser beam source to melt, burn, or vaporize material away. A laser cutter typically follows directions from computer numerical control (CNC) or G-code.
The process starts with an extremely small laser beam that is emitted from a tube when a current passes through. This current causes the laser to reflect off a partial mirror and point through a focal lens in the machine head. Following the vector file that holds the 2D design, the laser beam cuts away at a material until the image is completed. These laser cutting machines are highly capable of creating finely detailed patterns with a high-quality surface finish. There is a wide range of laser cutter techniques and compatible materials that you can use.
- CO2 Laser: CO2 powered laser cutters are the most commonly used of the three.With low power usage, relatively inexpensive price, and high efficiency, this laser cutting technology is the most ideal for consumers and maker spaces. The laser source is generated from a gas mixture that is primarily comprised of carbon dioxide. Also, CO2 lasers are also compatible with the widest range of materials.
- Neodymium: Created with neodymium-doped crystals, this laser has a much smaller wavelength and higher intensity compared to CO2 lasers. This enables laser cutting through thicker and stronger materials, including metals and some ceramics. The downside to this type of laser is that machine parts wear down very quickly, requiring a higher degree of maintenance.
- Fiber Laser: Created from a so-called “seed laser” and amplified through special glass fibers. This laser source has a high intensity that rivals Neodymium but is easier to maintain due to the way they’re built. Fiber-based laser cutters are mostly used for laser marking processes, which entails marking or labeling workpieces with information.
Depending on the type of laser that is utilized, there is a wide range of compatible materials available. With the CO2 laser cutter, you can use wood, leather, acrylic, glass, plastics, foams, as well as cardboard and other paper materials.
When using fiber or neodymium lasers with higher intensity, the material options expand into metals, more types of plastics, and even some ceramics.
Here are the most common laser cut materials:
Laser Cutter Material #1: Wood
Laser Cutter Material #2: Leather
Laser Cutter Material #3: Acrylic
Laser Cutter Material #4: Metal
Laser Cutter Material #5: Cardboard
When creating a design or pattern for laser cutting, you can use either 2D or 3D design software. Laser cutters essentially function like an average 2D inkjet printer but come with drivers that allow the laser cutting machine follow specific designs. While these specific drivers are highly common in 2D design software, there is less support from 3D software.
Graphic design software like Adobe Illustrator and free drawing tools like AutoCAD are ideal 2D programs for laser cutting technology. But 3D software like Solidworks, Autodesk Inventor, and Autodesk Fusion can also be utilized to create certain types of designs and patterns.
- Vector Cutting: With vector cutting, the laser beam is continuously fired, cutting directly through the material. This technique is solely used for vector graphics and extremely small lines.
- Raster Engraving: Contrary to vector cutting, the rastering process burns off only the top layer of the material instead of cutting all the way through it. The design is engraved in a different color, integrating the image within the selected material. To do this, the laser is usually preset to a lower power level. Instead of a high-powered pulsing beam, the laser cutter unfurls finely detailed dots to produce the design without cutting through the material. By managing different dots per inch (DPI), you can control the way the raster effect is produced. This technique works well with wood or leather, but may not work as intended with others types of materials.
- Vector Engraving: Meeting in the middle of vector cutting and raster engraving is vector engraving. Also known as “Kiss Cuts,” this method follows vector lines but only cuts into the surface of the material.
When it comes to selecting the best manufacturing technology for your application or project, there are many factors the make laser cutting more beneficial than 3D printing. While additive manufacturing is useful for prototyping purposes, they current lack of material properties makes it a tough sell for use-end production. Laser cutting is a subtractive manufacturing technology that cuts away from a material, rather than building a design up from scratch.
But with laser cutting technology, existing materials are able to maintain their mechanical advantages after being cut or engraved. While both are considered go-to tools for rapid prototyping, laser cutters provide more versatility with 2D geometries.
CNC routing, another computer controlled manufacturing method, shares a lot of similarities with laser cutting. While both use a cutting head to carve through various materials, CNC uses metal cutting heads that move up and down on a third axis. This allows for more design freedom and the ability to produce more complicated shapes.
As laser cutting becomes more accessible and affordable, we’ve seen a major shift in the consumer market. What was once a tool strictly for industrial purposes, you can now find laser cutters in schools, maker spaces, small businesses, and even homes. Here are a few of the most popular desktop laser cutter manufacturers on the market.
Best Desktop Laser Cutters #1: Epilog Laser
Epilog has a vast product line consisting of different size laser cutters, from desktop to industrial. You can start off with their Zing Laser Series, which is their entry level laser cutter range. The Zing 16 and Zing 24 are both considered low-cost and high-quality machines. The 16 is estimated to cost just under $8000. Find out more information on their massive range of laser cutter on the Epilog website.
Best Desktop Laser Cutters #2: Full Spectrum Laser
Recognized as one of the most affordable laser cutting manufacturers, Full Spectrum can put a capable machine in your home or office for under $5,000. Hobbyists and makers would be intrigued by their Muse Laser Cutter (starting at $5,000) and Hobby Series Laser Cutter (starting at $3,500). Find out more information on their low-cost laser cutters on the Full Spectrum website.
Best Desktop Laser Cutters #3: Chinese Imports
If you’re on a tight budget and don’t mind owning a product without a name brand, you might want to look into importing a laser cutter from China. A quick search on eBay or Alibaba will net you a wide range of imported product. While you can probably find yourself a Chinese laser cutter for less than $500, it’s definitely worth shelling out at least $1000 to ensure that you’re receiving an adequate machine. These laser cutters are ideal for tech-savvy users who don’t mind upgrading and modding the night away. While the bundled software leaves much to be desired, the low price point makes it hard not to consider the option of importing from China.
If you don’t want to splurge on a laser cutter, or just have one project to undertake, you can utilize a laser cutting service bureau. There is a wide range of manufacturing services that offer both 3D printing and laser cutting. Here are some that are best known for the latter.
Laser Cutting Service #1: Ponoko
This service provides over 100 materials to choose from, allowing you to make anywhere from 1 to 100,000 laser cut products, parts, or prototypes. Ponoko also offers same day production and shipping, as well as design templates to ensure your idea is properly executed.
Laser Cutting Service #2: The Make Lab
This expansive design and manufacturing service offers laser cutting, 2D printing, 3D printing, and even design assistance. You can print ink designs on a card and have it laser cut to add a unique effect that literally stands out.
Laser Cutting Service #3: Laserage
Offers CO2, Neodymium, Fiber, and other custom laser types. As a business unit of the medical component company Amtek, Laserage seems best equipped to take on projects in the medical sector. They also take on aerospace, electronics, and other industrial endeavors. This manufacturing service provides laser welding and drilling services as well.
Laser Cutting Service #4: Sculpteo
Even 3D printing service bureaus like Sculpteo now offer laser cutting services as well. With over 60 possible material combinations, the French company claims to work around your workflow and template. If you have an idea that necessitates both 3D printing and laser cutting, Sculpteo is the service for you.
Can’t decide between a laser cutter or 3D printer? Why not both! There is a vast array of hybrid 3D printers that offer laser cutter capabilities. Here are a few of the most popular:
3D Printer/Laser Cutter #1: ZMorph 2.0 SX
Arguably the best all-in-one 3D printer on the market, the Polish company ZMorph has created an extremely versatile hybrid machine. The ZMorph 2.0 SX functions as dual extrusion printer, laser cutter, as well as CNC mill. Simply swap out the tool heads and you can go from extruding paste materials to engraving patterns into wood. With a simple design and expansive ability, this printer is ideal for those who consider themselves a jack of all trades. Depending on how many tool heads you buy along with the printer, the retail price can run you up to €3500.
3D Printer/Laser Cutter #2: XYZPrinting Da Vinci 1.0 3-in-1
Targeted for the beginner market, the XYZprinting da Vinci 1.0 1-in-3 is perfect for those looking to dip their toe into 3D printing and laser cutting technology. Manufactured by the Taiwanese company XYZprinting, this printer is the most affordable option for those hoping to purchase an all-in-one option. The da Vinci 1.0 1-in-3 is equipped with a laser engraver that allows you to laser cut cardboard, leather, wood, and more. While the printer itself costs €490, the laser engraving module will bring the total cost to around €670.
Price Check at Amazon: XYZPrinting Da Vinci 1.0 3-in-1
3D Printer/Laser Cutter #3: BoXZY
After collecting over $80,000 on Kickstarter, the BoXZY has taken the maker community by storm. This hybrid machine offers 3D printing, CNC milling, as well as laser cutting and engraving. One of the few highly touted crowdfunding success stories, the BoXZY team has already delivered their product to campaign backers. You can pre-order this compact all-in-one printer now for $2,999.
Now that we’ve explained laser cutting technology and provided some insight into the desktop market, there’s one important question left to answer. What can you create with a laser cutter? Well, in reality, the possibilities are endless. But here are some of the most popular uses of this marvelous manufacturing technology.
Here are just some ideas:
Laser Cutter Jewelry:
Laser Cutter Ornaments:
Laser Cutter Art/Sculpture:
Laser Cutter Lighting Fixtures:
Laser Cutter Lettering:
Those are just a few popular uses for a laser cutter, but there’s much more where that came from.
And last but not least, when shopping for a laser cutter, be sure to research thoroughly and find the machine that best suits your budget and needs.
License: The text of "Best Laser Cutters 2017 & Big Guide to Laser Cutting" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.