When it comes to Digital Manufacturing Cutting Techniques, there are several options, that can take your 2D file and create your project.
Two common cutting practices used by manufacturing companies are laser and waterjet cutting. Each technique, while normally used in different applications, offers value to the manufacturing process. To understand waterjet vs. laser cutting more fully, it’s important to understand the methods themselves and the differences between them.
What is Laser Cutting?
Laser cutting is a metal cutting process that makes use of high-density energy beams, usually produced with gas. These beams of energy are directed by mirrors to cut into materials. The beam vaporizes materials on contact, creating smooth, clean cuts.
Laser cutting is ideal for any application that requires a high degree of precision and accuracy. Sometimes, it is used for simple work like laser-cutting rings and discs. Other times, laser cutting is used to create highly complex and specialized components.
Laser cutting is also highly compatible with mass production operations. Laser cuts provide consistency through tight tolerances and a high degree of repeatability.
What is Waterjet Cutting?
Waterjet cutting primarily differs from laser cutting in its detailed methods — instead of a laser beam, a waterjet uses a stream of high-pressure water to cut material. This stream contains abrasive materials like aluminum oxide or garnet to aid cutting ability, creating cuts through abrasion rather than vaporization.
A Waterjet is ideal for difficult or complex cuts that might otherwise be too thick to cut or susceptible to heat-affected edges. Waterjet cutting machines generate up to 87,000 pounds per square inch of pressure to slice through hard, dense metal easily. That’s almost 20 times the water pressure of a pressure washer and 75 times the water pressure of a fire hose. It can also cut upwards of 12” thick material.
Waterjet cutting is often used with thicker sheet metal that would pose a challenge to laser cutting. It is also used it to create finely detailed cuts or cut oversized components for use in various applications.
A Few Differences…
Laser Cutting Leaves Less Waste
Laser cutting requires less cleanup than you may have assumed— of course, a small amount of waste is produced in the form of dust, which can be removed quickly by vacuuming or a filtering process. Waterjet cutting, by comparison, requires quite a bit more cleanup because of the abrasives mixed in the water. Abrasive waste requires special disposal due to possible toxicity.
Waterjet Cutting Does Not Add Heat During the Cutting Process
Water jet cutting is a cold process and does not put any heat into the material while it’s being cut. This means that no heat-affected zone is created during the cutting process. The Waterjet cutting process does not alter the physical state of the material being cut or cause the material to warp from the heat.
A Waterjet Can Cut Virtually Anything
Waterjet machines are useful for performing precise cuts with metal, glass, stone, ceramic, plastic, and even wood. This is the major advantage of waterjet cutting over other cutting methods is that it produces no heat. Consequently, it is compatible with virtually any material and guarantees the operator’s safety. A waterjet cannot cut tempered glass or diamonds.
What Can a Waterjet Cut That a Laser and Plasma Can’t?
A waterjet machine is more suitable for cutting thick materials than other machines and can cut over 12-inch-thick materials, unlike other methods. Also, water jet cutting is compatible with all materials, while laser cutting has limitations based on thermosensitive and reflective materials, and plasma is only suitable for conductive materials.
Laser cutting still cuts a broad range of materials, including some plastics such as acrylic, polycarbonate, and POM, as well as wood and paper. You can permanently mark metal, and can also etch glass, granite, and slate.
Similarities Between Laser Cutting and Waterjet Cutting
Laser cutting and waterjet cutting have a few common qualities. Both processes are helpful for cutting various metals for use across numerous industries and applications. Below are a few of the characteristics these two processes share:
- Versatility: One of the great benefits of laser cutting and waterjet cutting is that both processes are highly versatile. They can handle a wide range of metals, from steel and stainless steel to aluminum, copper, and bronze. They are also highly tailorable, so they can help your business produce custom parts for just about any application.
- Accuracy and precision: Both processes provide exceptionally high accuracy and precision in many applications. They make component production processes highly repeatable and ensure consistency across product batches.
- Minimal waste: Both laser and waterjet cutting produce little waste. They also often generate reusable and recyclable scraps, further boosting a business’s sustainable practices.
- Small kerf width: In material cutting, “kerf width” refers to the width of material removed due to a cutting process. Both laser cutting and waterjet cutting offer very small kerf width, with waterjet cutting averaging about 0.03 inches and laser cutting offering incredibly thin kerf widths, as small as .004”. These thin cuts allow for exceptionally fine detailing and intricate shape creation.
- Suitability for automation: Because laser cutting and waterjet cutting offers pinpoint precision and accuracy, they’re ideal for the repetition involved in automated processes. They can make the same cuts over and over, producing the same dimensions and overall results every time.
Differences Between Laser Cutting and Waterjet Cutting
When choosing between laser vs. waterjet cutting in your applications, consider the following:
- Materials: In general, waterjet cutting is better suited for thicker, harder materials than laser cutting because of its high-pressure capabilities. Any required secondary operations will help determine which technology is the best for the job.
- Precision: Laser cutting delivers extremely high precision, reaching tolerances of +/-0.005″, depending on the speed of the laser. Waterjet cutting typically holds a tolerance of +/- 01″.
- Speed: Laser cutting is generally a bit faster than waterjet cutting and cuts more inches per minute.
- Costs: Laser cutting is a more economical option as it can cut parts faster. Waterjet cutting is comparatively expensive, requiring many components to run properly, including a high-pressure pump, abrasive materials, and a cutting head.
- Component cleanup: Laser cutting can sometimes leave a burr on the cut surfaces of the components. The components then require deburring for optimal smoothness, functionality, and safety. Waterjet cutting, on the other hand, generally requires minimal cleanup after cutting — the cut components are smooth and ready to go.
The Final Take Away…
Which is Best for Your Applications, Laser Cutting or Waterjet Cutting?
This post does not decide on the better method for the two cutting processes. Instead, it aims to aid in your decision by comparing both processes. In fact, the best cutting method of the waterjet cutting vs. laser cutting comparison is the one suitable for your project. Nonetheless, you can consider several factors when deciding on a suitable method. For example, laser marking is the better method for projects requiring extreme precision and efficiency. For thick materials, waterjet cutting, and thermolabile materials, waterjet cutting is better.
Do you have a specific project in mind that you’re not sure which application to use? Contact Hillside Custom today to review your project and pick which method is best for your project!