What is Laser Cutting?

Taking a step back to go through some laser cutter basics.

What is laser cutting, and why are we so excited about it?
As we’ll see in this brief overview, laser cutting is a relatively simple technology that makes it possible to cut or etch forms from sheet materials.

Laser cutters work in a similar way to other CNC (computer controlled) tools, however the cutting is done with a powerful beam of light instead of a sharp blade. To cut, the laser beam is focused to hit the material at a precise point, causing it to melt, burn or vaporize. Etching is achieved by focusing the laser on the surface of the material, where it will only burn or vaporize the topmost layer.

Laser Cutting is particularly useful because it works touch-free, meaning no mechanical forces or pressures are transferred to the material. This enables delicate cutting paths that can be repeated with a high level of precision, whether they are cut all the way through the material or etched as an impression onto the surface.  

Materials that respond well to laser cutting and etching vary from natural and engineered timbers through to polymers such as ABS and Acrylic. Paper and cardboard are often used as cheap mockup materials to test a design, although there are artists who produce impressive final works in these less durable materials. Metals such as aluminium and steel can also be laser cut and etched successfully, and people have even made experiments etching onto various foods. Tasty as it may be, laser etched food is not in the Ponoko materials catalog!

The video above shows the Ponoko logo being laser cut from white corrugated cardboard, in real-time. When the same machine is used for laser etching, the laser moves back and forth very quickly to build up the etched image much like a print head in a desktop printer.
You can see this in the following video showing Christmas decorations that have a laser etched twinkle detail on each laser cut form.

For a detailed walkthrough that helps to unravel the mysteries of the laser cutter, there is a comprehensive Instructables post that is perfect for:

“anyone who is looking to do some laser cutting for the first time, learn a bit more about how lasers work, or just explore the wonderful world of laser cutters”

Stay tuned for more in Ponoko’s series of Back to Basics posts about laser cutting. Up next: Laser Cutting With Ponoko.

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