The rapidly evolving science of laser cutting is dominated by two main methods – CO2 laser cutting and fiber laser cutting. Both processes offer greater precision and versatility for shops of all sizes, and the technology continues to evolve towards greater precision, ease of use, and greater flexibility.
However, as with any welding setup, the decision tree for finding the right automated laser cutting process begins with an assessment of your current application, needs and constraints, and your long-term vision. Variables including material type and thickness, precision, productivity, purchasing budget, and operating costs are all important factors to consider.
FORSUN CNC will introduce the difference between fiber laser machines and CO2 laser machines so that you can choose the CNC machine tool that suits you.
What is a fiber laser cutting machine?
Fiber laser is just a term used for a fiber delivery method that brings an intense and amplified light source to the cutting head of a laser machine. The term does not describe how the light source is created (unlike a CO2 resonator). The fiber-optic bundle delivery method greatly simplifies the process of making lasers, so many machines come to market at greatly reduced prices.
Fiber laser cutting machines are the latest development in laser cutting technology. The laser beam is generated within the active fiber and directed to the machine cutting head through transmission fibers, diodes, and fiber optic cables.
Fiber laser cutters are smaller in size than CO2 laser cutters but provide twice the power output with the same power consumption. Fiber laser cutting is suitable for processing fine sheet metal, medium sheet metal up to 12 mm, and non-ferrous metals such as copper and brass. Access to the machine is restricted for safety reasons, as laser reflections are very dangerous for vision. The focal diameter is very small and produces a hundred times the intensity of the CO2 model.
What is a CO2 laser cutting machine?
CO2 laser actually refers to the method of generating the laser itself. Resonators purged with CO2 gas at high speed (turbine or blower) use a variety of methods to split the ions of light particles (usually RF or DC excitation), causing the light particles to collide with each other and split at greater intervals.
CO2 laser cutters use a mixture of gases to generate a laser beam. The high pressure required to excite the gas in the resonator is generated by small, efficient, and reliable wear-free semiconductor modules. CO2 laser cutting technology is suitable for cutting thick sheet metal, wood, acrylic, glass, paper, textiles, plastics, leather and stone, and many other materials.
The CO2 laser cutter produces high output for sheet metal and tubular parts up to 30 mm thick. When oxygen is used in the cutting process, the speed is almost comparable to that of fiber lasers with thicknesses greater than 6mm.
Advantages of CO2 Laser Cutting Machine
- Finish: CO2 lasers generally produce better edge quality on stainless steel and aluminum workpieces.
- Flexibility: CO2 lasers offer flexibility for a range of laser applications including non-metals.
- Known Technology: Since CO2 laser technology has been around for over 30 years, its results are predictable. This provides users with a good level of assurance.
Disadvantages of CO2 Laser Cutter
- Operating Costs: In addition to the mirrors, bellows, and laser gas needed to keep the beam path delivery system pure and clean, power costs are 70% higher due to the more power required for CO2 resonators, blowers, coolers, etc.
- Maintenance: All of the above components of the beam path delivery system require maintenance, which not only disrupts manufacturing but is also very expensive.
- Speed: CO2 lasers cannot compete with optical fibers in thin materials. For example, the recommended cutting speed of 4KW CO2 in 16 GA mild steel using N2 as the cutting gas is only 260IPM, while the cutting speed of a similarly equipped fiber laser is about 1,417 IPM, which is very different.
Fiber laser machine advantages
- Investment cost: As solid-state laser technology becomes more popular, the cost of the system is falling. For example, well-equipped domestic fiber laser cutting systems can be purchased starting well below 300K.
- Maintenance: The absence of beam path delivery systems and their extensive use of mirrors, bellows, and gas-wet fiber lasers (especially solid-state resonator types) greatly reduces the amount of maintenance required and the costs associated with maintenance.
- Speed: In the competition between fiber lasers and CO2 lasers in thin materials, there is simply no comparison. The speed of the fibers is two to three times that of the gauge material.
- Operating costs: Due to the lower power and cooling requirements of the resonator, fiber lasers require about 1/3 the power consumption of their CO2 counterparts. Combined with less maintenance, fewer consumables, and faster cutting, the cost per piece for fiber lasers is very favorable.
Disadvantages of Fiber Laser Machines
- Thick Material Finishing: One of the advantages of CO2 lasers is the ability to obtain finishes on thicker materials, especially stainless steel and aluminum. While fiber laser technology is not far from today at the time of writing, CO2 is still a leader in the field.
- Overall flexibility: As we mentioned before, CO2 laser cutters have more flexibility and can cut a wider range of materials, especially non-metals. While fiber laser technology is catching up and can actually cut brass and copper out of the box (CO2 lasers have great difficulty with these materials), they do have limitations, especially in non-metallic applications.
Fiber Laser Cutting Machine VS Laser Cutting Machine
Fiber lasers are generally faster when cutting thin metals (0-5 mm or 1/4 inch). A 2kW fiber laser can cut thin materials at the same speed as a 4-5kW CO2 laser cutter.
With the same power, fiber lasers can cut light metals 5 times faster than CO2 lasers. Due to its short wavelength, laser light from a fiber laser machine is more easily absorbed by the metal it works on.
The advantage of CO2 lasers over fiber laser cutting is the consistent cutting edge quality (sharpness/finer edge) across all thicknesses.
This means you don’t have to worry about your edge looking bad when cutting thin or thick materials. Fiber lasers struggle to make consistent cuts as materials get thicker.
But with the advancement of fiber laser technology, today’s fiber lasers cut much better quality than earlier ones.
The laser of a fiber laser machine may have more dangerous wavelengths for your eyes and body. Eye protection is required when using fiber lasers. However, using the same precautions when working with CO2 laser cutting equipment can help.
What are the purchase and operating costs?
When buying a laser machine, you need to understand the total cost to see if you are making a wise investment. Total cost means the cost of your laser machine when you buy it and the cost of running and maintaining/repairing it over time.
Today, the initial/upfront cost of fiber lasers is higher than CO2 lasers. High-end fiber laser machines typically start at $40,000. CO2 high-end machines typically start at $10,000. In general, a fiber laser machine is likely to cost more than a CO2 machine with the same statistics and features (such as power, size, speed, etc.).
The initial/upfront cost is only part of the equation when calculating the cost of a laser machine. You also need to consider the cost of operating, maintaining, and servicing the laser machine. Some people make the mistake of looking only at the initial price of a laser machine and forgetting to calculate the operating cost. Maintain and repair laser machines over time. Don’t make this mistake, especially if you’re going to be using the laser machine a lot.
Calculate the total cost
Generally, the overall cost of a CO2 laser machine is higher than a fiber laser machine over time. Here are a few things to consider when calculating the total cost of a laser machine:
CO2 lasers require a gas, such as oxygen or nitrogen, to operate, while fiber lasers do not. (Fiber lasers can use gas for better cut quality).
Fiber laser cutters are approximately three times more energy-efficient than CO2 lasers. This basically means that fiber lasers use 3 times less power to cut the same thing.
Maintenance/Cleaning of Parts
CO2 lasers have parts such as mirrors, turbines, and tanks that require cleaning and repair. If not, they could fail and cost you the repairs. So make sure you remember to keep an eye on your laser machine needs. It can save you a lot of money in the long run.
CO2 lasers have more parts to fail than fiber lasers. It is estimated that it takes about 50,000 to 100,000 hours for a fiber laser machine to fail, and about 20,000 hours for carbon dioxide. Fiber laser cutters are what you call solid-state machines (almost all in one). This means they have no moving parts. So there is much less chance of it malfunctioning or not working properly.
Every machine will fail eventually… In general, a high-end CO2 laser machine has a lifespan of about 10-15 years. Fiber can last twice if not three times as long.
Keep these points in mind when trying to calculate the cost of the type of laser machine you will choose. If you don’t cut material often and need to cut non-metallic materials like wood or acrylic, then a CO2 machine will be your best choice. If you need to cut large amounts of metal, especially thin metals, a fiber laser may be the best choice for you.
There’s another thing you need to consider, and it can play a role in your entire laser machine. That’s time. You know what they say, time is money. The speed at which your laser machine works has a big impact on the value of your investment.
CO2 laser systems require regular maintenance, mirrors require maintenance and calibration, resonators require regular maintenance, and fiber laser cutting solutions require little maintenance.
Compared to CO2 cleaving systems, fiber cleaving solutions are more compact and have less impact on the ecological environment, thus requiring less cooling and significantly reducing energy consumption.
The photoelectric conversion rate of fiber lasers is above 30%, the photoelectric conversion rate of CO laser cutting machines of the same power is about 10%~15%, and the photoelectric conversion rate of solid-state lasers is about 3%.
The power consumption of the fiber laser is only 20% of the same power CO laser, and the overall cost is lower.
It can be seen from the comparison that if you want to mark metal, the fiber laser cutting machine works more efficiently under the same conditions, the cutting effect is better, and it is maintenance-free, but the purchase cost is slightly higher. Large and medium-sized enterprises can give priority to fiber-optic equipment.
If you’re cutting/engraving organic or non-metallic materials, then of course you’ll be looking for a CO2 laser cutter.
One of the things I see people thinking about is that they would buy a CO2 laser machine in the first place because they have a low yield and may need to work with a wider range of materials. Then once their metal production increases, they’ll get fiber lasers to keep up. This is probably what you want to do.
One last thing. Make sure you always double or even triple-check other online sources before buying a machine. Also, double and triple-check with the business you are buying from to see if the machine you are buying meets your business needs. Thanks for reading and hope you choose the best machine for your business.