Laser cutting is a technology that uses a laser to cut materials, and is typically used for industrial manufacturing applications, but is also starting to be used by schools, small businesses, and hobbyists. Laser cutting works by directing the output of a high-power laser, by computer, at the material to be cut. The material then either melts, burns, vaporizes away, or is blown away by a jet of gas, leaving an edge with a high-quality surface finish. Industrial laser cutters are used to cut flat-sheet material as well as structural and piping materials.
In 1965, the first production laser cutting machine was used to drill holes in diamond dies. This machine was made by the Western Electric Engineering Research Center. In 1967, the British pioneered laser-assisted oxygen jet cutting for metals. In the early 1970s, this technology was put into production to cut titanium for aerospace applications. At the same time CO2 lasers were adapted to cut non-metals, such as textiles, because they were absorbed by metals.
There are three main types of lasers used in laser cutting. The CO2 laser is suited for cutting, boring, and engraving. The neodymium (Nd) and neodymium yttrium-aluminium-garnet (Nd-YAG) lasers are identical in style and differ only in application. Nd is used for boring and where high energy but low repetition are required. The Nd-YAG laser is used where very high power is needed and for boring and engraving. Both CO2 and Nd/ Nd-YAG lasers can be used for welding.
Common variants of CO2 lasers include fast axial flow, slow axial flow, transverse flow, and slab.
CO2 lasers are commonly "pumped" by passing a current through the gas mix (DC-excited) or using radio frequency energy (RF-excited). The RF method is newer and has become more popular. Since DC designs require electrodes inside the cavity, they can encounter electrode erosion and plating of electrode material on glassware and optics. Since RF resonators have external electrodes they are not prone to those problems.
CO2 lasers are used for industrial cutting of many materials including mild steel, aluminum, stainless steel, titanium, paper, wax, plastics, wood, and fabrics. YAG lasers are primarily used for cutting and scribing metals and ceramics.
In addition to the power source, the type of gas flow can affect performance as well. In a fast axial flow resonator, the mixture of carbon dioxide, helium and nitrogen is circulated at high velocity by a turbine or blower. Transverse flow lasers circulate the gas mix at a lower velocity, requiring a simpler blower. Slab or diffusion cooled resonators have a static gas field that requires no pressurization or glassware, leading to savings on replacement turbines and glassware.
The laser generator and external optics (including the focus lens) require cooling. Depending on system size and configuration, waste heat may be transferred by a coolant or directly to air. Water is a commonly used coolant, usually circulated through a chiller or heat transfer system.