Water Jet Cutting vs. Laser Cutting: Which is Right for You?
When you need to cut through butter, a hot knife is the best tool. In manufacturing, however, you often have to cut materials much harder than butter. But with the right technology, slicing them can be just as easy. Both …
When you need to cut through butter, a hot knife is the best tool. In manufacturing, however, you often have to cut materials much harder than butter. But with the right technology, slicing them can be just as easy.
Both water jet cutting and laser cutting have become much more accessible and affordable in recent years. They can cut a wide range of materials and are mostly comparable in cut accuracy.
But if you must only pick one technology, how can you choose? This article explains the strengths and weaknesses of water jet cutting and laser cutting, and helps you make the right choice for your businesses.
How Water Jet Cutting Works
Water jet cutters are machines that use a high-pressure stream of water to cut through a great variety of materials. A gantry moves the water nozzle around, cutting out a predetermined shape fed into the controlling computer system.
But despite the technology’s name, water jet cutting doesn’t use just water to slice through materials. Manufacturers can add an abrasive material — like garnet — into the water stream. This abrasive increases the machine’s cutting power and lets it slice thicker and tougher materials.
Water jet cutting machines used to be gigantic contraptions, with water pumps that could fill up a garage. Fortunately, there are now small, affordable water jet cutters on the market, like Wazer — the world’s first desktop-sized water jet cutter.
Water jet cutting’s claim to fame is power. These cutters can cut practically anything, with the only limitation being the material’s thickness. They also don’t produce heat at the cutting zone, which can prevent material deformation or other issues.
However, even smaller water jet cutters can require a significant investment. Abrasives are also costly, and they can’t be recycled which produces waste. Additionally, water jet cutters are slow and very noisy when compared to laser cutters.
Pros and Cons of Water Jet Cutting
|Very high cutting power||Costly machines and abrasives|
|Good accuracy||Slow cutting speeds|
|Wide materials library||Noisy operation|
|Can cut even rough surfaces||Requires safety gear|
|No heat at the cutting zone||High operating cost|
How Laser Cutting Works
Laser cutters make use of a high-intensity CO2 laser of a single wavelength. The machines focus the laser beam onto a single spot using a complex series of mirrors.
As the laser hits the material surface, it begins to melt, burn, or vaporize it in a thin slice. The cutter moves the laser across the material until it’s finished producing the desired shape.
Like water jet cutters, laser cutters used to be exclusive tools of large-scale industrial manufacturers due to large machines and sky-high costs. But thanks to advancements in technology, manufacturers like Flux now offer laser cutters that fit even into a small workspace.
Laser cutters have lower price points and operating costs when compared to water jet cutters, making them much more budget-friendly. They also cut suitable materials at a faster rate, potentially offering higher productivity. One more significant advantage of laser cutters is their ability to permanently engrave materials with logos, text, or images without cutting through them.
Although laser cutters still work with multiple materials, they can only cut through thin sheets. Small-scale machines in particular may struggle to cut metal materials. The laser beam also procures heat, which can slightly distort cut edges and create toxic fumes with some materials.
Pros and Cons of Laser Cutting
|Fast cutting speeds at high accuracy||Can’t cut through thick materials|
|Relatively affordable to buy and operate||Laser generates heat that can degrade materials|
|High degree of automation reduces accident risk||May produce hazardous fumes or emissions|
|Can engrave materials||Heated edges may require post-processing|
|Produces next to no waste||Can’t cut some metals|
Materials for Water Jet Cuttings vs. Laser Cutting
Both water jet and laser cutters are capable of processing multiple different materials. From metals to non-metals, both of them have a great number of material options available. However, as a rule of thumb, water jet cutting can process tougher and thicker materials than laser cutters.
Water Jet Cutting Materials
Enormous industrial water jet cutters can slice through essentially anything. However, even small-scale machines like Wazer can cut many tough materials up to 15mm thick, including:
- Boro Glass
- Carbon Fibre
- Low-Carbon Steel
- Stainless Steel
- Tool Steel
Since it produces no heat zone, water jet cutting can also be used on some 3D printed materials. However, the water stream could cause delamination of the printed layers. It’s best to either do some tests or ask professionals for help.
Laser Cutting Materials
Laser cutting technology has advanced greatly in recent years, but it still can’t compete with water cutting in power. Nonetheless, even desktop laser cutters such as Flux can cut multiple materials, including:
Additionally, laser cutters can engrave all the above materials and more, such as:
- Anode metal
- Stainless Steel
Applications of Water Jet Cutting vs. Laser Cutting
Since both water jet cutters and laser cutters slice multiple demanding materials, you might think they are more or less interchangeable. However, that’s not exactly true.
The water jet and laser cutting processes work quite differently. As such, they shine in different end-use cases.
Water Jet Cutter Applications
Since water jet cutters use a cold process, they will not cause any heat damage or distortion in the cut material. Combined with their accurate, square cut and ability to cut strong materials, water jet cutting is an ideal choice for demanding mechanical applications, such as:
- Industrial engineering
- Architecture (stone or concrete cutting)
Laser Cutter applications
Laser cutters heat the cutting spot, which can rule them out from some mechanical applications. However, they produce extremely accurate and highly repeatable cuts. Additionally, they’re capable of engraving everything from plastic and fabric to metal and stone. This makes them great choices for:
- Jewellery and fashion
- Automotive (interior components)
- Medical device manufacture
Which Technology is Right for Me?
When you’re looking to choose the right cutting technology for your manufacturing operation, you need to consider the application and end-use of the parts you want to cut. After this consideration, picking the right cutter for your business is fairly easy.
If you need to cut thick or strong materials for mechanical applications, water jet cutting is the way to go. It will, however, require a larger upfront and ongoing investment. The Wazer cutter can bring professional-level cutting power even into a small workshop.
If you instead don’t require as much cutting power, but the accuracy and speed of the cuts are what matter, then laser cutters like the Flux range are your choice. Also, if you need to engrave logos or information on the products, laser cutters are your only choice.
Whatever level of cutting power you need, even small manufacturing businesses have plenty of options available. So, bring a proverbial hot knife into your workshop and get to slicing.