Laser Cutting Robots: Precision Meets Productivity
Laser cutting robots are powerful yet complex manufacturing tools. While they provide quality results for the manufacturers that deploy them, it’s essential to understand where they fit in the cutting robot lineup. By understanding what they are, the different types of laser cutting robots, and a few key concepts to keep in mind before integrating, you can find similar success utilizing robotic laser cutting systems in your facility.
What are Laser Cutting Robots?
Laser cutting robots utilize a high-powered laser to cut materials. The laser generates a strong but focused point of heat to melt away material. Manufacturers program laser cutting robots with the exact cutting path in mind. By following this predefined cutting path, laser robots create the desired shape.
There are several cutting methods available with specific strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, different robot types offer various benefits for particular applications. Understanding these concepts will help you make the right purchase decision on your automation journey.
What are the Most Common Robot Types Used for Laser Cutting?
The most common robot types used for laser cutting are CNC machines and cartesian or gantry robots. Most suppliers will provide one or the other, but not both. Less common but still powerful is the six-axis robot used for laser cutting. You will often find that one option is optimal for a particular application.
CNC Laser Cutting Machines
Most people associate CNC machines with semi-automated mill and lathe operations. Traditional CNC operation typically involves using a bit or drill to remove material from a blank. However, many OEMs configure laser cutting packages for their CNC machines.
CNC laser machines are quite scalable. Of course, there are options for large-scale industrial applications. However, you will find laser cutting CNC machines down to the hobbyist level. Thanks to the vast range of options available, CNC laser cutters are versatile enough to fit most applications.
CNC laser cutters are best optimized for small to medium-sized cutting applications on flat parts. They will be limited in size. Most CNC cutters are limited to roughly 2x6 meter cutting beds. Larger or more complex part geometries won’t be a good fit for these models.
Cartesian (Gantry) Laser Cutting Robots
Cartesian robots work similarly to CNC laser cutting machines in many ways, and sometimes the line between the two can be blurry! However, these gantry systems excel in the largest applications. While CNC laser cutters will have an upper limit for their available cutting area, OEMs can configure gantry systems to cut parts far larger than CNCs.
Cartesian systems tend to be easier to perform maintenance and part replacement thanks to their open construction. On the other hand, CNC machines tend to be more closed systems, making them harder to maintain without a first-party technician for support. Consequently, this open construction leaves gantry systems open to the environment. This phenomenon makes it crucial to keep up with regular maintenance procedures–especially on the mechanics.
Gantry robots are limited to simple part geometries like CNC laser cutters. Flat materials where cuts only need to occur in two dimensions is the best fit. However, gantries have the capability of handling much larger parts as they aren’t limited in size in the same way as CNC laser cutters. Gantry robots can often be configured to be as large as the task requires when manufacturers request a quote.
Six-Axis Laser Cutting Robots
While a rarer option than the robots mentioned above, six-axis robots have their place in the laser cutting industry. Manufacturers often deploy six-axis robots in applications requiring increased movement flexibility. The six-axis robot’s construction allows it to move in motion paths impossible for CNCs or cartesian robots.
However, manufacturers trade flexibility for precision and reach. While incredibly precise for most applications, six-axis robots can’t attain the same level of precision as the previously mentioned robots. This limitation is significant because manufacturers typically reserve laser cutting for highly-precise tasks. Furthermore, due to their complex construction, six-axis robots don’t scale as well. They simply won’t be able to compete with CNCs or cartesian robots on larger tasks.
Six-axis robots are best deployed in cutting tasks requiring complex motion. This is the case for parts that feature curves or require cuts in three dimensions. Common examples of this include automotive or aerospace parts that are complex by design. Six-axis robots will struggle with larger cutting tasks without the assistance of supplementary mechanics such as robot transfer units.
Which Materials can Laser Robots Cut?
Manufacturers deploy laser cutting across a wide array of materials. Some materials require special lasers to enable cutting. Common materials include:
- Wood and paper
- Plastics and polymers
- Soft metals like brass, copper, and gold
Which Industries Leverage Laser Cutting Robots?
Manufacturers in industries that demand high-quality cutting solutions greatly benefit from laser cutting robots. While the sectors these machines support are broad, the specific demands of the application define whether a laser solution is required. Other cutting methods might suffice for many cutting tasks. Common industries include:
- Metal shops
- Medical devices and equipment
How do Laser Cutting Robots Compare to Other Cutting Methods?
There are several cutting methods available to manufacturers today. The option you choose depends highly on the material and the demands of your product or application. For example, laser cutting is a versatile cutting method across many materials. Additionally, it offers the highest cutting precision. However, it’s limited in its cutting speed and depth. So it might not be suitable for applications requiring the following:
- High-speed cutting
- Thicker materials (note: maximum cutting depth varies depending on laser type, power, and material)
- Little need for high precision
In these instances, other methods might be better.
Traditional CNC machines use mechanical means for cutting tasks. For example, milling robots utilize drill bits to cut away a stationary blank. Alternatively, mills utilize cutting tools like carbide or diamond blades to cut spinning materials.
Mechanical cutting is excellent for many applications. They typically come at a lower cost than laser cutters. However, this method won’t work for some materials. For example, mechanical cutting is far too abrasive for some softer materials like paper or fabrics and exceptionally challenging for others, like glass. High-speed drill bits are prone to damaging these materials. For many applications, this phenomenon is acceptable and has no impact on the functionality of the part. However, for particular applications requiring the utmost precision and leaving the material integrity intact, laser cutting is still the better option.
Plasma cutters are similar to laser cutters in form and function. These machines can cut materials at higher speeds and much greater depths than laser cutters. However, this speed comes at a cost. Additionally, plasma cutters are less precise than laser cutters. Their lack of precision relative to other solutions could limit their effectiveness for some applications.
Unfortunately, plasma cutters are limited to ferrous metals only. These metals are the only ones supporting the oxidization process plasma systems leverage for cutting. Additionally, plasma cutting can warp the material, which is undesirable for some applications. Like mechanical cutting solutions, plasma cutters cost less than laser systems.
Only waterjet cutters rival laser systems in the range of materials they can cut. Using a high-powered waterjet, these machines subtract material from a blank to cut out a particular shape. Furthermore, waterjet machines can cut at greater depths than laser cutters. This feature gives them another benefit over laser systems.
However, waterjet systems carry a few drawbacks. First, they’re incredibly noisy. This characteristic can pose a hazard to operators working near the machine. Second, waterjet machines are less precise than laser cutters. Third, these machines are messy. Waterjets eject moisture into the environment, which can rust or corrode other equipment. Consequently, like plasma cutters, waterjet machines can potentially deform the material it’s cutting.
3 Important Details to Keep in Mind before Integration
Laser cutting systems offer unmatched cutting performance. However, they also pose a significant monetary investment. Therefore, like any capital investment, it’s crucial to be aware of some critical factors before integration.
The most significant factor affecting your choice of machine is the application requirements. Different applications have varying demands for factors like:
- Range of motion
By understanding your application's demands, you can make an informed decision on the type of machine that would be best for you.
Material characteristics are especially significant for cutting tasks. Materials behave differently depending on the medium to which they’re exposed. As a result, particular cutting methods can only cut some materials. Multiple processes can cut others, but the material may perform better under a specific solution.
Alternative Cutting Methods
Be prepared to be flexible with your choice of cutting method. Laser cutting is incredibly performant but isn’t optimal in all scenarios. For example, laser cutting could be overkill for some applications. Alternatively, sometimes the application's demands may make laser cutting the only reasonable option. Be aware of the alternatives to laser cutting to ensure you make the best decision as you embark on your automation journey.
You may be ready to take the next step toward automating your laser cutting process, but where do you start?
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