Laser cutting is a production technique that uses a beam of light to cut a wide range of materials and thicknesses. A laser cutter can vary in size greatly from small desktop LED-based lasers with a power of a few watts to extremely large industrial laser cutter machines that use powers in excess of 1KW.
Laser cutters are very similar to 3-axis CNC machines as both use an XY gantry that can move a tool around a workpiece, but while a CNC typically has a third axis for moving a tool up and down, a laser cutter will either have a laser module or a mirror that receives light from a stationary laser source.
Laser cutters have some big advantages when compared to other manufacturing techniques. Firstly, laser cutters can provide precision cuts thanks to the precise nature of laser beams and their ability to only remove material directly under the beam.
Secondly, laser cutters can cut thin materials more easily and faster than standard CNC machines. This is due to the fact that a laser cutter bed uses a gridded design that does not need to hold the workpiece down when being cut. A CNC, however, is required to make multiple passes when cutting as well as being required to hold the workpiece down while also needing to leave bridges between the sheet material and the part being cut.
Another advantage of laser cutting is that it can be used to cut far more materials than typical CNC machines. Sure, CNCs can be used to cut thick metal, wood, and plastic, but lasers can cut a much wider range of materials.
Of course, one of the biggest advantages by far of laser cutters is that they are one of the cheapest methods of production. Unless a part is being produced in the millions, laser cutting will generally beat CNC, plastic injection moulding, and 3D printed parts.
Laser cutters can cut a wide variety of materials; the only criteria are that the material being cut can absorb the light from the laser beam and will vaporise on exposure and that it doesn’t let off corrosive gases that would harm the laser. In the case of Ponoko, most woods, plastics, and metal including steel can be cut using laser cutters.
Of all materials that can be laser cut, plastic has a particularly nice edge finish as it partly melts. This leaves laser cut plastic parts with a smoother edge than a blade or bit that makes any shape look sharp and professional.
Ponoko can read 2D vector design files from a wide variety of softwares. The best file types to export for making are DXF, SVG, Ai or EPS files. As laser cutters can also engrave and produce cut-outs inside objects, Ponoko can recognize different colors in your file to assign to different cutting techniques.
For example if you wanted to cut and engrave a part, you could use blue lines to represent a complete cut through the material and red lines to represent an engraving pattern. Engraving can be particularly useful when adding text and graphics to a shape for labelling purposes.
Once you have your design file ready, you can upload the file with ease and the Ponoko service will guide you through your design asking you about the scale, dimensions, and what material you want to use.