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Our laser cutting and engraving services are ideal for those who need precision in their custom plastic parts. With a dimensional accuracy of ±0.13mm and a laser kerf of 0 to 0.2mm, we can provide this level of precision to any number of parts whether it is a single prototype or ten thousand for use in a production run. Furthermore, we have a wide range of different laser cutting systems using various laser technologies including CO2 and Fiber which ensures that the right machine is used for the job.
Plastics are undoubtedly one of the most versatile engineering materials. They can be laser cut to tight tolerances and find their place in any product. Whether you need a single faceplate or enclosure shipped the same day, or enough parts for a large production run, Ponoko can help.
Ponoko has a vast range of plastic materials ready to laser cut and ship immediately after receiving an easy online quote. Choose two tone plastics for engravings that give an aesthetic contrast to your control panels or faceplates, or a huge range of colors and decorative plastics for enclosures and other end-user facing applications. We also stock a full range of specialized plastics, such as polarizing film, delrin, magnetic plastic, adhesive backed plastics and anti-static. Use clear plastics to make custom light-pipes for LEDs, or polyurethane foam to make custom packaging inserts for your product.
Most plastic products are available in a variety of thicknesses to perfectly match your engineering needs.
Plastics have been massively popular amongst the engineering community for well over 80 years thanks to their high durability, low cost, ease of manipulation, and machine.
As soon as plastics became available around the 1930s, it took less than a decade for their use to become mainstream. The ability to manufacture plastics on a scale from waste petroleum products helped accelerate their use across numerous industries, and the ability to support a wide range of manufacturing techniques allowed plastics to be easily integrated into existing production lines.
The first major benefit awarded by plastics is that they come in all kinds of variations with different chemical compositions, additives, and molecular structures which allows them to be adapted for specific applications. For example, chemical-resistant plastics can be developed to contain extremely strong acids (that would otherwise eat through metal and glass), while others can be made biologically safe, and thus implanted in the body. Other plastics can be made to incorporate anti-mould additives which makes them ideal for food preservation, while others can exhibit sterile qualities that make them ideal for the medical industry.
The second major benefit offered by plastics is that they are naturally electrically insulative materials. Their introduction into the electronics industry allowed engineers to move away from compounds such as naturally derived rubbers and ceramics. Compared to rubber, plastic cables can be made to last far longer without degrading while also being able to support wide operating temperatures.
Thirdly, plastics are easily machined compared to glass and steel, and tools used to cut plastics last far longer. This not only makes machining plastic cheaper, but it also allows for higher machine feed rates which in turn decrease manufacturing times. Finally, thermoplastics (such as PET and PLA) support numerous manufacturing methods such as injection molding, vacuum forming, bending (while heated), and recycling.
By and large, most plastics can be cut using a laser cutter, but only those that are considered “laser-safe” should be used.
It is a common belief that laser cutters work by melting the target material, but in reality, laser cutters vaporized the target material (essentially, turning the material into a gas). This is done to ensure a clean cut with no drooping of material while simultaneously minimizing heat dissipation in the target material. If a laser cutter melted plastic instead of vaporized it then the underside would droop and deform as molten plastic drips from the part.
When comparing plastics to other commonly laser-cut materials, the time taken to laser cut a plastic part lies in the middle between metal and cardboard (i.e., it is much faster to cut plastic than metal, but slower than cardboard and paper). As such, plastic offers an economic alternative to laser-cut metal, and is readily machinable meaning that engineers who need to prototype laser-cut plastic parts can make alterations after the fact.
Ponoko is a laser cutting company that has manufactured well over 2 million parts for over 33,000 customers across the globe. With a precision part quality record of over 99.3%, Ponoko is an industry leader in the field of laser-cut plastic parts and the only choice for engineers needing precisions plastic parts.
While there are many different laser technologies available, the best one to use with plastics is CO2 due to the fact that CO2 lasers use infrared light.
Even when plastics contain additives to provide color, plastics are very transmissible to visible light (this is why plastics are often used in place of glass and as the transmission medium in fibre optic cable). This transmissibility means that plastics are very poor at absorbing energy from visible light, and thus lasers using visible light will struggle to cut it.
The three predominant laser technologies available to manufacturers are LED, CO2, and fibre with LED being the weakest, fibre being the most powerful, and CO2 lying in between. However, both LED and fibre lasers produce visible light which makes them unsuitable for cutting plastics, but CO2 lasers produce infrared light which is readily absorbed by plastic. As such, CO2 is by far the best technology to use when laser-cutting plastic.
Finally, when laser cutting plastics with a CO2 laser, it is essential that a higher-power laser is used on a slow setting to provide polished edges. If a part is cut out too fast, then the edges will be rough, but if the laser cutter is too slow, then deformation can occur on the edges through heat dissipation from the laser beam into the material.
Ponoko's years of experience in the laser cutting industry has allowed Ponoko engineers to perfect the laser cutting process. With laser cutting stations dedicated to specific materials and years of configuration data, laser-cut plastic parts from Ponoko come with a market-ready finish which eliminates the need for additional machining processes to use our laser-cut parts in consumer products.
Compared to other manufacturing processes, laser cutting is by far one of the most advantageous thanks to its high-speed, ability to produce market-ready parts, and low cost while still offering excellent levels of precision and accuracy.
As laser cutters are based on CNC technologies (typically involving two separate axes controlled by stepper motors), they can be programmed to follow any pattern or shape on the fly without the need for any customization, machine setup, or configuration. The moment one pattern has been cut out, another design file can be fed into the cutter, and it will proceed to cut that part out. Therefore, laser cutters can be used to cut any 2D shape which makes them ideal for custom plastic parts.
Furthermore, the use of a laser head to cut plastic parts instead of a router or mechanical tool means that laser cutters do not suffer from the same wear and tear that other CNCs typically face. The lack of tooling also reduces the price as parts do not need to be replaced, and the lack of mechanical forces applied to the part being cut removes stress induced onto the part. Additionally, the lack of mechanical forces also allows for plastic parts to be cut out in their entirety, and this removes the need for tabs and other breakout features.
Another benefit to using CNC technologies for axis control is that laser cutters can provide extraordinary amounts of precision and accuracy. As two identical laser-cut parts will be virtually indistinguishable, laser cutting is ideal for applications requiring precision and accuracy such as automotive, medical, and defense industries.
Ponoko laser-cut plastic parts all exhibit the same level of precision and dimensional accuracy of ±0.13mm and a laser kerf of less than 0.2mm. To further demonstrate the reliability of Ponoko manufacturing capabilities, all laser-cut plastic parts come with a 365-day guarantee with a free replacement policy for parts that don’t make the cut!
Choosing a plastic for laser cut parts can be complex as not all plastics can be laser-cut. To make material choice simple, we have curated over 200+ engineered materials that you can choose from including acrylic and Delrin in a variety of colors all of which have been tested and whose characteristics are carefully documented (conductivity, tensile strength e.g.). These materials can all be compared to each other during the design upload/quote stage, and all materials are available in any order quantity.
While laser cutters are excellent for manufacturing plastic parts, there are some challenges that machine operators need to address including environmental concerns and the effects of strong laser energy on plastic parts.
As laser cutters vaporize parts instead of melting them, laser cutters undoubtedly produce fumes and smoke. Therefore, it is essential that only laser-safe materials are used (these materials do not contain harmful compounds such as chlorine and chromium that can be toxic when turned into a gas) so that damage to the machine, workers nearby, and the environment is prevented.
Another problem faced with laser cutters is that the extreme heat from the laser beam can spread into the part being cut, and this heat if not controlled can cause deformation. This is particularly an issue where large thermal differentials are experienced as large differences in temperature result in different amounts of expansion. Additionally, this intense heat can also affect the characteristics of the plastic being cut (such as tensile strength and density), which is why only thermoplastics should be used with laser cutters (thermoplastics are designed to be heated up, remolded, and then cooled).
To ensure the highest quality parts and precision across all manufactured plastic parts, Ponoko only selects the highest quality materials that have been specifically engineered for laser cutting. The years of experience that Ponoko has as a laser cutting service combined with expert machine operators ensure that every single part leaving Ponoko manufacturing facilities all conform to our strict quality parameters that include dimensional accuracy, precision, and material properties.
Ponoko stocks numerous laser-safe high-quality engineered plastics including acrylic, Delrin, and PETG.
When deciding what material to use for a part, an engineer can be left with so many options across many manufacturers. Just a handful of the questions that an engineer needs to answer include ‘is the chosen material strong enough, ‘is it compatible with a laser cutter’, ‘how long will it last’, and ‘can I trust the supplier. This process alone can cost an engineer precious development time that would otherwise be spent on product design, testing, or delivery.
To help engineers with such challenges, Ponoko has a specially curated range of plastic materials that can help speed up the process of selecting an appropriate plastic for their custom laser-cut parts. All our stocked materials are engineered meaning that their material properties are tightly controlled and well documented (such as electrical conductivity, thermal conductivity, and density), and all materials are laser-safe meaning that they are all appropriate for our laser cutting services.
Furthermore, all materials stocked by Ponoko go through numerous quality assurance checks in-house, and all materials are sourced from reputable and traceable suppliers. As such, all parts manufactured with our stock exhibit excellent engineering qualities, precision, and accuracy. So much so that any two parts manufactured by us will be virtually indistinguishable, even if the parts have been purchased at different points in time. The importance of having this consistency is to not only ensure that manufactured parts perform as expected, but to also ensure that mass-produced parts exhibit minimal variation.
No, only plastics that are laser-safe can be laser cut as the release of toxic fumes can damage the environment, workers, and the machine itself.
Even though a laser cutter could theoretically cut any plastic out there, only plastics that are considered laser-safe should be cut. This is because some plastics (such as PVC) contain compounds that, when vaporized, can present a very real danger. In the case of PVC, chlorine gas can be released during laser cutting which is not only bad for those working nearby, but can also damage the laser cutter itself through its corrosive properties.
Other materials can produce excessive amounts of smoke when vaporized, and this smoke can affect the performance of a laser cutter in numerous ways. For example, excessive smoke can leave residues on sensitive optical components (which must be kept clean) and this can affect the performance of the cutter. Another example is that the presence of too much smoke can block the path of the laser beam, and therefore degrade the cutting ability of the machine.
But trying to ensure that a material is laser-safe is not the easiest task to accomplish as plastics vary widely between different manufacturers with some adding additives to provide different features. As such, those looking for plastic stock need to check the contents of the plastic, confirm that none of the additives will introduce challenges, and then test the material for its laser-cutting characteristics.
Ponoko not only has years of experience in the laser cutting industry but also in material curation. Our team of specialized engineers know exactly what to look for when selecting new materials to add to our catalogue of over 200+ engineered materials, and this means that engineering customers can spend far less time selecting appropriate materials and more time designing their parts!
Yes, all laser-safe plastics are engravable.
One of the best features of laser-cut plastics is that they are also very easy to engrave. As plastics are not hard like metals, they are easily vaporized with a laser beam, but plastics are also highly durable which allows for engravings to last for the lifetime of the part.
However, engraved plastic can be difficult to see, especially if the plastic is transparent (such as acrylic), but this does depend on whether the engraved area is cleaned to remove discoloration, left as is, and given a rough finish as well as the color of the plastic. Thankfully, engraved transparent parts can take advantage of side lighting to light up only engraved areas, and this makes them ideal for signs and decorative pieces.
If the contrast of a laser-engraved part needs to be increased, inks can also be poured into engraved channels. This allows for color graphics on laser-cut plastic parts, but controlling areas where color is present can be difficult.
A major advantage of laser-engraved plastic is that engravings are impossible to remove without abrasion. This is why laser engraving is ideal for security identifiers (such as serial numbers), and face plates in industrial areas where workers use thick gloves with debris. At the same time, laser engraving is done during the same manufacturing cycle as laser cutting, and this means that laser engraved designs are not only precisely positioned relative to the part, but the engraving stage doesn’t require additional manufacturing steps. This helps to keep the cost of laser engraving low while also making it suitable for mass production.
The applications for laser-cut plastics are so numerous it would be quicker to list applications that laser-cut plastics cannot be used in!
One popular use for laser-cut plastics by engineers is product enclosures. While laser cutters are 2D cutting machines, 3D structures can be constructed from flat 2D parts. As 3D printing is very slow and CNC milling of 3D shapes is extremely expensive, using a laser cutter to manufacture 3D parts can be a cost-effective solution. Plastics are also commonly used in enclosures for electronic consumer products thanks to the electrically insulative properties of plastic, its professional finish, and the high strength-to-weight ratio offered by plastic.
Light pipes are another application for transparent laser-cut plastics. While some PCBs are able to have LEDs directly mounted to an enclosure, other applications can struggle to achieve this (especially if the LED is surface mounted). In these cases, engineers can take advantage of total internal reflection whereby light enters a piece of transparent material in one direction, and is then reflected internally until it comes out from another direction. This is easily achievable with the use of laser-cut acrylic sheets thanks to its transparency, ability to be precision cut with 45-degree angles, and flat sides that allow it to fit into low-profile applications.
Laser-cut plastic parts can also be used for creating mechanical components such as small levers, cogs, ratchets, and pins. Such parts are commonly found in micro miniature mechanical assemblies including automatic enclosure opening and closing, SMD feeders, and servos. At the same time, these mechanical components can also be used for larger products such as phone stands and brackets.
Another useful application for laser-cut plastics is for faceplates and displays in consumer electronics, medical devices, and industrial machinery. The ability to engrave allows for text and graphics to be integrated into the faceplate while the ability to cut out any 2D shape allows for internal cutouts for control knobs, keypads, and displays.
Whether a laser-cut plastic part is recyclable or not depends on the plastic, but generally speaking, most thermoplastics are recyclable, and these are the types stocked by Ponoko.
Whenever you look on the back of a plastic product, you may notice a recycling symbol with a number inside. This logo identifies the type of plastic, but despite common belief, doesn’t indicate if the plastic is recyclable. It is widely believed that the plastics industry introduced this logo to try and confuse plastic consumers with the universally accepted three-arrow recycling symbol in an attempt to make plastics more appealing.
Only a handful of plastics are considered to be truly recyclable, and these are almost always thermoplastics. This is because thermoplastics do not denature when melted at low temperatures, and this allows them to be ground down, mixed with fresh stock, and reused. Two examples of commonly found recyclable plastic materials are PET (found in drinks bottles), and HDPE (strong plastic containers). For comparison, examples of plastics that cannot be recycled easily (if at all) are polycarbonate and biodegradable plastics.
Ponoko mostly stocks fully recyclable materials including acrylic, Delrin, and PETG. This not only helps Ponoko minimize waste during manufacturing, but it also allows laser-cut parts to be reused in other products via recycling, and this can help manage the lifecycle of products.
Laser-cut plastic parts offer engineers a low-cost material option that is easy to machine, and Ponoko same-day services can deliver engineers their parts on the same day they order.
The benefits of plastics go well beyond their ease of manufacturing and low-cost nature. The high durability of plastic makes it an ideal choice for prototyping as it can be machined and exposed to rigorous mechanical stress. At the same time, plastic is also an ideal material for mass production meaning that prototypes can more closely resemble a finished product (especially from a materials property point of view). Additionally, thermoplastics can be reheated and remolded if required which makes them highly adaptable during the prototyping stage.
Another major advantage to using laser-cut plastic for project acceleration is that the speed of laser cutting combined with Ponoko’s software-driven service allows for same-day delivery for customers in the Oakland Bay Area (next day for those in the US mainland). This means that an engineer can submit a design file before 11AM, purchase the part, have it manufactured, and then delivered to the office before the end of the working day. As such, the time between design iterations drops from weeks to days, and this can help projects quickly isolate issues. By contrast, CNC-milled parts can take weeks to be manufactured and delivered which would also be significantly more expensive.
Furthermore, the years of experience Ponoko has with laser-cut plastics combined with our curated list of engineered materials and on-site specialists who closely work with each laser cutting station provide engineers with a flawless production line that specializes in high-speed manufacturing. The moment design files arrive at our manufacturing sites, engineers are already making decisions on how best to manufacture your parts.
Laser-cut plastic parts are excellent for those looking to move from prototyping into mass production before making a commitment to other mass-production methods.
While numerous mass production methods exist, many of these require large amounts of capital to start. For example, plastic injection molding is excellent for producing millions of parts, but the cost of a die can be as high as $100K. Another example of a large-volume production method for plastic is vacuum forming, but just like injection molding, it requires a mould for the vacuum to suck through, and this is also extremely expensive.
Laser cutting, however, can quickly be scaled up from a few hundred to a few thousand with no tooling charges or customization setups needed. In fact, the more laser-cut plastic parts purchased, the cheaper each part is due to economies of scale. Thus, engineers can start off with individual parts to confirm their designs work, and from there, start to order their parts in bulk. But by far one of the best features of laser-cut plastic parts is that if a mistake in the design is spotted during early production runs, new design files can be submitted at no cost to the engineer.
At the same time, the ability of laser cutters to both cut and engrave in the same machine cycle allows for market-ready parts to be produced. This means that no additional manufacturing steps are needed with laser-cut parts, and engineers can immediately start using laser-cut parts in their products or distribute them directly to customers.
From $50 for just 1. 93% off for 10,000.