Stainless steel is an alloy of iron that uses chromium to provide a rust protective layer as well as improved heat resistance. Typically, the very outer layers of stainless steel are an atomically thin layer of chromium that prevents oxygen from reacting with the iron. However, the real magic behind stainless steel is that if the metal is scratched exposing the iron, chromium in the metal is pushed back out to the surface to reform the chromium outer layer.
The rust-free nature of stainless steel makes it ideal for a wide range of applications that involve high-oxygen and water environments such as the food industry. Stainless steels ability to resist heat also makes it ideal for making parts that need to be durable.
Stainless steel, like most metals, can be laser cut, and its ability to be cut mostly depends on the type of laser cutter used. However, the power of a steel-cutting laser cutter is far more than what would be used to cut wood and other softer materials (typically above 300W).
When cutting stainless steel with a laser cutter it is important to get the speed of the cutter and the power balanced correctly. A correctly balanced setup will cut steel at an economical speed while producing a clear cut. An incorrectly balanced setup that puts out too much power will cause burning on the edges of the metal as well as forming burs from melting metal.
One of the major advantages of laser cutters is that they are highly accurate and precise machines. As such, laser cutting steel with a laser cutter results in an extremely precise and accurate cut that is also easily repeatable.
Ponoko offers dimensional accuracy of ±0.13mm on all laser cut products. This means no matter how big or small your stainless steel part is, it will be dimensionally consistent.
Stainless steel itself is one of the more expensive metals to use due to the use of various alloying elements such as chromium, copper, and manganese. However, laser cutting itself is a cheap cutting option when considering the ability for laser cutters to be easily scaled in output, their repeatability, and their quick turnaround on parts. A such, the vast majority of the cost in laser cutting stainless steel is in the material and not the hiring of the laser cutter.
Other cutting methods do exist such as CNCs, but these processes are much slower, experience tool wear, and struggle to cut thin sheets of material without destroying their material bed (which needs to be completely flat).
Yes lasers can engrave steel and the result is a long-lasting, and professional look. Such engraving can be used in a wide range of various applications including front panels, signage, and measuring equipment needing clear text and lines.
One of the best features of laser cutting is that a piece of material being worked on does not require clamps or jigs to hold down a piece of material while being worked on. Even better, workpieces generally sit on a honeycomb bed, and internal cuts can easily be made.
While the same can be done using CNCs, they require clamps or other mechanical means to hold workpieces down while being machined as the CNC tool end is pushed against the material. If the clamps give any movement to the workpieces when being machined, the resulting cut will either be of poor quality or fail entirely.
Furthermore, the use of a laser beam and honeycomb bed means that laser cutters rarely damage the underlying bed that holds the material, and this means that making laser cuts does not require a piece of sacrificial material under them.
Stainless steel parts cut using a laser cutter can be used in just about any application that stainless steel can be used in. The ability to resist water and oxidation makes stainless steel ideal for use in areas that may be vulnerable to rust such as outdoor equipment, factory panels, and areas that deal with food items.
The rust resistance of stainless steel also makes it useful as a decorative piece. Metal cut-outs in designs are often aesthetically pleasing, but metals such as copper and brass can rust and/or show blemish over time. Stainless steel, however, needs to experience a large amount of abuse before showing any signs of rust.
Stainless steel can also be used as an enclosure material for portable devices, test equipment, and measuring devices. The high-temperature resistance combined with the high tensile strength makes steel ideal for protecting equipment in harsh environments.