Should You Get a CNC or a Laser?

02 Dec.,2022


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Thinking about investing in a CNC or a Laser Cutter? We show you the benefits of both while making a custom sign.

1. What Are You Cutting?

The debate about buying a CNC router or a laser engraver plagues a lot of small shops that are hoping to refine their projects or to batch out multiple items. Digital machines are incredibly handy when you want to get precise cuts every time. Each of these machines are controlled by Computer Numerical Code (CNC) which takes a digital design and converts those lines to plotted points in space. We’ll use the shorthand “CNC” to mean a CNC controlled router, even though a laser engraver is technically CNC controlled as well.

So, first question, what are you cutting? This seems simple enough, but each machine is equipped to handle certain jobs better than the other. Let’s take some popular examples of project people make using digital machines.

  • Sign Work: Engraved lettering, custom shape of thicker material, 3d carvings of images, keyhole hangers embedded in the back are all jobs for a CNC.
  • Sign Work: Labeling and engraving images or text, smaller flat-pack projects, custom bottles, intricate paper crafts are best left to a laser.
  • Jewelry: Small intricate shapes, light weight or thin materials, crisp corners are best suited for a laser engraver.
  • Furniture: Made from thicker material or plywood, don’t want burned edges, need a larger cutting area are all perfect for a CNC

2. Preferred Materials

Now that we’ve discussed some sample projects and which machine is best for each, we should talk about materials. Each machine has a unique way it cuts through material. The CNC uses metal cutting bits made for a router or mill to cut through the material in a process called “subtractive manufacturing,” it subtracts material from a piece of stock. Lasers also use subtractive manufacturing, but the material to be removed is much less. This cut material becomes waste and needs to be removed from the project by a fume extractor (laser) or a dust vacuum (CNC). CNC machines produce A LOT of waste material and can make a big loud mess. Lasers produce a lot of smoke and burned material from your project that needs to be filtered or blown outside.

While each machine uses subtractive manufacturing and produces waster material, each device handles the actual cutting very differently. The CNC pushes the spinning cutting bit through the machine based on feed rate and tool rpm data that you program into a job. These physical forces being applied to your part can cause the material to move and the precision is compromised, if not catastrophically ruined. The laser engraver does not actually touch the material which is a benefit for work holding thinner parts. While lasers usually have a jet of air pointing toward the part, laser require far less work holding solutions than CNCs. Some plastics are harmful if cut on the laser, check out this information to see what is suitable for laser cutting.

3. Making Your Money Back

This is a very subjective evaluation category. Each machine will have a cost and each machine will have its limitation; size, cutting strength, software usefulness. So balancing your financial investment with your expected production is key. In our shop, Avid CNC gave us a 5′ x 10′ Pro CNC, a machine that retails for about $11,000. We are able to cut tiny projects up to massive furniture pieces, it has very few limitations. But, if you wanted to make custom guitars, catch-all dishes, or cutting boards, a machine of this size would be unnecessary and a financial liability. Make sure your planned projects can provide a return on your financial investment.

The Glowforge laser cutter is a desktop machine that can produce small-mid size projects. It does not have the ability to accept a rotary-axis machine to engrave bottles, but the software is super helpful and intuitive. Josh uses it to make custom Christmas ornaments each year, providing him with a nice revenue bump during the holidays. We invested in a massive 4’x3′ Full Spectrum 90w laser because we are starting in-house manufacturing of project kits. The stronger laser and larger workspace can facilitate batch processes at once much faster. There are also diode lasers that can be attached to a CNC. Onefinity CNC makes amazing CNC machines, but also offers a J-Tech laser attachment which turns your CNC into a large laser engraver. The diode laser is only 70 watts which isn’t powerful enough to cut through a lot of materials, but it engraves really well. All this to say, bigger isn’t always better when trying to get a return on your financial investment.

Oh Yeah, We Made a Sign

The sign we made in this project is based on some artwork from our friend Brian Kesinger (@briankesinger). It’s based off the New Yankee Workshop TV show but with a cool Star Wars twist. We used a combination of CNC and Laser functions to make the beautiful custom sign, but it could have been done on either one. The laser allowed us to stack thinner material to make up a thicker project and get perfectly crisp detail on the text without sacrificing a lot of material. The CNC allowed us to cut through thicker material in one job and cut through some ColorCore material without burning it. Each machine has its benefits. Follow this guide to help you determine which machine is best for your shop.

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