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Best Metal Cutting Machine for Small Businesses in 2023

INTRODUCTION

Are you a small business looking for a laser-cutting machine for metal? Overwhelmed by the various options available? All small businesses are different with unique needs and constraints. In this article, we discuss the most important parameters for a small business to consider before purchasing a metal-cutting machine.

A laser machine is an excellent addition to any small business. The best machines are compact, user-friendly and cost-effective. For high volumes of thin metal sheets, a fiber laser machine is the best choice because of the excellent cut quality, high cut speeds and low operational costs.

If your typical profiles do not require the precision and accuracy of a laser machine and you have a smaller budget, an entry-level plasma machine may be the best option. Alternatively, for processing smaller volumes of material, outsourcing your parts to a profiler could be the most cost-effective approach.

What are the challenges for small businesses? What parameters are important when buying a metal laser cutter?

There are many reasons why a small business may want to purchase a laser machine. These include increasing production volumes, bringing capacity in-house, or maybe to bid for/complete new projects/contracts.

Despite all the benefits of a laser machine, investing in a new machine is a big deal for a small business and there are many constraints to consider. Often the biggest challenge for a small business is the lack of resources: funds, staff, space, power etc. However, the right metal-cutting machine has the potential to transform your business. A laser cutting machine could increase productivity, reduce production costs in the long term, improve quality, enable greater flexibility and result in faster delivery times.
Parameters that are important for a small business to consider are:

Space/Size of Machine

Laser-cutting machines come in a variety of sizes from small desktop machines, to large industrial machines with fully automated systems. Purchasing a machine with the correct working area for your business is crucial.

For small businesses, floor space is often limited however, a larger working area can improve productivity and increase throughput.

Hobbyist machines come in a range of sizes, but the working area is mostly limited to around 1 m x 1 m and smaller.

The smallest entry-level/intermediate machine on the market is 3 m x 1.5 m (working area). Laser machines often have a shuttle table which allows for cutting and unloading simultaneously. Although, two working tables and this automation is not always necessary for a small business. If space is a big constraint for your business, consider machines that only have a single cutting table.

Esprit Photon 5G with shuttle table

When purchasing a laser machine, the total footprint advertised by the manufacturer may not be the entire picture. There are usually other things to consider that increase the total footprint of the machine such as:

  • Ancillary Equipment – Essential equipment (laser source, chiller, filtration unit, gas bottles and compressor) are sometimes omitted from floor plans.
  • Safety Zones – Most machines require a clearance area around the machine for safety purposes. These should be marked on any drawings and must not be ignored.
  • Access – Often additional space is needed to allow access to draws, doors etc. for maintenance/servicing.

When purchasing a laser cutting machine, always make sure that the laser source, machine and other equipment are CE/UKCA certified. A laser machine without adequate protection has the potential to cause serious injury to the skin and eyes. For a fiber laser machine to be considered CE/UKCA certified it must have an enclosure. For more information on laser classes, refer to BS EN 60825-1 (IEC 60825-1).

Power of Machine

Entry-level laser machines (and the ancillary equipment) have large power requirements which can be a struggle for some small businesses. It is always worth establishing the power available at your facility and the power requirements of any prospective machines before you make a purchase. Electrical upgrades can be expensive; therefore it is always better to be able to account for this in your decision-making process.

Smaller desktop laser machines are typically fitted with either a CO2 or diode laser source. The power of these lasers is lower (< 100 W) as they are typically tailored towards engraving rather than cutting. Fiber lasers are much more powerful and expensive hence are more commonly found on entry-level machines. For further comparison of CO2 vs Fiber Lasers read this article.

With increasing energy costs, all businesses are looking to reduce their energy bills. Always compare the energy consumption of different machines to find the best option. Further, consider how different technologies could offer further reductions such as Esprit’s LiveRegen.

The laser power determines the material thickness the machine can cut. However, when it comes to entry-level machines, laser power is not the only limitation.
All machines have a weight limit as to what the beds can support and ignoring these limits could result in serious damage to the machine. For entry-level machines, the bed could dictate the maximum thickness rather than the laser source.

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Table 1: Fiber Laser Power

Ease of Use

Staff resources are limited for small businesses and employees typically have to fulfil multiple roles at once. An easy-to-use machine is therefore extremely important so that anyone in the business regardless of prior experience can operate the machine efficiently and safely.

A simple user interface on the machine can have a huge impact. As with any new machine/technology, it will take time to learn, adapt and tailor processes (cutting processes, production volume etc.) to suit your business. An easy-to-use machine will quicken this process.

All machines require regular maintenance, and laser machines are no exception. In general, the maintenance of a laser machine is fairly easy (more complex maintenance is conducted by trained laser engineers). Although it is still important to follow any instructions provided by the manufacturer carefully to avoid costly mistakes.

Total Costs

A laser-cutting machine is a big investment, however, many small businesses could benefit such as HVAC, construction and architectural/design work.

Deciding on the correct time to make the jump and purchase a fiber laser machine is a difficult decision as it requires a careful balance between production requirements, capital availability and potential future projects. It is always worth thinking ahead and investing in your business’s future.

While a smaller laser cutter can be an excellent option, they are often limited in the material and thickness you can engrave/cut and cut speeds are slow. These machines are typically aimed at hobbyists rather than industrial applications.

If the majority of your cutting requirements are metal sheets under 10 mm, a fiber laser machine is the perfect addition to your business. Smaller laser-cutting machines may in theory be suitable, but they have a limited workspace, lower cut speeds and lower cut quality.

Outsourcing parts has its benefits but it can end up being very expensive, especially for repeat work. For a lot of small businesses, the addition of a laser cutting machine presents the chance to increase their revenue stream by offering new products, bidding for different contracts or offering cutting services to other businesses.

Acquisition Costs

A hobbyist laser machine can be purchased for less than £5,000. An entry-level fiber laser machine can be anywhere from £100,000 to £200,000. The more advanced fiber laser machines can cost upwards of £275,000.

 

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Table 2: Cost of Lasers

Operating Costs

The three main operating costs of a laser machine are electricity, gas and consumables.
Electricity – While a higher-powered laser may increase the electricity costs, the faster cut speeds they can achieve could result in a lower cost per part.
Gas – Laser machines require either oxygen, nitrogen or compressed air for cutting. In general, as material thickness increases so does the gas volume.
Consumables – While consumable items are designed to fail, with proper training an operator will be able to make consumable items last longer. Also, consider how quickly you can get replacements.

Reliability/Durability/Service

CNC laser cutting machines are often at the heart of the production process so any downtime has a significant knock-on effect. When you decide to purchase a machine, it is always worth considering the future plans of the business and with this in mind, you want to guarantee the machine will be operational for years to come.

Always look at the machine build before purchasing. Experienced manufacturers apply their knowledge and expertise to provide reliable and durable entry-level machines, perfect for small businesses.

It can be easy to focus all your attention on the machine itself. While this is extremely important, the service provided by a manufacturer/supplier can be just as , if not more important. You could have the best, most expensive machine on the market, but if you cannot use it to full capacity or it is broken, you will lose money. A good manufacturer/supplier will always be on hand before, during and after your machine installation to guide you and answer any questions.

Machines tend to break at the most inconvenient time. Consider how quickly the manufacturer can send a skilled engineer to fix your machine. Do they stock crucial spare parts? Fast service is essential for keeping your machine up and running.
Paying that little bit more upfront to ensure excellent customer service will pay for itself in the long run.

Extra Features

There are a large number of small laser machines that are for engraving. Given the price range, these machines typically use low-powered CO2 or diode lasers.

Marking/engraving capabilities can be extremely useful for small businesses for displaying part numbers, customer names, QR codes etc.

With any laser cutting machine, you will need some form of CAD/CAM software to output your programs. CAD/CAM software can have features such as shape libraries and automatic nesting which aim to make your life easier. If the machine is connected to the network, these files can then be transferred from the PC to the machine automatically.

Alternatives

While a laser cutting machine is an excellent addition to any small business, it is not always the best option. A plasma cutting machine or outsourcing parts could be more suitable.

Plasma Cutting Machine

If you need to cut a lot of simple shapes (such as those required in the HVAC industry) in thin metal sheets, a plasma machine is an excellent option. There are plenty of entry-level plasma machines on the market (such as Esprit’s Arrow) that are perfect for a small business.

Plasma machines, in general, tend to be much cheaper than their laser counterparts and with a PMX45 XP can pierce up to 12 mm MS (these can also be used with hand plasma torches). However, plasma machines will struggle to cut extremely intricate parts, have lower cut speeds and lower cut quality (ISO 5). Although, even with all this, because of the low acquisition cost you can break even on your purchase in as little as 3 years*. Having your own machine gives you full control of your production schedule. You can plan downtime (for maintenance and servicing) around your schedule, and cut spare parts quickly and easily. This flexibility has the potential to change your business.

Cut Speeds for Low AmperagePower Plasma and Fiber Laser Cutting
Cut Speeds for Low AmperagePower Plasma and Fiber Laser Cutting

Table: Cut Speeds for Low Amperage/Power Plasma and Fiber Laser Cutting *estimated speeds

Outsourcing

If your production volumes are not high enough to justify the purchase of a metal-cutting machine, or if your cutting requirements vary greatly (different materials and thicknesses) outsourcing is an excellent option. By outsourcing, you can choose from different technologies i.e. laser, waterjet, and plasma to get the best results. It can, however, get expensive very quickly if you require large volumes and repetitive work. You have to work around someone else’s schedule and additional charges are often added for quick turnarounds and/or any last-minute changes to orders.

All subcontractors are different and some have better quality-checking procedures than others. It is important to establish your expectations beforehand to prevent any problems further down the line regarding cut quality and turnaround time. A big advantage of outsourcing, however, is that you can access a wealth of experience and knowledge. Skilled and experienced operators can tailor cutting parameters for different materials to get the best balance between speed and cut quality.

 

Edit
Small Laser Machine Small Plasma Machine Outsourcing
Material Metals (MS, SS, ALI) Metals (MS, SS, ALI) Any
Thickness < 12 mm * 2 kW Laser < 12 mm *PMX45 Any
Profile Accuracy Better than 0.05 mm Less than laser Depends on the cutting technology
Cost £100,000 – £200,000 £20,000 – £50,000 Varies depending on technology, material, volume etc.
Cut Speed Faster Slower Depends on the cutting technology
Production Speed Fast Fast Slow
Flexibility Good Good Poor
Quality ISO 1 ISO 5 ISO 1 – 5 *depending on the technology

 

CONCLUSION

If you are a small business that needs high volumes of thin metal sheets, a laser cutting machine is a perfect addition to your business. The high cut speeds of a laser machine could help to reduce production costs in the long term. The best laser-cutting machine for a small business must be compact, durable and affordable to purchase and operate. Also, never underestimate the importance of the service provided alongside the machine.

If your production requires low volumes of cutting, outsourcing is an excellent option. By outsourcing the work you can cut whatever you desire using different types of technologies.

For thin sheets and simple profiles, a plasma machine is an excellent option. While accuracy is worse than that of a laser machine, the lower acquisition cost means they can very quickly pay for themselves.

If you have any questions about laser cutting, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Our team of expert engineers can help you identify the right CNC cutting machine for you and they’d be delighted to talk you through the specific requirements and how Esprit Automation could help you to meet them.

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