Should I Pay For Laser Cutting Services Or Invest In My Own Machine?

From OEMs to shipbuilders, companies in a wide variety of industries require cutting of metal plates or sheet metal as part of their manufacturing process. Very simple components are sometimes produced by guillotine but the majority of parts require more sophisticated machinery and expertise and many companies turn to specialized external laser cutting services.

But is an external laser cutting service truly the right choice for your specific metal fabrication needs? Or would it, in fact, be smarter to acquire a CNC metal cutting machine yourself?

By using an external laser cutting service you avoid the high capital investment needed for purchasing a machine, whilst relying on sub-contractors metal cutting expertise. However, because of the increased flexibility & speed, lower cost per part and keeping control in house, purchasing a metal cutting machine will often pay back within 2-3 years.

Solution✓ PRO✗ CON
External Laser Cutting ServiceNo initial outlayHigher material prices
ExpertiseTransportation costs
Capacity to provide bulk ordersLack of flexibility & possible delays
No machine maintenance & training
In-House Metal Cutting MachinePays for itself after 2 yearsInitial outlay
Easier to manage Quality Control
Dedicated Machine 24/7
Costs can be classed as Capital Investment
You choose best supplier with best materials

As the choice between contracting external laser cutting services or buying your own machine can be quite overwhelming, we decided to share the pros and cons of each option separately. 

In this article, you will find an answer to the following questions: 

What are custom laser cutting services?

A custom steel service centre is an external company specialized in cutting metal plates or tubes to order. They offer cutting services for a wide range of materials such as steel, aluminium, stainless steel, and other ferrous and nonferrous metals.

Typical applications include laser-cut flat blanks, stencils, signs, prototypes, and sometimes custom formed fabricated parts.

These days, most laser cutting services will work with fibre laser machines which, compared to traditional CO2 lasers, offer increased energy efficiency and cutting speeds, as well as excellent precision and cleaner cut edges.

How does it work?

  • The client can reach out to one or more laser cutting services for a cost quote.
  • Dimensioned technical drawings of the components are typically sent using dxf, dwg or another standard file type. In most cases, the laser cutting service will provide expert feedback in order to provide the right service and quotation.
  • Once the client has chosen a cutting partner, both parties agree upfront on the specifications, quality requirements, timings, shipping & costs in a written agreement. – a purchase order
  • Usually, the laser cutting service will source the raw material directly (which has been included in the cost quote). Sometimes, usually for more specialist materials, the client may “free issue” the material to the laser cutting partner.
  • The laser cutting service will use their CNC laser cutting machines (fibre or CO2) and operators to complete the order.
  • The batch is then quality checked, and delivery is arranged.
  • The client usually repeats a quality check on receipt of the parts and identifies any discrepancies.
  • The client accepts the delivered batch (goods receipt).
Plasma cutting stainless steel with a Lightning HD plasma cutter

Where can I find a custom laser cutting service near me?

There are many laser cutting companies in the UK and Ireland, with approximately 70 registered entities in the Midlands alone. Whilst all of them offer laser cutting services, some are also specialist engravers, CNC machinists or general engineering companies.

A quick Google search for “CNC laser cutting service UK” will prompt many suitable candidates. The standard Google Maps visualization will also help you to see which laser cutting services are near you. Alternatively, you can find some of the best steel plate & profiling centers in the table below.

So how do you choose the right laser cutting service for you?

As with any other business transaction, reaching out to several potential suppliers and comparing costs, timings & service level is the best way to start.

However, another important factor to take into consideration is the geographical location. In order to minimize the risks for delays as well as push down additional transportation costs, a laser cutting service closer to your own facility will in most cases be preferred.

Finally, try to get an idea of the capacity and workload of your potential supplier. Ensure that they can accommodate the size of parts required and can process the material types and thicknesses required. Check the usual service level offered. If they are operating at maximum capacity, issues can easily create delays. Moreover, they will be less flexible in case you want to make last-minute changes to your order (e.g. order quantities). 

 Profilers in the UK 
Steel Plate and ProfilingTata SteelUK
Steel Plate and ProfilingPP ProfilesWest Yorkshire
Steel Plate and ProfilingKloecknerWest Yorkshire
Steel Plate and ProfilingBrown MacFarlaneWest Midlands
Steel Plate and ProfilingAbram PulmanWest Yorkshire
Steel Plate and ProfilingCumbria ProflilingNorth West
Steel Plate and ProfilingA. TaylorWest Yorkshire
Steel Plate and ProfilingPegasus ProfilesEast of England
Steel Plate ProfilingBarrett SteelWest Yorkshire
Steel Plate ProfilingJamestown ProfilingIreland
Plasma Plate ProfilingParker SteelSouth of England

Benefits of using custom laser cutting services

Using an external laser cutting service offers several important benefits:

Practical & Easy Solution

In case you have your technical drawings and specifications at hand, you will be able to get several quotes from different suppliers often in a matter of hours. Once you place the order you can focus on the other aspects of your production process knowing that your order will be taken care off and normally delivered ready for use.

Expertise

Metal cutting does require some technical expertise. By using an external laser cutting service you will be able to benefit from the experience & expertise of specialists. Starting from input on your technical drawings to managing the cutting process itself, and doing secondary operations to perfect & finish each component.

No Initial Outlay

Probably the most important benefit for many producers is that you don’t have to purchase a laser or other metal cutting machine. Purchasing your own CNC machine would require a significant investment, ranging from 50.000 to 500.000 GBP depending on exact requirements and cutting process chosen (plasma vs laser)

No Maintenance & Training

Owning a CNC cutting machine means you will also be responsible for the proper maintenance of these complex machines, as well as ensuring your operators are properly trained to operate them correctly and safely. Failure to meet either of these requirements could result in possible downtime of the machine and accumulating costs.

How much do external laser cutting services cost?

The first thing to say is that, external laser cutting services aren’t cheap. Also, it is important to consider all the costs, not simply the base cutting charge.

Base cutting fee:

When it comes to industrial orders, most laser cutting services will base the cutting charges on a cost per hour. Prices will vary depending on batch sizes, material types and thicknesses and whether other (secondary) operations are needed, but as a general guideline expect to pay around 100 to 150 GBP per cutting hour for standard work.

Material:

Usually, laser cutting services will offer (or sometimes require) that they source the raw material directly and charge for it as part of the cost quote. Often the charge for the material is not the best price in the market.

Urgency:

Laser cutting companies also want to optimize their own production process and capacity. Quotations will often be based on a “standard service” and more urgent or last-minute orders (or changes to existing orders) will come with a premium price tag. 

Transportation:

Whether transportation is included in the quotation provided by the laser cutting company, or arranged in-house, it is a significant cost that needs to be added to the total bill. Transportation costs can be minimized by opting for more local cutting services as often transportation costs from further away can easily outweigh cheaper base cutting fees offered.

Storage:

If components are ready and delivery is not required due to space restrictions etc., laser cutting companies can often charge an additional storage fee.

So bottom line, when comparing different options and cost quotes always try to look at the total cost, as well as consider the potential implications of delays, last-minute changes or other issues.   

Plasma cutting stainless steel with a Lightning HD plasma cutter

Are plasma cutting services a better or cheaper alternative?

So, we have learnt above that laser cutting services may not be the cheapest option for producing cut parts. So what are the alternatives?

Is, for example, an external service that uses plasma cutting machines instead of the more expensive laser machines a cheaper alternative? As ever, it depends!

Modern plasma cutting systems with the latest technology offer cutting results comparable with laser depending upon the exact components required.

Laser cutting is better at very small holes (relative to material thickness) and intricate detail but is limited (significantly for low-medium power lasers) in thickness capability.

It is a fact, however, that there are fewer companies offering sub-contract plasma cutting services than is the case with laser.

Many of the firms offering sub-contract plasma cutting services use their machines for their own production and sub-contract cutting is often seen as a “fill-in”.

For many applications, plasma and laser will both offer comparable results and many companies have found the ideal solution is to acquire a plasma cutting machine for themselves.

Plasma cutting stainless steel with a Lightning HD plasma cutter

Which CNC metal cutting machine should I buy?

Which exact CNC metal cutting machine will be right for you will depend on your specific application and production process.

Although laser cutting machines offer very high precision, they are not able to cut through thicker materials. On top, the initial investment for these machines is very high.

Plasma cutting machines are much cheaper and yet thanks to the technological advancements can offer laser-like precision in many cases.

The best way to define the right machine is by inviting an expert to pass by your facility and give advice on which types of machines would best suit your application.

Plasma cutting stainless steel with a Lightning HD plasma cutter

Conclusion: What is best for your business?

Outsourcing your custom metal fabrication needs can be an easy solution if your needs for metal cutting are rare and infrequent. It does not require you to make a capital investment or set up and manage the process yourself.

However, there are many downsides. Relying upon an external party means that you have to work within their pricing structures, with material that they may have sourced and be obliged to work to their priorities whilst trying to manage your own customer’s expectations. 

This lack of production flexibility means that you have to pay every time they switch the machine on, whereas an in-house machine can be work on several projects simultaneously. This increases the speed of your delivery, improves customer satisfaction and ultimately allows you to maintain a healthy profit margin within a competitive market.

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