Should I Pay For Laser-Cutting Services Or Invest In A Machine?

From OEMs to shipbuilders, companies in a wide variety of industries require sheet metal cutting as part of their manufacturing process. Simple components can sometimes be produced by a guillotine but the vast majority of parts require more sophisticated machinery and expertise. This leads many companies to turn to specialised external laser-cutting services.

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

Using an external laser cutting service means you can avoid the initial high capital investment needed to purchase a machine, and access the cutting expertise of a subcontractor. However, purchasing a metal cutting machine will often pay back within 2-5 years (depending on the technology i.e. laser, plasma etc. and cutting volume) and offer increased flexibility, time savings, lower cost per part, and bring quality control in-house.

The choice of purchasing a machine or outsourcing your cutting can be complicated and overwhelming. Below we have shared some of the pros and cons of each.

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
Access to different cutting methods (laser, waterjet, plasma) and machine tools (press brake) in one place
In-House Metal Cutting MachinePays for itself after 2-5 yearsInitial outlay
Easier to manage Quality ControlLearning curve
Dedicated Machine 24/7Space and infrastructure requirements
Costs can be classed as Capital Investment
You choose the best supplier with the 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: 


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

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

Fiber laser machines are very rapidly replacing their CO2 counterparts because of their increased energy efficiency and higher cut speeds and are often the chosen technology for laser cutting service providers. Larger profilers may have both types of machines and will be able to advise on the best option for your application. Read more about fiber and CO2 lasers here.

15 mm Mild Steel 275 Cut with CO2 Laser
15 mm Mild Steel 275 Cut with 10kW Fiber Laser

Figure 1: 15 mm Mild Steel 275 Cut with CO2 Laser (left) and 10 kW Fiber Laser (right)

How does it work?

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 the majority 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.

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 levels is the best way to start.

Although, another important factor to take into consideration is the geographical location. To minimise the risk of delays as well as push down additional transportation costs, a laser cutting service closer to your facility will, in most cases, be preferable.

Check the usual service level offered. If they are operating at maximum capacity, issues can easily create delays. Moreover, they will be less flexible should you wish to make last-minute changes to your order (e.g. order quantities).

Benefits of using custom laser-cutting services

Using an external laser cutting service offers several important benefits.

Practical & Easy Solution
If you have your technical drawings and specifications to hand, you will be able to get several quotes from different suppliers, often in a matter of hours.

Quotes are often generated using CAD/CAM softwares. The software estimates the time to cut all the parts, then generates the costs associated accounting for machine overheads, material etc.

Once you place the order you are then free to focus on the other aspects of production knowing that your order will be taken care of and normally delivered ready for use.

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

No Initial Outlay
Probably the biggest and most obvious advantage of outsourcing is the lack of large capital expenditure needed to purchase a metal-cutting machine. The cost of a CNC machine can range from 50,000 to 500,000 GBP depending on the exact requirements and cutting method chosen (plasma vs laser).

No Maintenance & Training
The initial purchase is not the only cost associated with owning a CNC cutting machine. You will need to account for the costs associated with maintaining and operating the machine. Adequate training is essential to make sure the machine can operate at its full potential.

How much do external laser-cutting services cost?

External laser cutting services are not cheap and it is important to consider all costs, not simply the base cutting fee.

Base cutting fee:
When it comes to industrial orders, most laser cutting services will charge on a cost per hour basis. Prices will vary depending on batch size, material type and thickness and whether other (secondary) operations are needed. As a general guideline expect to pay around 100 to 150 GBP per cutting hour for standard work.

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

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

Whether transportation is included in the quotation provided by the laser cutting company or arranged in-house, it can be a significant cost that needs to be accounted for. This cost can be minimized by opting for a local cutting service as often higher transportation costs (from further away) can easily outweigh cheaper base cutting fees.

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

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


As mentioned above, laser cutting services may not be the cheapest option for producing parts (particularly if high volumes and repeat batches are needed), but are there any alternatives?

For example, is it cheaper to use a plasma cutting service instead of more expensive laser machines? As ever, it depends!

Modern plasma cutting systems with the latest technology offer smoother cutting edges than lasers, particularly on thick mild steel.

(15 mm Mild Steel 275 Cut with 10 kW Fiber Laser (left) and with XPR300 Plasma (right))

Laser technology can produce significantly better and smaller holes (relative to the material thickness). Further, they can produce more intricate profiles. However, laser technology is limited in thickness capability when compared to plasma technology. Read more on plasma vs laser technology here.

In general, fewer companies are offering sub-contract plasma cutting services than laser services. Many of the firms offering sub-contract plasma cutting services use their machines for their production and sub-contract cutting is often seen as a “fill-in”. This is also the case for some of the companies offering laser-cutting services.

For certain applications, plasma and laser will both offer comparable results and many companies have found acquiring a plasma-cutting machine is the most cost-effective solution.


Plasma cutting stainless steel with a Lightning HD plasma cutter

Which CNC metal cutting machine should I buy?

The exact CNC metal cutting machine that is right for you will depend on your specific application and production process needs.

Although laser-cutting machines offer high precision, plasma machines are much better at cutting thicker materials. Depending on the power a 6-10 kW laser can cut around 25 mm (mild steel, stainless steel and aluminium), however, when comparing operating costs, it can be more economical to cut material 10 mm and over (especially mild steel) on a plasma (unless high precision is needed). Further, the initial investment required for a plasma machine is often much less than that of a laser machine and yet thanks to technological advancements, plasma can offer excellent cut results 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.

Below are some of the other costs associated with owning a laser (or plasma) machine.

This will firstly depend on the laser technology, for example, a CO2 laser has an electrical efficiency of around 10% compared to 45% for a fiber laser. Secondly, the power requirements will increase with laser power. Other technology exists such as Esprit’s LiveRegen which harnesses the energy lost during decelerations which can then be used for the next acceleration to reduce the electricity cost of the machine.

Auxiliary Gas Supply
Laser machines in general cut with either oxygen or nitrogen and as sheet thickness increases so does the gas consumption. For large volumes of cutting using nitrogen, investing in a nitrogen generator can often drive down costs in the long run.

As with any new piece of equipment, it will take time to get competent with the machine’s operation and adapt processes to get the most out of the new machine. Simple user interface and support is key to reducing training time and allowing anyone, regardless of their experience level, to operate the machine.

The learning process can take a few months therefore, it is key when purchasing a machine to consider the customer support offered to ensure you get the very best out of your machine.

As with gas usage, the maintenance requirements vary depending on the technology and also on machine usage. In general, fiber laser machines have very few operator maintenance requirements. Regular machine services (from 1 to 4 times a year) are also strongly recommended to keep your machine up and running.

Material Costs
It is important to note that manufacturers may have strong material recommendations to ensure good cut quality.

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 and cost-effective solution if your metal cutting needs are infrequent. The lack of capital investment as well as having access to suppliers’ expertise can make it an excellent option.

However, there are many downsides. Relying upon an external party means having to work within their pricing structures, potentially with their material and being obliged to work to their priorities whilst trying to manage your own customer’s expectations.

Owning a machine increases production flexibility as the machine can work simultaneously on several projects which can increase delivery speeds, improve customer satisfaction and ultimately allows you to maintain a healthy profit margin within a competitive market.

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