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What is the best aluminium laser cutting machine and how much will it cost?

Do you need to cut a lot of aluminium? Are you considering purchasing a fiber laser machine to meet your production needs? In this article, we will explain all the factors you need to consider before making your decision.

1: What results can I expect cutting aluminium with a fiber laser?

1.1 Cutting Speed

Cutting speed/feed rate is one of the many parameters that affect the resulting cut quality on a fiber laser machine. There is often a balance between speed and cut quality. While sometimes, you may be able to cut the material quicker, the cut quality will likely decrease and if it is going too fast, the cut will fail.

Below is a graph of cutting speeds you could expect cutting aluminium 5083 on a fiber laser machine.

cutting speed fiber laser cutting machine on aluminium

Graph 1: Plasma Systems – Cutting speeds of aluminium 5083 on a fiber laser machine

1.2 Edge Quality

To get a good edge quality on aluminium involves carefully balancing a range of different cutting parameters such as speed, focal position, gas pressure, etc. 

Below we have included pictures of the edge quality you can expect when cutting aluminium 5083 with a fiber laser. The below samples were cut on a 10 kW laser, the amount of dross may change depending on the laser power. It is therefore strongly recommended that when you are looking to purchase a fiber laser, go and see the machine cutting in person.  

plasma cutting 5mm aluminium

Visual 1: 5 mm Aluminium 5083 – 10kW

plasma cutting 10mm aluminium

Visual 2: 10 mm Aluminium 5083 – 10kW

plasma cutting 15mm aluminium

Visual 3: 15 mm Aluminium 5083 – 10kW

plasma cutting 20mm aluminium

Visual 4: 20 mm Aluminium 5083 – 10kW

plasma cutting 25mm aluminium

Visual 5: 25 mm Aluminium 5083 – 10kW

1.3 Cutting Range

The table below shows the cutting range for different laser powers. The main advantage of a fiber laser machine is its ability to produce excellent cut quality on intricate profiles at high cut speeds for thin/medium thick sheets.

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Table 1: Cutting range vs laser power

1.4 Thermal Impact

Fiber laser machines have small Heat Affected Zones (HAZ) and hence there are minimal changes to the material during cutting. However, if in your application, a cold cutting process is necessary, a waterjet may be more appropriate. 

1.5 High Burr Latitude

When cutting aluminium there will always be a very small amount of dross on the underside of the cut but on thinner materials, it is almost negligible. With a 6 kW, you can cut up to 4 mm with virtually no dross and up to 6 mm with a 10 kW laser. The dross is mostly easy to remove however, it gets progressively more difficult as the material thickness increases.

1.6 How does the cutting gas affect the cut?

In general, nitrogen is the most commonly used cutting gas for aluminium but another option is air.   

The oxygen content in the air can result in slightly faster-cutting speeds and the profiles will have less dross on the underside of the cut. Nitrogen and air produce very similar edge quality. 

However, cutting aluminium with air may not be as simple as you think. Most compressors are not adequate as cutting aluminium will require a specialist compressor that can produce 25 bars of pressure. Purchasing a new compressor alongside a new fiber laser machine will be expensive. Further, bottle compressed air costs around the same as nitrogen therefore there is very little cost saving achieved compared to nitrogen cutting. Although, if the faster cut speeds and reduced dross will benefit you then using air may be worthwhile. 

2: How to choose the best laser cutter for aluminium?

2.1 CO2 vs Fiber Laser: Which is your best option?

Aluminium is a highly reflective material that can cause problems when laser cutting. If the energy from the beam is reflected into the cutting head it has the potential to cause significant damage to the internal optics and could prove costly. 

The wavelength of a CO2 laser means it is more susceptible to the problem of scattered light whereas, with a fiber laser, more of the beam’s energy is absorbed by the material and less light is reflected. Most cutting heads monitor the level of reflected light and will stop the laser to prevent any significant damage. Further, there is often a sacrificial window that sits at the bottom of the cutting head to protect the expensive optics.  

Fiber laser machines can achieve much faster cut speeds than CO2 lasers on thinner sheets which combined with the higher electrical efficiency could result in a lower cost per part. 

For more information on the comparison between CO2 and fiber lasers, read our article here

2.2 What effect does the cutting table have?

Vibrations caused by the motion system and/or from other machinery nearby have the potential to affect the cut quality of a machine if the vibrations are transferred to the cutting table. 

Furthermore, during the cutting process, heat is generated by the laser source. If this heat is conducted into the rack and pinion of the machine, the precision of the motion system will be reduced and impact the cut quality of the machine. 

Therefore, when it comes to the cutting table on a fiber laser machine, the best option is to make sure the cutting table is independent of the motion system.

2.3 What effect does the laser power have? 

As laser power increases, so does the speed and thickness the machine can cut. Therefore, while a higher-powered laser has a higher acquisition cost and operating cost (higher power requirements), the potential increase in productivity and capability could pay for itself in the long run. 

2.4 What other factors should you consider?  

2.4.1 Ease of Use

Getting a new machine is very exciting, however, it is important to not get too carried away. Once a machine is installed and commissioned, it is highly unlikely that you will be able to immediately launch into full production. As with anything, it will take time for your machine and software operators to get used to the new machine and its capabilities and adapt processes to suit your business needs. This could take days, weeks, or even months. 

Consider how user-friendly the machine and/or software are. With good training and support, you will be able to smoothly and quickly transition into full production.

Below you can find two videos with great examples of user-friendly software innovations. The LiveControl and LiveGuard technologies of the Photon 5G fiber laser cutting machine allow for this state-of-the-art machine to be operated by virtually anyone. 

2.4.2 Service Support 

Whether you are purchasing your very first CNC cutting machine or the fifth, preparing for the arrival of a machine can at first glance be an overwhelming task. A good machine manufacturer will guide you through the process and always be on hand to answer any questions. 

One of the biggest decisions is where to locate the machine in your factory as there are often a lot of things to consider. Esprit Automation will create a tailored engineer drawing for your machine and factory, working with you and your business to get the best outcome and simplify the process. 

As with any machine, CNC cutting machines can and will go wrong at some point. While it is possible to minimise these periods of unexpected downtime with regular machine maintenance and servicing, they can never be fully eliminated. 

Consider what the engineer availability is like from the machine manufacturer/supplier and how long will it take for an engineer to arrive at your site.  Even if they can arrive the next day, do they keep spare parts in stock or are the parts on short lead times? Do not underestimate the potential knock-on effect of a broken-down machine on your production line and end customers.

In the below video you will find an example of a customer review of a fiber laser cutting machine. They explain in detail what they considered before purchasing a machine, as well as an evaluation after having used it for some time.

2.4.3 Automation 

CNC fiber laser machines can come with a range of automation options such as nozzle changers and load/offload systems. If you intend on running a lights-out operation then this automation will be vital but this will come at a cost. Consider if your future production volumes will justify the additional cost of a fully automated system. 

2.4.4 Filtration 

Aluminium is a non-ferrous metal and can be explosive. Mild Steel is ferrous and generates large amounts of burning sparks. Cutting aluminium and mild steel together has the potential to cause significant damage. 

  • If the filter unit has a large quantity of non-ferrous dust (from aluminium) in the bin and on the filters and the user then switches over to mild steel cutting, and if a spark enters the filter at the same time as the unit pulse cleans, then the non-ferrous dust will ignite and result in a dust explosion
  • If the non-ferrous dust (from aluminium) and the ferrous dust (from mild steel) are left together within the filter bin (i.e. overnight, at weekends, holidays), the mixture will start to self-heat in an exothermic reaction which could eventually catch fire

If you are intending to cut aluminium you must make sure that you purchase a reinforced filtration unit that is fitted with explosion relief, has filter element earthing and an ATEX CAT 2D fan assembly. Also, the ducting between the machine and the filter must be 2 mm Mild Steel ducting. Standard spiralised ducting is not suitable. 

Along with a reinforced filter, you must reduce the risk of non-ferrous and ferrous dust mixing at any point. Steps include: 

  • Cutting aluminium and mild steel in batches. 
  • In between batches allowing the filter to do multiple offline cleaning cycles. This can often be pre-programmed. 
  • Emptying the filter bins before switching batches. 

2.4.5 Software & Nesting 

Consider the impact software can have on the cutting process. CAD/CAM software such as Esprit’s ProCut has comprehensive drawing facilities, flexible CAD import capabilities, and powerful automatic and interactive nesting systems. If you already use a specific software with other machines, consider if this can be accommodated with your new machine, although, don’t immediately rule out new software. While it may take time to learn, it could save you time and money in the long run.  

Also, consider the software on the machine. Does it have features such as Esprit’s LiveNest which aim to make the operator’s life easier and save both time and money? 

2.4.6 Remote Monitoring & Industry 4.0 

Nowadays, more and more companies are wanting to collect data from their manufacturing machines to monitor and improve productivity and efficiency. 

The ability to access real-time data about both current and historical jobs, along with machine health and utilisation can be key to minimising unnecessary downtime and maximising the machine output.

2.4.7 Safety Features 

If a CNC fiber laser machine goes wrong, not only is there a risk of damage to machinery and property, but more importantly there is the risk of serious injury to your employees.  

Always make sure when purchasing a fiber laser machine that all the respective equipment is CE (European Conformity) and UKCA (UK Conformity Assessment) certified. Also, make sure that all operators are aware of the correct operating procedures before using the machine.

3: What is the price of an aluminium fiber laser cutting machine?

3.1 Acquisition Cost

The price of a CNC fiber laser cutting machine for aluminium can be anywhere in the region of £170,000 – £650,000 depending on the laser power, bed size, and any additions to the machine. A low-level fiber laser will typically have a 2 kW – 6 kW whereas a high-level fiber laser will have a 6 kW or higher.

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Table 2: Aluminium Fiber Laser Cutting Machine Price Ranges

As mentioned above, if you plan on cutting aluminium, you will also need to purchase a reinforced filter. A good filtration unit will cost between £10,000 – £15,000 and a reinforced filter will cost approximately 20% more than its regular counterpart. 

3.2 Maintenance and Operating Cost

3.2.1 Maintenance 

Despite the complexity of a fiber laser machine, the daily/weekly/monthly maintenance tasks for a general operator are fairly simple

The most common maintenance tasks for a fiber laser are regarding the consumable items of the cutting head. These will include: 

  • Checking/changing the nozzles 
  • Checking/changing the protective window 
  • Checking/changing the ceramic ring 
  • Nozzle Alignment 

Different machines will have different processes and requirements for checking/changing the consumable items so make sure you fully understand these. Problems with consumables will have a direct effect on the cut quality and can lead to parts or entire sheets being scrapped.  

As mentioned above, the main maintenance task specific to aluminium cutting on a fiber laser machine is changing the bags of filter in between cutting mild steel and aluminium. The risk of a dust explosion or an exothermic reaction can have serious impacts on machinery and employees. While maintenance of a machine may seem time-consuming, it is not only essential to keep your machine up and running but also to keep your operators safe.

3.2.2 Operating Costs 

When calculating the operating cost of different fiber laser machines, there are three main factors to consider: power, gas, and consumables. 

Power – Consider the power consumption of the different machines. With the significant increases in energy bills and more companies trying to reduce their carbon footprint, Esprit’s Photon 5G has LiveRegen which captures any excess energy lost during deceleration, helping to reduce your energy bill.

Gas – Even for the same laser power, different fiber laser machine manufacturers are likely to have slightly different cutting parameters. If the majority of your laser cutting is nitrogen cutting, you may want to consider investing in a nitrogen generator which could save you money in the long run. 

Consumables – In general, the higher the laser power the shorter the life of the consumables. Correct operation of the machine combined with the cutting parameters will help maximise the consumable lifetime.

4: Are there alternatives for cutting aluminium?

4.1 Plasma

A plasma machine is more than capable of cutting aluminium and the lower acquisition cost, when compared to a fiber laser machine, can be a big advantage for some companies. 

One of the biggest advantages of cutting aluminium on a plasma machine rather than a fiber laser is the material thickness you can process. A modern plasma system such as the XPR 300 can cut aluminium up to 38 mm (pierce) and 50 mm (with edge start).

For more information on plasma cutting aluminium read the article here. For more information on how plasma compares to fiber laser cutting click here.   

plasma cut aluminium using air, N2, H35 combinations

Visual 6: Plasma cut aluminium using different gases

4.2 Waterjet

If the bulk of your cutting is thick aluminium sheets (over 25 mm), you may want to consider a waterjet machine. Unlike a plasma machine, waterjets can cut highly intricate and accurate parts across a wide range of thicknesses. Waterjets also have the advantage of being a cold cutting process therefore, if you need parts without a HAZ (Heat Affected Zone), it is the obvious choice. 

Waterjets, however, do have higher acquisition costs compared to a plasma machine so if you are in the market for a CNC cutting machine for thick aluminium, consider if a plasma machine would be sufficient for your needs. 

5: CONCLUSION

Fiber laser machines are an excellent choice for cutting aluminium between 1 mm and 25 mm due to their high cutting speeds and ability to cut intricate profiles. 

With so many different fiber laser machines on the market, deciding which machine is best for your business can be a difficult decision. Always consider the machine design, software, and most importantly support. Customer support is essential to ensure you get the most out of your fiber laser machine and avoid any unwanted machine downtime. 

If you have any questions about laser cutting aluminium, please do not 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 to you about your specific requirements and help identify the right CNC cutting machine for your business. 

CONTACT US For all your aluminium cutting needs.

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