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What is the Price of a CNC Plasma Cutting Machine?

A CNC plasma cutting machine can be a great addition to your business, but with so many options out there it can be difficult to find the right machine for you.

An entry-level CNC plasma, ideal for a hobbyist or small welding shop can cost as little as £15,000 whereas an industrial, high-definition plasma machine will cost around £90,000 to £250,000.

However, price isn’t everything. Placing an entry-level plasma in an industrial environment will cause problems as the machine will not be able to keep up with the workload or the environment. Industrial machines are often expected to run continuously for several hours a day and very heavy-duty plasma machines can operate 24/7 and are designed accordingly with a focus on durability and consistent cut quality.

A machine that is unfit for purpose is not a smart investment. Always focus on finding a machine tailored to the specific demands of your business.

While there is a lot to consider when investing in a CNC plasma cutting machine, finding the right machine for your business doesn’t need to be complicated. Speaking to manufacturers and seeking their expert advice during the decision-making process is always a good idea. Experienced machine manufacturers will always present a solution tailored to your needs and are always on hand to help answer any questions you may have.

 

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Table 1: Summary Table

1: WHAT TO CONSIDER BEFORE BUYING A CNC PLASMA CUTTING MACHINE?

Before speaking to a machine manufacturer, consider what you need from your plasma machine and what your priorities are. While it might be nice to have a machine with all the best features, always consider the cost-benefit to your business.  

Some things to consider are:   

  • What is the purpose of buying the machine? – Does your production only require the occasional part cutting? Do you already have a plasma machine and are looking to replace/upgrade it? Maybe you’ve previously outsourced profiles but are looking to bring that capacity in-house? Whatever the reason, always make sure your machine is designed to meet your production volume. 
  • What do you need to cut? – Consider the material, thickness, and plate sizes you typically use. It is also important to establish what cut quality is acceptable for your production. Better cut quality is always nice; however, it may not be worth the additional price tag in some cases. 
  • How much are you looking to spend on a machine? –  It may be worth exploring different financing options
  • What are the future plans for the business? – As with any big purchase, plan for the future. Some plasma machines can last upwards of 20 years, so it is always worth anticipating if any of your requirements may change in the coming years. 

Even with the internet and all the resources (information, videos, pictures, etc.) available online from different manufacturers, nothing beats going to see a machine cutting in person. 

2: WHAT ELEMENTS AFFECT THE PRICE OF A CNC PLASMA CUTTING MACHINE?

The price of a CNC plasma cutting machine is dependent on a wide range of factors, some more noticeable than others. For example, a bigger machine is naturally going to cost more however, some of the more hidden elements can have a massive impact not only on the functionality of the machine but also on its longevity. 

Below, we have identified some of the key elements that impact the price of a CNC plasma machine and what effect these have.  

2.1 Construction 

The construction of a CNC plasma cutting machine has a big impact on a machine’s life expectancy. A well-built (and well looked after) plasma machine can be fit for purpose for 20 + years. Yet, what might be less obvious is that the construction can also have a big impact on cut quality. 

A high-quality manufacturer will place sturdiness and quality before anything else, whereas, more cost-orientated will look for ways to keep construction costs down to a minimum which can, and often does translate to significant differences in the overall machine design and build. 

Some of the key things to look for in terms of machine construction are: 

  • The quality of machine beds and gantries.
  • Are the frames machined? High-Definition CNC plasma cutting machines are sometimes machined within 50 microns tolerances. This has a tremendous impact on cut quality and the overall tolerances of your machine. The more precise the components of the machine, the more precise the cut. 
  • Inspect the weld quality of the machine bed. Higher-end machines correct for welding residual stresses and make sure to relieve stress and minimise distortion. 
  • Are the cutting bed and rails independent from one another? If the rails are integrated into the cutting bed, the heat produced during cutting will be transferred to the rails and over time will cause the rails to deform, resulting in a loss in cut quality. Therefore for consistent cut quality over many years, make sure the motion system and cutting beds are independent. 
  • What protection cables are used throughout the machine? This might look like a minor detail, but cable failure can be an operational nightmare once the machine is up and running. 
  • Are any lightweight materials or off-the-shelf structural tubing used? Or on the contrary, do you observe some hardened materials in the machine build? This might be a good indication of how long this machine will last. 

2.2 Motion Control 

The motion control system of a CNC plasma machine includes motors, gearboxes, rails, and bearings. Better quality components are very important when it comes to cutting precision and speed. Cheaper machines may opt for low-cost V-rail and rollers or flat bars with cam bearings meanwhile, industrial machines utilise servo drives and planetary gearboxes. 

While this isn’t easy to check or quantify, an in-person demonstration is always strongly recommended so you can see the machine’s movement and resulting cut quality.

2.3 Height Control 

In plasma cutting, maintaining the correct height above the workpiece during piercing and cutting is extremely important for both cut quality and consumable life. 

Fully automated THCs (Torch Height Controls) are used to maintain the correct torch-to-work/standoff distance above the sheet by monitoring the arc voltage and adjusting the torch height accordingly. This means the machine can account for irregularities in metal sheets, material warpage during cutting, or wearing of the slats over time. 

Piercing at a lower standoff distance could result in damage to the consumables whereas piercing too high, can cause the arc to be overstretched. Cutting at the incorrect standoff distance will result in a bevelled edge on the cut and more dross. 

Better THCs have lifter mechanisms and magnetic breakaway systems paired with the CNC of the machine. A lifter mechanism provides exceptional performance in a harsh plasma cutting environment, while a magnetic breakaway protects the torch from damage during collisions and allows for quick, repeatable recovery should a collision occur.

 An alternative to a fully automated Height Control system is to manually drive the torch up and down while cutting. If you only need to cut the occasional part and you can live with a slightly bevelled edge, this may be sufficient but the potential for human error is high. 

A fully automated THC could save you a lot of money in the long run but always make sure your operator is trained to use all the THC functions available to make sure you get the most out of your machine. 

One of the top CNC controllers on the market is Hypertherm’s EDGE Connect System which is perfectly suited to the industrial environment by being resilient to water droplets, dust, shock, vibration and extreme temperatures. 

2.4 CNC Controller

The CNC Controller of a plasma machine is commonly referred to as the “brain” of the cutting operation. The CNC is responsible for many things but a few examples are:   

  • Reading instructions from the part program and sending signals to execute the commands, 
  • Coordinating the motion and cutting systems so they operate at the correct times and 
  • Taking inputs from commands inputted into the HMI. 

A good CNC controller should be easy to use and ensure reliable cutting performance. Entry-level CNC plasma cutting machines may use a standard laptop as the CNC controller. While these may be adequate for occasional use and simple cutting requirements, their capability will limit the machine.

More advanced plasma machines have their own dedicated state-of-the-art touch screen CNC controller. These will have much more extensive functions and capabilities enabling higher throughput and increased flexibility. Below we list some of the advanced features these CNC Controllers can offer. 

  • Automated Cutting Processes – Even the most complex multi-gas cuts on a high-definition plasma cutter can be programmed by an operator in a couple of clicks. Operator Programming is made simple through integrated cut charts, automatic process parameters, and communication to the cutting tools and height control systems. The benefits of this are not to be underestimated.
  • Flexibility for Combi Machines – Some CNCs are capable of controlling oxy-fuel torches via programmable timers for preheating, programmable gas flow control, and automatic igniters. This is perfect for combi machines such as the Cobra/Viper by Esprit Automation. 
  • Plate Marking – Ability to control plate markers using a pneumatic punch, zinc powder, or inkjet technology and can be adapted for up to 8 cutting stations without writing any software. 

2.5 Plasma System 

The plasma system is one of the main factors that will define the performance of your cutting machine. Even with the best machine in the world, if your plasma system isn’t up to the job, you’ll very quickly run into problems as this defines cutting capability (thickness, cut speeds, and cut quality). 

Plasma cutting technology has advanced a lot, but the best and most expensive plasma system may not always be necessary. 

For more detailed information on the different Hypertherm Plasma systems, click here.

2.5.1 Cutting Capacity 

Getting a plasma system that is able to reliably cut what you need and to a suitable quality is very important.

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Table 2: Plasma Systems – Cutting Capacity Comparison

While a lower-end plasma system (such as a Powermax45) may technically be able to cut 25 mm mild steel, the cut quality is classified as ISO range 5 (i.e. the lowest classification). Therefore, if the cut quality is very important to your business, you may need to look at a more advanced plasma system such as an XPR. 

Further, higher-end plasma machines such as the XPR are available with different gas consoles. More advanced gas consoles (such as the XPR OptiMix) have the option of using argon, hydrogen, and F5 (5% hydrogen, 95% nitrogen). If you cut a lot of stainless steel then it may be worth investing in a gas console with greater flexibility i.e. F5 on its own or a mixed-fuel gas (mix of hydrogen, argon, and nitrogen). These will produce a smoother and shinier finish on stainless steel. Argon can be used to provide a better marking finish compared to nitrogen and also increase the piercing capability on mild steel. 

Visual 1: 15 mm Stainless Steel cut at 130 A a) N2 / N2, b) Mixed / N2

Although having the option to use different gases may cost slightly more to acquire and operate (increase in gas costs), the improved cut results could pay for themselves.   

Currently, one of the best plasma systems on the market is Hypertherm’s XPR300. This revolutionary system has redefined the cut quality standard on mild steel, stainless steel, and aluminium for plasma machines. For a full review of the XPR300, read this article.

2.5.2 Power 

When considering different plasma systems, it is important to consider if your facility is able to meet the power requirements to avoid any unpleasant surprises after purchasing a machine.  

While electrical upgrades are possible to meet the requirements of your plasma system, these can be very expensive and can take a while to complete therefore it is important to factor these into your buying decision. 

It may be possible to operate your plasma at a lower amperage temporarily (i.e. operate an XPR300 as an XPR170) but you won’t be getting the most out of your purchase. The potential increase in capacity obtained via a higher-rated plasma, in the long run, could pay for any additional electrical upgrades required. Below we have included the protection required for different plasma systems.

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Table 3: Plasma Systems – Recommended Power Protection

2.6 Software 

A specialist CAD/CAM software can have a huge impact on the ROI of your machine. It is important to get software that enables you to make full use of your CNC plasma cutting machine. 

Here are some things to consider when looking at different software. 

  • Do you need drawing capability or will you be importing dxf’s from elsewhere and hence only need a nesting facility? 
  • How do you get your files from your computer to the machine? – Network, memory stick or DNC. 
  • Will you be processing high volumes of plates? If yes, you may want to consider Automatic Nesting to maximise plate utilisation. 
  • Do you need to cut bolt-ready holes regularly and does your machine allow for it? 

Some other additional features that could prove beneficial include: 

  • Standard Shapes and Ducting Library – Choosing from an existing library could save you time. 
  • Marking – Does your machine has marking capability (i.e. XPR, HPR etc.)? 
  • Nesting Features – Maximise plate utilisation and consumable life with chain linking, bridging, common line, and stitching. 

2.7 Service 

Even if you are an experienced plasma user, there will likely come a time when you need help, whether that be a machine breakdown or just general advice. The customer service offered by the machine supplier should not be underestimated as the potential knock-on effect of a plasma machine being down unexpectedly can be significant.  

In the event of a machine breakdown, consider how quickly the machine supplier is able to send an engineer to sort the problem? Do they keep spare parts and consumables in stock, and if not, how quickly are they able to get them? 

Customer service is also vitally important leading up to the installation of your machine. A good machine supplier will be there to hold your hand and make sure you have everything you need: power, gas, air, extraction, grounding etc. in place and ready in time for the installation. Additionally having good machine and software training from the outset will enable you to get up and running as quickly as possible.

3: HOW MUCH DOES A CNC PLASMA CUTTING MACHINE COST?

Below we have broken down the price range into 3 different levels.

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Table 4: CNC Plasma Cutting Machine Price Ranges

CNC plasma cutting machines have so many different options available that impact the selling price. 

One addition to consider when purchasing a plasma machine is fume extraction. The cost of a filtration system is linked to the plasma system and size of the cutting machine and your cutting application (cutting aluminium and mild steel require special reinforced units) but, in most cases, will be somewhere between £ 10,000 and £ 20,000. 

Some manufacturers may be able to offer a financing solution tailored to you and your business needs. Find out more about how Esprit can help finance your business growth here.

4: WHAT ARE THE OPERATING COSTS OF A CNC PLASMA CUTTING MACHINE?

The operating costs of a CNC plasma cutting machine are relatively low. We have split them into 3 areas: 

  1. Plasma-Related Costs  
  2. Utilisation 
  3. Depreciation

4.1 Plasma-Related Costs 

When it comes to operating a plasma machine, there are three main costs: power, gas, and consumables. The exact costs of these will vary depending on the machine, plasma system, and the material being cut. Plasma operating costs are generally fairly low and can vary anything from £5 – £15 an hour (1) depending on the material thickness.

Graph 1: Cost per Meter cutting MS with an XPR plasma system at different amperages. (1)

Power – It is not just the machine and plasma that require electricity, consider other essential equipment (extraction units and compressors) that will need power. (2)

Gas – In general gas is the lowest contributor to the hourly operating costs of a plasma machine accounting for around 10 – 15% (when cutting with oxygen and air). Although, when nitrogen is used this can increase nearer to 20%.  Cutting/marking with gases such as F5 or argon will also increase the hourly operating cost. (3) 

Consumables – Consumables are designed to wear over time, however, the speed at which they degrade is dependent on the build quality, the intended plasma system, and the correct use. The higher the amperage you use for cutting, the shorter the consumable life. Advances in plasma technology have improved the life of consumables, which when combined with faster cut speeds, drives down operating costs. Read more on plasma consumables here. (4) 


(1) Costs have been calculated based on data for cutting 6 mm-64 mm mild steel using an XPR plasma system.
(2) Power costs included the plasma system, a machine, and a filter ONLY (these will vary depending on the machine type and size of filter required).
(3) Most costs are calculated based on oxygen and air used (12 mm, 50 mm, and 64 mm on an XPR300 use nitrogen and air).
(4) Consumable costs were based on a best estimate for consumable life. This will vary based on correct usage, correct piercing height, etc.
 

4.2 Utilisation 

It is important, whatever CNC plasma machine you opt for, to get the most out of your machine. 

4.2.1 Labour

When you factor in the cost of direct labour into the hourly operating costs of a plasma machine as discussed above, labour can account for upwards of 90% of the hourly cost. More automated plasma systems, for the most part, can be left alone while running, allowing operators to get on with other work. However, do not underestimate the value of a good and experienced plasma operator as they will ensure you get the most out of your plasma machine and its features. 

4.2.2 Productivity 

The productivity of a CNC plasma cutting machine can be defined by arc on time. Cutting speed is one aspect of this. While faster cut speeds may increase your throughput, if excellent cut quality is essential for your application, you may need to reduce the cutting speed. 

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Table 5: Plasma System Cutting Speed Comparison (*Edge Start)

Another way to increase productivity is to consider a larger machine area as this can allow for cutting and offloading to be done simultaneously at different points on the bed.   

There is also software out there, such as Esprit Automation’s IRIS which displays and records live data that can be used to monitor your machine remotely. From giving you an hourly breakdown of your machine usage to tracking consumable life, this sort of information can help you minimise unnecessary downtime and improve your production rate. 

4.2.3 Maintenance

Regular maintenance is essential for ensuring the longevity of your machine. While maintenance requires the machine to be down temporarily, daily/weekly and monthly maintenance will significantly reduce the risk of a sudden machine breakdown which could end up being more costly. 

Most machine manufacturers offer service contracts. These can vary from one to four times a year depending on the machine’s usage. Again, regular servicing by an experienced engineer is essential for preventing problems before they arise and maximising the productivity of your machine. 

4.3 Depreciation 

A well-built and well-maintained plasma machine can be operational for many years and still hold some value even after 10+ years. So even if you decide at any point to get rid of your machine, you may be able to recuperate some of your investment by reselling the machine. 

5: ARE THERE ANY ALTERNATIVES TO CNC PLASMA CUTTING MACHINES?

For some businesses who just cut scrap metal, buying an expensive CNC plasma cutting machine may not be necessary and it may be worth considering a handheld plasma cutter.  

Plasma cutters are excellent at cutting thicker materials, but if the majority of your cutting is thin metal sheets (< 5 mm), the fast cut speeds and high tolerances of a fiber laser machine may make it a better fit for your business. Read our article fiber lasers vs plasma here

For thicker materials, you may want to consider a waterjet cutting machine. While they have a higher price tag than a plasma machine, if heat distortion is a concern and/or you cut highly intricate profiles to high tolerances, a waterjet may be the best option. 

6: CONCLUSION

Plasma cutters are known for their high productivity and wide cutting range. A CNC plasma cutting machine makes an excellent addition to a production line. However, there are different types of CNC plasma cutters at different price levels. Which one is right for you will depend on your specific application and needs. 

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. 

If you have any questions about plasma cutting, please do not hesitate to contact us

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