There’s a good chance you’ve heard of both CNC cutting (or routing!) and laser cutting before and likely have some sort of idea what they do. Heck, laser cutting has a huge giveaway in its name! But beyond some very loose basics, it can be tough to know exactly what both of these machines do. It can be even tougher to figure out what the differences and benefits they each have over one another too! These two pieces of machinery are a vital part of everyday work at Plyco and it’s this reason that inspired us to lay everything out and clearly show-off what makes CNC and laser cutting different.
Firstly, we need to take a look at what exactly each of these machines is before we can examine the differences. A CNC cutting machine’s most obvious characteristic is that it cuts through direct physical contact. However, unlike countless other cutting tools at your disposal, a CNC machine is automized and follows a set programmed path through computer numerical control.
Plyco's very own CNC cutting machine
Laser cutters are quite similar in that they follow a programmed path that has been set out in advance but differs radically when it comes time for it to cut. Instead of the physical method, it uses a laser, as the name suggests, to cut through the plywood. This process works by directing the output of a high powered laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) through optics.
In explaining what each cutting machine is we’ve come to our first difference; CNC cutting is achieved through friction, while laser cutting is achieved through heat.
This difference is the most crucial, as it helps set each machine apart and gives them each a number unique areas where they thrive.
One of the biggest advantages CNC cutting has is that it’s relatively low-cost, especially when compared to laser cutting. The price is why CNC machining has been so popular in a number of different industries for such a long time. While the cost of purchasing a laser cutter itself makes it a more expensive option, the power consumption also contributes to making it a costlier option than CNC.
A wild CNC machine in action!
As the old saying goes though, “you get what you pay for” and that certainly applies to laser cutting. When cutting with a laser you have access to a level of precision and intricacy that just isn’t possible through friction-based methods. You have an excessive amount of control with a laser cutter, which allows you to get incredibly creative with your cuts and do things like setting the radius of the beam to as little as 0.1mm.
The burning technique used with laser cutters also results in noticeably cleaner edges, with the added benefit that burning will seal edges for you automatically, preventing the expansion and contraction of plywood. It may have a heavier cost attached to it, but there’s no doubt that the laser pays it back to you in many ways.
We have lasers. We truly are living in the future.
Despite laser cutters having so many fancy features and positive aspects, there are still areas where a good old-fashioned CNC machine thrives.
The biggest advantage you’ll see from using a CNC cutting machine is that it makes diagonal, curved and straight-line cuts incredibly easy. Because you are programming the machine to make the cuts and not having to do it by hand with a saw or similar tool you are almost completely eliminating any chance of human error. This is the most common issue that will crop up in your woodworking, so having a machine that can make these cuts perfect for you is a real blessing.
Overall, on paper, it seems like laser cutters are the clear-cut favourite but it really comes down to what your needs are. Laser cutters have a lot of extra bells and whistles, but also costs significantly more. A CNC cutter probably won’t have you cutting insanely creative designs like you would see with laser plywood, but it will give you perfect simpler cuts for a much cheaper price, which may be all that you need.