Fiber Laser Cutting technology has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years. In that same time competition has cranked up severely and prices have plummeted. The result has been many more companies and startups are able to afford a fiber laser cutting machine and older processes like Punching, Plasma and Waterjet have been bypassed by the cheaper price and surpassed by the better capability of a fiber laser. Although Fiber laser technology has drastically improved, it still may not be for everyone and certainly isn't for every application, however where it fits, it shines. 

What's the Difference? 

In years past the choices were pretty simple when it came to shape cutting steel, Oxy-Fuel & Plasma Cutting and later CNC Turret Punches. Oxy Fuel & Plasma dominated any steels in the 3/8"+/- range and punching in the 1/4" or less range. Although the machines were expensive and specific tooling required for the punches shape cutting steel was getting more precise and efficient. These two methods were effective and efficient in the manufacturing environments of the 1970's and 1980's but shop owners need more accuracy and capability. 

Later in the 1990's, waterjet and laser cutting joined (en mass) in the mix and provided a few different capabilities. Waterjet gave the capability to cut virtually any material (Read More on Waterjets Here) with laser like accuracy and CO2 Lasers gave us the capability to cut precise shapes in thinner sheet metal up to about 1/2" at amazing speeds, but both of these new technologies came at a cost. Waterjets simply were too slow and expensive to operate for production jobs that could easily be accomplished on a turret punch or plasma table and CO2 lasers were finicky to operate and expensive to buy with the average price of a CO2 laser cutting system in the $400-500K range. Lasers were simply out of reach of the average small shop or startup. 

By the early 2000's Waterjet cutting was winning in the shape cutting market as the technology was cheaper to buy, easy enough to maintain and cut any material you could throw under the nozzle. Although waterjets had an operating cost of around $30 and hour and were not terribly great at efficiently cutting steel, they certainly opened a lot of doors and added new capability to thousands of shops in North America. Buyer's found that in a waterjet was a machine that could give them the accuracy of a laser at 1/4 of the price. However the difficulty still remained in the high operating cost and slow cutting speeds in comparable materials, but either way waterjet had its niche. 

The Conversion of Laser Cutting

In the 1990's and early 2000's the technology of laser cutting wasn't sitting idle by any means. Machines were built faster and resonators packed more power giving capabilities above 1" plate steel. However due to the complex design of the resonator and beam delivery system the machines still were very expensive and required a great deal of very skilled maintenance to keep them in peak performance. These machines also consumed an enormous amount of laser gasses to create the beam, intensify it and keep the beam path pure. All these gases, along with mirrors for beam reflection, lenses for focusing and backflash protection needed to be inspected, maintained, replaced and above all else, kept cool by enormous refrigeration systems. The technology of CO2 Laser cutting had reached the peak of efficiency but came at a whopping cost of over 1M for the most capable 10KW systems. 

In 2008 a Italian company, Salvagnini, known for innovation in automation, introduced the first solid state fiber optic delivered metal laser cutting system to the world market. In 2009 at Fabtech in Chicago IL they introduced this new technology to the North American market, the only fiber laser in attendance. This new technology promised to solve many of the problems of CO2 machines and had developmental potential for much simpler machines and thus cheaper machines. Solid State Resonators coupled with Fiber Optic technology were not new at the time, however they had never been provided as a standard package from a major machine tool manufacturer and when Salvaignini broke the ice the rest of the manufacturers followed. 

The Fiber Solution

This solid state resonator combined with a fiber delivery to the cutting head solved an enormous amount of problems associated with CO2 laser cutting machines. First the resonator was simplified with no moving parts and components that looked straight out of a PC compared to that of a mini nuclear reactor the CO2 machines ran on. Secondly the resonators required no laser gases in the resonator and the heat reduction in the process was less than 10% of the requirement from CO2 competitors. Lastly now the machines became vastly simpler to build without the need for additional focal axis (U-Axis) of the CO2's almost any builder with a router, plasma or waterjet table design could now quickly modify their machine for laser cutting. 

Another great development during the 2010's was competition to the Fiber Laser behemoth, IPG. In the early days of Fiber laser cutting IPG Photonics was the only player as they controlled the designs, patents, parts and solutions. Any integrator that wanted to start with Fiber Lasers had to use IPG, there simply were not any other viable options. 

The Boom in Technology 

As of this writing there are available Laser Resonators from major manufacturers in excess of 50KW in capacity and many manufacturers providing their own designs in competition with IPG. Systems from Max Photonics, Raycus, nLight, Hans and so many more are creating a deep drop in pricing while at the same time increasing the power, and thus cutting capability. The increase in competition, increase in capabilities of these resonators combined with the design simplification of fiber has created an amazing effect for the consumer, affordable machines with greater capability.

Today new fiber laser cutting machines with the capability to cut up to 1" steel are widely available in the North American market for under $200K with even some machines available to the savvy buyer for under $100K (direct imports). This capability potential has opened the doors for many new shops to finally add laser cutting capability to their shop and thus add $$$'s to their pocket.  

Scraping Technology? 

As fiber lasers have become far more affordable does it mean Plasma, Punching and Waterjet are destined to the 'scrap heap' of machine tools such as happened with shaper machines? Simply put, NO. Each one of these technologies has a unique space in manufacturing where it fits well, is the most productive and efficient and in some cases the ONLY process that can achieve the needs. As an example:


Lasers are very well suited for cutting metals in the gage to 1" capacity range. Thicker materials tend to consume an enormous amount of cutting assist gases while not providing compelling efficiency over plasma. Accurate part cutting can be achieved down to just a few thousands of an inch in a part profile.

Materials processed: Thin AL, SS and MS 


Efficient and fast in cutting steels, Plasma systems are still the go-to for Carbon steel sheets in the 7 GA (1/4" or thicker ranges) where accuracies required are measured in fractions of an inch. 

Materials Processed: Steel & SS 


While still very capable punching systems (typically referred to as Turret punches) have been affected the most first by CO2 Laser technology, then waterjets and now Fiber.  CNC Punching requires dedicated tooling, more difficulty in material handling and is limited in thicknesses it can handle, typically 1/4" and under. The only saving grace for punching is its ability to form features such as louvers, dimples, recesses and more. Where forming is required on metals AND that forming is within the range of the punching machine, you likely will not find a better process. Accuracies achieved here are two-fold, exact dimensions as achieved by a single punch and under 0.010" across the machines travel.

Materials Processed: Steel, SS, AL, Copper, Brass


Waterjet is the most capable shape cutting process available, however it is the most expensive as well. Capable of cutting any material you can touch to thicknesses of 6" and above, waterjet can do it all (except forming). However it is likely one of the slower processes and at $30+ an hour in operating expenses, one of the most expensive, and although finicky there is no machine simpler to operate than an abrasive waterjet. Accuracies achieved in this process are similar to those of the laser with approximately a minimum 1MM cutting width.

Materials Processed: ALL (YES ALL)

Fiber Laser Wrap Up 

In summary Fiber Laser Technology has grown so quickly and affordable that it is leaving these other machines sitting on the dealers showroom floors. Shops are starting up and branching out using the new affordable technology available and creating new opportunities and becoming more competitive in the process. Machines up to 2KW are available in single phase and under 10K from reputable N. American companies that offer good support which in turn is leading to many shops starting out of home garages and shops. The technology is there as is the capacity, capability and price which leaves only one question; If you don't have a fiber laser in your fab shop you really have to ask yourself, Why Not?

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