CNC vs Laser Cutter- How do They Compare

Many people are confused when they attempt to evaluate a CNC vs laser cutter to manufacture precision components and parts. Although some people use these terms in an interchangeable manner, this is imprecise, and they perform different functions.

CNC vs Laser Cutter How are they Similar

Both tools are used in fabrication processes, and they are widely used in modern manufacturing. They boost productivity, efficiency, and performance, and they can significantly reduce cutting waste. The CNC router and laser cutter are designed to perform precision subtractive processes on the stock materials that are used to make parts. The designs that can be manufactured are virtually limitless.

However, there are key differences between these applications, they offer unique advantages and features so, which one is the best fit for your needs cnc vs laser cutter?

What Is A CNC Router?

Let’s begin our CNC router vs. laser cutter comparison with an overview of automated CNC cutting. A CNC router is a contact-based cutting process that works in a similar way to a handheld router that’s found in many well equipped workshops.

These machines are well suited to precision cutting or engraving at high speeds. A variety of materials can be cut, including acrylic, plastic, wood, foam, composites, aluminum, and steel.

The CNC machine is programmed with the desired design, and then the router carves and cuts the material to reveal the part. The computer controls the position of the router blade and the positioning as it moves back and forth and through various axes. This is known as subtractive precision cutting, less material waste is generated, which equates to lower material costs.

The increased productivity, efficiency, and lower material costs make CNC routers an attractive option for manufacturers.

What Is A Laser Cutter?

A laser cutter is also directed by a CNC machine, the design is programmed in advance, and the cutting follows those instructions. But, the main difference is how the cutting process happens.

A laser cutter uses a thermal-based non-contact process that focuses a high-powered laser beam onto the stock material. No physical custom-designed tooling is needed to cut shapes and designs. The cutting uses heat only to make the cuts, no carving occurs, and this makes this process ideal for certain applications.

The laser cutting fabrication process works well on a number of materials, including glass, plastic, foam, wood, paper, gemstones, corrugation, and metal. Because CNC technology is used to direct the laser cutter, these processes are easy to replicate.

So, you can consistently produce more complex designs than you could make with standard power tools. Intricate components can be manufactured to high tolerances, and smooth finishes are easy to create. No extra finishing, treating, cleaning, or other processes are required to get that clean and smooth edged finish.

A laser cutter can efficiently cut through tough materials, such as hard gemstones and metals. This makes these machines a great option if you need fast prototyping with an amazing level of detail.

CNC vs Laser Cutter: How Are They Similar?

CNC Machine

Now that we have a good overview of both tools let’s take a look at the CNC vs laser cutter comparison more closely to understand how they are similar.

The first thing that we need to cover is Computer Numeric Control (CNC) devices. As you can see from the beginning of this section, many people use the term CNC when they mean CNC router.

This is an important distinction because CNC technology is used to control routers and laser cutters.

Operations that were previously restricted to hand or standard power tools can now be rapidly and efficiently reproduced with a CNC system using a router or laser cutter. The programming and operations of the CNC systems are virtually identical.

What is the Difference Between a CNC and a Laser?

There are five main differences between a CNC router and a laser cutter:

1.    CNC vs Laser Cutter Size

If you compare the size of a laser cutter to a CNC router, you will notice that the former has a smaller overall footprint. This is because there is no need for additional tooling, and the galvanometer laser head doesn’t need a gantry system.

A CNC router is larger because it has a number of ancillary systems, including lubricant reservoirs, dust collectors, attachments, and more.

So, if you have a smaller workshop, you may want to consider a laser cutter if it’s a good fit for your business or hobby needs.

2.    The Tools

A CNC router has more flexibility in terms of tools. You can use a variety of different cutting bits to make specific cuts or to cut certain materials. Laser cutters are less flexible. There are no tools to change, but there are some adjustments that you can make, including the speed, focus spot, and the laser power.

These changes can help you to have some cutting flexibility for your next project. If you want to upgrade your laser cutter to a more powerful module, this will cost more than a different CNC router bit.

3.    Cutting Speeds

A laser cutter has a higher processing speed than a CNC router. It can cut through most materials with only a single pass. A CNC router tends to require multiple passes to achieve the same cutting process.

To put this into some perspective, a laser cutter tends to process most materials at twice the speed of a CNC router. A 60W laser cutter can cut ⅛” thick birch plywood with a maximum feed rate of 120 ipr, and a CNC router cutting the same material would have a feed rate of approximately 72.3 ipr.

But, it’s important to note that the performance of a laser cutter drops as the material thickness increases.

4.    Noise Levels

The operation of a CNC router is reliant on the action of a high-speed spindle that rotates to drive the routing bits. As you can imagine, this is far noisier than a laser cutter which has fewer moving parts. During normal operations, a CNC router generates 75 dB of noise, and this drops to 50 dB for a laser cutter machine.

5.    Material Cutting Capabilities

CNC vs laser cutter

A CNC router can process acrylic, wood, composites, plastic, HDPE, and non-ferrous metals (aluminum, brass, copper, etc.). Laser cutters can cut and engrave acrylic, foam, leather, paper, plastic, rubber, glass, fabrics, polypropylene, and metals (aluminum, brass, steel, etc.).

As you can see, there is some overlap, but the cutting quality of a laser cutter is far cleaner and superior to a CNC router. If you need to cut non-metals, the CO2 laser is a solid choice, and if you want to cut sheet metal, a fiber laser is ideal.

When Would You Choose To Use A CNC vs Laser Cutter

If you’re primarily cutting or carving thicker materials, such as aluminum, acrylic wood, MDF, and others, a CNC router is the best choice.

When Would You Choose To Use A Laser Cutter Over A CNC Router? 

If you’re interested in cutting at shallower depths, with more precision, clean engraving, and lower noise levels, then a laser cutter is superior.

Difference Between a CNC vs Laser Cutter- In Conclusion

As you can see, the CNC vs laser cutter comparison is not an easy proposition. They are both similar and yet very different in how they work. Choosing the right machine to meet your specific needs is important. However, now you should understand what is the difference between a CNC and a laser.

A CNC router is ideal if you need to work on thicker work pieces to make 3D shapes by carving at specific depths. A laser cutter is an excellent choice if you’re cutting or engraving thinner work-pieces, but burning can discolor a cut edge on certain materials.