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Laser or Water Jet Cutting – Making The Right Choice

For many people or businesses that need a part cutting the first decision is the hardest – both laser and water jet cutting sound like they are suitable for the job so which one is best?

There are many pages that claim laser cutting is better, others that push the virtues of water jets. Is there one which is always better or does it vary by the type of job and, if so, how?

We are going to give some honest advice on this page. We should give full disclosure; our business is water jet cutting and so you might expect us to come down on that side. At times we will, but we also appreciate that laser cutting can be the right choice in some circumstances.

The benefits of water jet cutting mean that there is more than enough work in our sector, in fact it is expanding healthily. We are therefore in the happy position of being able to provide a balanced view on the pros and cons of the two technologies.


The thicker the part, the more the dial tips towards water jet cutting.

Water jets can cut through thicker, denser material than lasers – whereas a water jet can cut through up to 25 centimetres of almost any material, lasers struggle beyond a tenth of that; 2.5cm.

This means that for any thick parts water jet is almost automatically the better choice, a laser simply couldn’t perform the task.

Would a laser have the power to cut through Bond?

Where lasers come into their own is with cuts of thin material, a piece of metal 5mm thick for example.

With these thinner parts, lasers might be the more efficient technology (although it will vary by complexity of the cut, which we will come on to). For cutting through thicker material, you should be thinking water jet.


Water jets don’t create heat

The fact that water jet streams don’t create heat is important when it is essential that the edge is not marked.

The heat created by laser cutting won’t be an issue if slight marking of the edge is of little consequence – it is also fair to say that the marks can often be polished off.

However, for some decorative work, it might be beneficial to choose water jet cutting, which will always leave the edge unblemished.

A further consideration is that laser cutting can create some structural damage around the edge, the heat applied potentially creating some weakness along the edge. Again, depending on the nature of the job, this may or may not be a key consideration.


Lasers often favoured for engraving

Some water jet cutters also have the ability to engrave, giving customers another option in an area that used to be largely the preserved of laser cutting.

Laser cutting still undertakes the bulk of this type of work, however the balance is shifting closer to 50/50.

As lasers can have smaller cutting heads they can be a popular choice for extremely detailed work, however it is worth noting that water jet detail is hardly lacking, for example, at TMC we have cut logos for high street stores and worked on art projects for the Whitworth and V&A Museums.


Cutting complex 3-d parts

If secondary cutting is required, there is little difference here between laser and water jet – by that we mean if the part has to be cut along one plane, and then re-set and cut in another direction.

Where water jets can have an advantage is if you choose a company who has XD cutting technology, this being cutting heads that can move in multiple axes. These machines are able to cut complex parts in one fluid motion, keeping costs down and also ensuring there is no risk of errors occurring due to the need to re-set.


Turn-around time

This one is simple – there is unlikely to be a difference here, both technologies are capable of quick turnarounds – exactly how quick will depend on the individual company. Whether it is laser or water jet shouldn’t though make a huge difference.


Verdict – which to choose

You might be thinking that you’re still a bit unsure. That is, unfortunately, unavoidable as there is a huge crossover between the two. There are jobs which only water jets are suitable for, but beyond that both technologies are capable of undertaking the task.

If we could offer two bits of advice they would be these.

Firstly – think about how simple a job it is and how thin the material is. Simple cuts of thin material could be candidates for laser cutting, while anything more complex or involving greater density of material will favour a water jet.

Secondly, if in doubt, get in touch with both a laser cutter and a water jet cutter and chat through your job. Compare the quotes and chat through any key considerations – for example, if the edge has to be perfect this is something to raise, could a laser cutter guarantee a perfect finish?

If you would like to discuss whether water jet cutting might be right for your job, please get in touch with us at TMC. If you want a laser cutter you’re going to need to do a Google search!