A Technical and Commercial Comparison of Fiber Laser and CO2 Laser Cutting

By John Powell, Alexander Kaplan

Since the advent of commercial fiber and disk laser cutting machines, there has been a lot of controversy about the performance of these devices – particularly in comparison to their more established CO2 counterparts. In the early days, the sales staff promoting fiber technology would often declare that the new lasers would completely take over from CO2 technology very quickly – but this has not happened. Even taking into account the entrenched position of the older technology, fiber and disk lasers have not been as widely accepted as was predicted, although they have been proven to out-perform CO2 lasers in certain important areas.

This paper presents a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of both types of cutting technology from a commercial point of view – written from the perspective of a laser cutting job shop owner trying to decide between buying a fiber or CO2 laser cutting machine. A quantitative comparison of the two machines is surprisingly difficult – having given several talks on the subject the best analogy we can give is that it’s like comparing a sports car with a family car.

Fiber lasers have been the subject of a lot of job shop interest for a few of years now – but what are they and what’s the big deal? – and what, for that matter, is a fiber delivered disk laser? In some ways it’s a bit like being back in the 80’s when CO2 laser sales folk were full of high-tech jargon and the job shop owners had to sift through all the sales talk nonsense to work out what M2 meant, and whether or not it was important.

In fact, as far as a job shop manager is concerned there is no real difference between a fiber laser and a fiber delivered disk laser. The differences between them are similar to the differences between the various technology batteries you can get for your torch. As long as the torch helps you to avoid stepping in the dish of cat food during a power cut, what do you care if it runs on Lead Zinc batteries or Star Trek diLithium crystals?

So – for the remainder of this article I will use the term fiber laser to mean both fiber and disk lasers (the technical term for both is ‘high brightness 1 micron lasers’).

Background Information
CO2 laser cutting machines have been the main workhorse of the laser cutting world since the 1970’s. A typical high power CO2 job shop machine has a power of 4 or 5 kW and is used to cut Stainless steel up to 15 mm thick, aluminium up to 8 mm thick, and mild steel (with oxygen assist) up to 20 mm thick and wood or plastics up to 40 mm. (These are commercially typical figures – higher power machines are available and these are not the maximum thicknesses which can be cut at 5 kW).

Fiber and disk laser technologies are a direct extension of Nd:YAG lasers – which have enjoyed a niche in the laser cutting world since the 1980’s. Originally Nd;YAG lasers were used either where fine detail (eg Clock hands) needed to be cut, or where the application demanded that the laser be fed to the workpiece by an optical fiber (e.g. on an automotive production line where space is at a premium). Fiber and Disk lasers are the more efficient, more powerful big brothers of the early Nd:YAG machines. Multikilowatt powers are available and these machines can cut thinner section (3 mm [0.12in] or less) metals considerably faster than CO2 lasers of the same power. The choice between the two types of machine from a job shop point of view is not straight forward – both machines have advantages and disadvantages.

In a meeting in the UK last year, the world’s leading laser cutting expert – Dr. Dirk Petring, summed up the Fiber laser situation by saying that, ‘If you compare the CO2 and fiber laser performance for thin section metal cutting, the CO2 laser is dead’. Within hours I heard a fiber laser cutting salesman misquoting this as ‘The CO2 laser is dead as far as cutting is concerned – Dirk Petring says so’. But two of the most important words in Dirk’s original statement are ‘thin section’.

Fiber lasers do a great job cutting metals thinner than 3 mm (0.12 in) – they are faster than their CO2 counterparts and the edge quality is just as good. If you are a manufacturer of metal cabinets, air ducting components or point of sale display racks, where metal thicknesses are well within this region, the Fiber laser will do the job faster – and will probably be a better choice than a CO2 machine.

For a job shop the choice is less obvious. My own firm uses four big CO2 machines working 24 hours a day. If some new government came along and offered to replace all my machines for free (I wish), I would not choose to get four fiber lasers. I would get three CO2 lasers and one fiber. So – why is this?

The Choice
First of all we need to establish a level playing field – and the most obvious leveler is purchase price. A 5 kW CO2 laser cutting machine costs about the same as a 3kW Fiber one, so we will investigate a comparison between these two types.

There are enough interlinked criteria involved in the direct choice of the two types of machine to drive anyone crazy. Fortunately the big laser cutting machine manufacturers have begun to generate genuine comparative information rather than useless ‘fastest speeds’ data and I am grateful for the information supplied to me by both TRUMPF and Bystronic in the preparation of this paper.

Although the detailed data can be confusing, there are only two basic considerations for the laser user;

  1. How expensive will it be to produce my parts? and
  2. Is the cut quality good enough?

If we are comparing two machines which involve similar capital investment, the expense of the parts is highly dependent on the time it takes to make them – and the costs per hour of running the machine.

Cutting Speeds
At first glance the production time must be related to the cutting speed – and, in the past, the sales people have concentrated on a comparison of the highest speed at which the laser can cut any given material. But this figure isn’t that useful in a general engineering context – for the same reasons that the top speed of your car has very little impact on how fast you can drive from one side of town to the other.

Figure 1. Typical job shop components (the squares on the paper are 5 mm (0.2 in)
Figure 1. Typical job shop components (the squares on the paper are 5 mm (0.2 in)

A 3 kW fiber laser can cut 1 mm thick stainless steel at about 30 m/min (20 ips) and a 5 kW CO2 machine will only achieve about one third of this speed. However – if you are cutting typical job shop components (like the ones in figure 1) the speed advantage of the fiber laser might only result in a 25% – 50% increase in productivity rather than the hoped for 300%. This is because the machines spend most of their time accelerating, decelerating and stopping to pierce the material. Videos are now available from TRUMPF and Bystronic which demonstrate this point very clearly and show that the speed differential gets progressively smaller as the complexity of the cut part increases. Other work by Bystronic also makes the point that machine acceleration rates are just as important as laser type if you need the fastest production times. This is particularly true when cutting thin section materials – where a high acceleration (but more expensive) cutting machine attached to a CO2 laser can beat a fiber laser attached to a lower acceleration machine.

So – fiber lasers are considerably faster than their CO2 counterparts when cutting thin section material in large simple shapes – like refrigerator doors for example. When assessing the purchase of a machine for this type of job it is important to remember that the overall job time includes the changeover time from sheet to sheet. If you are cutting a full sheet of steel into two refrigerator doors in 3 minutes, the speed of the sheet changeover mechanism might have a considerable effect on production costs.

As material thicknesses increase to 4 mm (0.16 in) the cutting speeds of both lasers start to converge and, because they are cutting slower, the maximum cutting speed is reached more often. At thicknesses above about 8 mm (0.32 in) the CO2 laser is the faster technology – and in this regime, a comparison of highest cutting speeds starts to be useful because the laser cutting process is rate determining rather than the acceleration characteristics of the machine.

One other point to be made here is the fact that piercing times have been much improved by the better manufacturers (like Bystronic and TRUMPF) over the past few years. So a new machine will out-perform an older machine in terms of acceleration and piercing times irrespective of the laser type it is attached to.

In summary – the fiber laser cuts metal faster at thicknesses below about 4 mm (0.16 in) but these speed differences are most advantageous when cutting large, simple shapes.

Running Costs
For an accurate comparison the running costs of our two machines should be compared per item rather than per hour. If machine ‘A’ costs 10 percent more to run than machine ‘B’ but produces 20 percent more products an hour, then it’s part production running costs are lower, not higher than B.

However, to work out the actual costs we need to start from running costs per hour. Running costs can be divided into several different categories, including;

  • Electricity, laser gas, cutting gas, operator salary, and maintenance costs.
  • As a general comparison the following points are true;
  • Electricity costs of a 3 kW fiber laser cutting machine are between 25 percent and 50 percent of a 5 kW CO2 machine.
  • Fiber lasers don’t use laser gas.
  • Fiber lasers generally use bigger nozzles and therefore more cutting gas than CO2 machines.

The most important of these considerations is that of electricity costs. Although the exact figures vary from model to model we can assume that a 3 kW fiber laser cutting machine (including dust extraction etc) consumes approximately 20 kW whereas a 5 kW CO2 machine consumes about three times this much. In the UK electricity costs approximately £0.10 per kilowatt – so the CO2 laser will cost approximately £4.00 ($6) more per hour to run. If you are trying to reduce costs above all else then you might find that a fiber laser attached to a cheaper (lower acceleration) machine can produce parts more cheaply because the purchase and running costs are minimized. This point has been proved on typical parts by a number of trials carried out by Bystronic. Part production costs will be low even though your rate of production will also be low. This point is more probably appropriate to a manufacturer rather than a job shop. In a job shop situation there should (hopefully) be plenty of work waiting to go on the laser – so high productivity is very important and each cut product has a profit associated with it. A manufacturer might only need the laser to produce goods for a certain part of the week – so a cheaper to run (fiber), less expensive (lower acceleration) machine might be the optimum purchase.

On a day-to-day basis, fiber lasers cost less than CO2 lasers to maintain – but, although the maintenance costs of a CO2 laser over ten years (including large item failures) are well known, fiber lasers are not yet old enough for large item replacement costs to be known. A typical large item failure on a CO2 laser would be a turbo/blower, at a cost of about $20,000. The large items on a fiber laser could involve considerably higher costs but we don’t have enough data on long term usage yet.

Cut Quality
In the early days of fiber lasers the cut quality achievable above a thickness of about 6 mm (0.25 in) was demonstrably poorer than that of CO2 machines. However, the various R&D departments of the manufacturers have improved this situation and the cut quality differences between the two technologies are now less dramatic. Figure 2 shows a comparison of cut edge roughness between the two types of laser from work carried out at The Welding Institute (UK). Over the range of thicknesses shown here the laser cut edge retains its low roughness, but the fiber laser cut edge experiences a steady increase of edge roughness with material thickness – particularly towards the bottom of the cut edge.

Fig. 2: Cut edge roughness results for Fiber and CO2 Laser cutting (courtesy of The Welding Institute - UK) (6.35 mm = 0.25 in)
Fig. 2: Cut edge roughness results for Fiber and CO2 Laser cutting (courtesy of The Welding Institute – UK) (6.35 mm = 0.25 in)
Fig. 3: Typical CO2 laser cut edge quality for 10 mm (0.4in) Stainless steel (Courtesy of Fraunhofer ILT Aachen Germany).
Fig. 3: Typical CO2 laser cut edge quality for 10 mm (0.4in) Stainless steel (Courtesy of Fraunhofer ILT Aachen Germany).

From a general engineering point of view, below 4 mm (0.16 in) the cut edges are similar for both types of laser for fusion cutting – and I have seen equivalent quality CO2/fiber cuts up to 6 or 8 mm (0.25 or 0.32 in) – however, as the thickness exceeds these intermediate thicknesses, it is true that the cut edge quality of fiber laser cutting is inferior to the CO2 laser. Fiber laser salesmen will point out that it’s still pretty good – but some customers would be unhappy taking a reduced cut quality to the one they are used to. Typical cut edge quality for 10 mm (0.4 in) stainless steel for the two types of laser are shown in figures 3 (CO2) and 4 (fiber). There is a clear increase in roughness of the cut edge towards the bottom of the cut edge in the case of the fiber laser cut.

For Oxygen-assisted cutting of mild steel the cut quality for fiber laser cutting at all thicknesses has been much improved over the past few years, and is nowadays comparable to CO2 laser cutting.

Fig. 4: Typical Fiber laser cut edge quality for 10 mm (0.4 in) Stainless steel (Courtesy of Fraunhofer ILT Aachen Germany).
Fig. 4: Typical Fiber laser cut edge quality for 10 mm (0.4 in) Stainless steel (Courtesy of Fraunhofer ILT Aachen Germany).

Range of Materials
Fiber lasers are better than CO2 machines at cutting copper and aluminium alloys but cannot cut most non-metals such as polymers (plastics) or wood based products.

Most job shops cut only a small amount of non-metals so this inability to cut plastics should have been only a minor concern. However – there is one area where plastics cutting is important to laser cutting. A great deal of the stainless steel which is cut by laser is supplied with a covering of protective plastic. The CO2 laser beam is readily absorbed by both the plastic and the steel beneath and so the two materials are cut in one pass. In the case of Fiber lasers the plastics used are usually transparent as far as the beam is concerned and, if this is the case, the cutting machine needs to carry out the cut in two operations;

  1. Run over the shape to be cut with a defocused beam – to melt the plastic out of the way, and
  2. Cut the steel with the focused beam.

This double process has two disadvantages – it wastes production time, and it leaves a residue of melted plastic on the top face of the cut component along the cut line (although this residue is fairly easy to remove). Recently the steel suppliers have made some new plastic coatings available which are absorptive of fiber laser light – and which can be cut in one pass at the same time as the steel – but these are not yet easily available.

Both CO2 and fiber laser machines are adequately enclosed to protect the operators and are classified as completely safe. The only difference between the two types of laser concerns the transparent panels which are used to view the cutting operation. In the case of CO2 lasers these panels are made of cheap, readily available polycarbonate, and it is standard practice for a job shop to cut their own replacement panels as the old ones get scratched and damaged. The panels used on fiber laser machines are much more high-tech and must not be replaced by polycarbonate – as polycarbonate and most other plastics are transparent to a fiber laser beam.

The Verdict
If you are a job shop boss with the usual wide spread of cutting requirements then you should buy CO2 machines until you have enough suitable work to fill the capacity of a fiber laser. This will usually mean that you will have approximately three CO2 machines for every fiber machine.

If you are the boss of a manufacturing firm making items from thin section metals or copper or aluminium alloys then your first choice should probably be a fiber laser.

But – in either case it’s a good idea to get the potential suppliers of the equipment carry out actual cutting trials on typical jobs (and don’t forget to include the sheet changeover times in your assessment).