Laser cutter advantages and disadvantages (vs CNC router, 3D printer)

With advancements in technology, CNC (Computer Numeric Control) machines have become standard in modern manufacturing. All these machines use similar principles for motion control, but they do operate in different ways and each of them has its advantages and disadvantages. No CNC machine does everything perfectly. In this particular article, we will look at the advantages and disadvantages of a CO2 laser cutter compared to other CNC machines.

Laser cutter vs CNC router

Laser cutter and CNC router

These machines often get compared to one another because applications for both are quite similar. They are both used for rapid prototyping and manufacturing all sorts of things from a range of materials. Both machines cut through stuff by removing material, but the difference is how they do that. Lasers are contactless, they use laser beam (focused, high energy light) while routers are mechanical and use rotating drill bits.

Laser cutter advantages

  • Precision – routers cannot beat precision of a laser cutter, because no matter how small bits you use the kerf will still be substantially smaller on a laser cutter (kerf of a laser cutter is around 0.1 mm). This can be seen on sharp corners, where the CNC router will always have slightly rounded corners equal to the diameter of a drill bit. Not to mention that using small bits on a router will increase the time required to complete the job + they tend to break more easily so your operational cost will increase. So for any work involving really small parts and high precision go with a laser.
  • Ease of use – if you gave 2 people (with no previous CNC knowledge) the same job to do on these two machines, the one with the laser would be up and running a lot faster than the one with a router. Lasers are (basically) plug-and-play while routers require quite a bit of setup. With lasers there is a need to set specific bits or clamp materials, you just put it in position and start your program. Also, designing for laser cutting is easier. With routers, you have to take into account kerf and add tabs to the inner pieces so they don’t fall out and get stuck into a bit be thrown across the room. With lasers, there is none of that. What you see on the computer monitor is what you are going to get on the material.
  • Less labor – Clamping material to the surface to it stays in place while routers carve pieces of material away is only one of the additional steps you need to take compared to a laser cutter. Since laser cutting is contactless there is no need to clamp materials, change bits, or remove loose woodchips. Sometimes drills pull more wood than intended so you need to go back and finish the edges if you want it to be perfect. While a certain amount of cleaning is necessary with both machines, it’s a lot easier to extract smoke and deal with off-cut pieces that fall off a laser, than it is to remove dust and small ground pieces of material from a router.
  • Speed – now this will depend on specific machine and materials used, but generally for the same material thickness laser cutter will complete the job faster especially if you include setup time which takes longer on a router.
  • Noise – routers are quite noisy, and while exhaust fan of a laser cutter can also get quite noisy depending on the model you get, you can always drill a hole, drag a tube through it and run your exhaust fan in the other room if it gets that annoying. With a router, you just have to get used to it.
  • Engraving resolution – with the dot size of about 0.1 mm laser cutter offers a much higher resolution for engraving pictures.

CNC router advantages

  • Materials – this one can go both ways because there are materials that CNC router cannot work with (or not very efficiently) that lasers can (like paper), but the ability to work with PVC, carbon fiber and softer metals like aluminum should be counted as an advantage for the routers. Both machines have materials that they work better with, so find out which material you will be working for the majority of your time and then take the machine that gives you the best result for it.
  • Thickness – Laser cutters (at least the ones in a reasonable price range) can only cut relatively thin materials while for CNC routers thickness is not a problem as long as you get correct router bits or go in multiple passes. You can do multiple passes with lasers as well but you will burn the edges and the quality of the cut will not be that great.
  • Depth of cut (3D carvings) – along with thickness this is probably the biggest advantage router have over lasers. Lasers are essentially 2D machine and while they are capable for some degree of depth engraving (through power level manipulation), it comes nowhere near to the quality of the results that can be achieved with CNC routers.
  • Larger working area –if you, for example, wanted to carve your front door, a router with that bed size is not that expensive compared to a laser of a similar size. No matter how big of a laser cutter you get, you will always run into a job that will need a bigger working area (although there are ways around that – it’s a hustle).
  • Price – CNC routers are cheaper when comparing similarly sized laser cutters. The price of a laser cutter goes up with wattage and bed size.

Laser cutter vs 3D printer

Laser cutter and 3D printer

These machines work in a very different way. Like we already said, lasers are “subtractive”, meaning that they start with a block of raw material and remove parts of it to cut it into final designs. 3D printers are the exact opposite, or “additive” – they start with empty working area and add one layer on top of another.

Laser advantages

  • Speed – subtractive manufacturing method is much faster in general, it’s not even a contest. Some 3D printed designs can sometimes take days to produce while even the most complex laser jobs will take a few hours. This is why laser cutting is used for manufacturing multiple parts while 3D printers are usually used for creating 3D prototypes to identify flaws before designs go to manufacturing. 
  • Materials – another reason why 3D printers are not often used for production is the fact that they use less durable materials and are limited by choice of materials. The 3D printer uses mostly plastic, while laser cutters can cut a wide variety of natural and manmade materials.
  • Easier design – designing in 2D is a lot simpler than designing in 3D since there is one less dimension to worry about, not to mention that our brain has a much easier time comprehending two dimensions compared to three. Remember how you were drawing when you were a kid?
  • Little to no post-processing – 3D printers require a fair amount of post-processing for every printed part. These include removing support material, smoothing the surface with sanding or chemicals for a better finish, etc… With laser cutting, there is little to none of that. Most of the time there is no need to even clean the piece that was cut.

3D printer advantages

  • 3D – this one is obvious. A laser cutter can only produce flat two dimensional objects, while with 3D printers you are only limited by your imagination (and working area).
  • Fewer byproducts – 3D printers are cleaner machines. They don’t burn materials, so there is no smoke or other byproducts that need to be ventilated (melted plastic stinks though); there is no (or very little) excess material that needs to be disposed of. No burning means that there is less chance of things catching on fire, although there were some fires that were caused by 3D printers, so be careful if you want to keep then in your house.
  • Price – 3D printers are usually used for printing smaller items and a small, hobbyist 3D printers come quite cheap these days (couple hundred dollars), while laser cutters are still a bit more expensive, especially when you calculate additional necessities like extraction and cooling.

There you have it. What we always recommend is that you figure out what it is that you want your machine to make and then choose the best one for the job. Hopefully, by now you have a better understanding of the pros and cons for each of these machines so you can determine which machine will best suit your needs.