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What is Involved in Laser Cutting Acrylic?

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  • Written By: Jillian Peterson
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 17 October 2018
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2018
    Conjecture Corporation
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Laser cutting acrylic is an industrial process used to produce precision plastic pieces by using a highly focused beam of light to cut thick sheets of hard plastic. In industrial laser cutting, diagrams are programmed into a computer that guides the laser. While there are many different types of plastic cutting machines, laser cutting is preferred for thick-sheet acrylic because it produces a smooth edge. For laser cutting acrylic and other materials, there are three common machine configurations that affect how the material is cut by the laser: moving material, flying optics, and hybrid configuration.

The type of laser used most often in industrial laser cutting acrylic is a CO2 laser, which produces a laser beam inside an amplifying chamber that is filled with carbon dioxide. Depending on the machine specifications, CO2 lasers can cut sheet plastic of ranging from 1 mm thickness or less up to heavy plastic such as acrylic that is several inches thick. Laser cutting acrylic in heavier thickness requires a more powerful laser and is usually used for producing signs and acrylic display materials that require a smooth edge.

There are usually two major components to industrial laser cutting acrylic machines: the table or clamps holding the acrylic and the laser head that produces the laser. Different machines put these two components together in different ways to produce different configurations. These laser cutting machine configurations are usually called moving material, flying optics, and a hybrid configuration.

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The moving material machine configuration for laser cutting material involves a laser head that is fixed while the acrylic sheet moves underneath the laser. This machine configuration is often used for cutting unique or complicated shapes into thick sheet acrylic. Moving material laser cutting acrylic machines are also often fitted with accessories to control plastic fumes or dust.

In machines that use flying optics laser cutting, acrylic sheets are fixed and the laser moves over the acrylic, usually on the X-axis and the Y-axis. Flying optics laser cutting machines are more expensive and more difficult to use because they require careful calibration and power for more than one laser. Flying optics machines are generally used to produce three dimensional acrylic pieces when molding or other processes aren’t applicable.

The laser cutting configuration known as hybrid, is a method in which both the material and the laser are capable of movement. Usually, the plastic or acrylic moves on the X-axis and the laser on the Y-axis. Hybrid machines generally use less power, though they require careful calibration for laser cutting acrylic.

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