What Is Laser Beam Machining?

Maggie J. Hall

Laser beam machining, or LBM, involves using laser beam technology to perform functions typically accomplished by conventional milling machines. The type of lasers most often used include the carbon dioxide (CO2) and the neodymium doped:yttrium aluminum garnet (Nd:YAG). The adaptability of these tools allows them to perform more than one function, and the wide range of industries that often use laser beam machining technology includes automakers and jewelers.

A laser cutter is used to cut a sheet of metal.
A laser cutter is used to cut a sheet of metal.

A CO2 laser is one of the more powerful types of laser used in laser beam machining. These lasers can generate 400 to 1,500 watts of power, which can cut through 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) thick carbon steel. The tool uses mirrors that direct the proton laser beam to the desired cutting location. The laser generally makes a tapered cut as it moves along the z-axis whie the work surface travels along the x and y-axes. Industries generally use the power of the CO2 laser for cutting and profiling.

Lasers, especially burning laser, can cause blindness if pointed at the eyes.
Lasers, especially burning laser, can cause blindness if pointed at the eyes.

The flexibility of the YAG laser beam enables manufacturers to use a machine that transmits the beam directly to the cutting surface or through something as small as a fiber optic cable. Lasers transmitted through fiber optics can be incorporated into robotic machines that can move on any axis around a stationary work site. While not as powerful as a CO2 laser, a YAG laser can drill a hole to a depth of six times the diameter of its beam. Besides laser boring, industries commonly employ YAG lasers for etching and engraving.

Depending on the function required, industries utilize CO2 or YAG tools for laser beam machining, and computer numerical control (CNC) instrumentation relays desired tasks to the laser. Manufacturers design each tool in sizes ranging from tabletop models to free standing room-sized machines. Small business owners and large industrial factories both use laser beam machining on materials ranging from cardboard, cork, and wood to steel, steel alloys, and stone.

Industrial manufacturing applications include cutting or welding metals in aircraft, automotive, and shipbuilding factories. Jewelers also use laser welding on delicate pieces of jewelry, and machinists use laser beam machining to resurface corroded parts by fusing material to damaged areas. Laser beams perform intricate cuts in plastic and metal sheeting for components installed in household electronics or machinery. Functioning similarly to an ink jet printer, laser beam machining is also used to engrave glass, plastic, and stone.

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