4. Capabilities and Limitations of Custom Laser Cutting
With our custom laser cutting service, you can create custom, two-dimensional plastic parts suitable for a variety of projects. We can laser cut almost anything you can draw, including sharp angles, smooth curves, small screw holes, and complex lace designs, and we can also laser engrave text, logos, and photos onto your parts.
- Cut up to 1/2" acrylic or wood comfortably, and up to 1" acrylic or wood under special circumstances.
- Cut very thin materials including 0.003" mylar sheets
- Cut stainless steel and spring steel up to 0.060"
- Cut, raster engrave, and vector engrave parts up to 47.5" x 47.5"
- Cut holes as small as the laser beam widths, around 0.01"
- Use a variety of file types including DXF, DWG, CDR, AI, PDF, and SVG.
- Draw parts for you based on a sketch
- Cut just one part or thousands of parts, and anything in between (we do provide price breaks)
We mainly laser cut custom plastic parts, but we can also make custom wood, rubber, and foam parts, as well as thin custom metal parts. We stock acrylic, ABS, Delrin®, Mylar, PETG, and styrene in various colors and thicknesses. You may also send us your own material. Please see our Materials for Laser Cutting section for a complete list of materials we can cut.
We cannot cut glass, polycarbonate (Lexan), carbon fiber, thicker metals, or any material containing chlorine, including PVC and vinyl. Please see materials we cannot laser cut for a comprehensive list. If you need a metallic look, we do stock two-tone acrylic-based sheets with a thin, faux-metal top layer, and you could also consider cutting up to 0.060" stainless or spring steel pieces and adhering them to thicker backing made of plastic or wood.
We can only laser cut two-dimensional parts, but you can create three-dimensional designs from flat pieces with tabs and slots and some glue, brackets, and screws, as shown in these examples:
You might try Weld-On acrylic adhesives for gluing acrylic/Plexiglas parts. Hardware stores usually carry thick, black glue for gluing ABS parts. You must take care when drilling holes in acrylic, which is brittle and tends to crack (it is better to have us laser-cut small screw holes). ABS, PETG, styrene, and wood are easier to machine by hand.
A pentomino piece, showing engraved solution.
We can do two types of laser engraving (also called laser etching): vector engraving and raster engraving. Engraving depths can range from barely scratching the surface to almost going through the material; we cannot control the depths very precisely, but we will try our best to achieve what you need. In general, laser engraving is suitable for marking material (not for making deep grooves for mechanical purposes).
- Vector engraving is for etching lines that are the width of the laser beam (around 0.01"); it is just like laser cutting, but the laser does not cut all the way through the material. Vector engraving is limited to line art. The blue pentominoes puzzle piece example uses vector engraving to show the puzzle solutions on the pieces.
- Raster engraving is slower and more costly than vector engraving, and is used for engraving bitmaps (JPG or GIF files of logos, photos, etc.), text, and filled-in areas of your vector drawing file. Raster engraving is more flexible; you can engrave thin lines as well as recessed areas. The laser blasts away material one pixel at a time, similar to the printing process used by inkjet printers. We usually raster engrave at 400 dpi, but we can use lower resolutions and can also use 600 dpi and 1200 dpi settings.
Issues to consider
The kerf of our laser beams varies from roughly 0.007" to 0.01" which causes hole and part sizes to vary.
- The laser cuts at a slight taper (1-2 degrees) since the laser beam is shaped like a cone (it gets focused from a larger spot to a small point). The tapering causes one side of a laser-cut part (the side facing up during laser cutting) to be slightly smaller than the other side. The taper is almost unnoticeable in 1/8" material; the thicker the material, the more noticeable the taper. When using laser-cut parts such as wheels or gears, you might need to position the parts in an alternating pattern so that the tapers “cancel out”.
- The kerf (the thickness of the laser beam) is about 0.010". Please see our file preparation instructions to learn how to adjust for the kerf.
- Small circles (usually for screw holes) will not be perfectly circular. Also, the holes will be conical due to the slight taper of the laser cut as described above. If you need the holes to be more circular and cylindrical, we suggest that you have us laser-cut small starter holes, which you clean up with a drill.
- Plastic thickness can vary by + or – 10%, so you cannot count on the thickness to be exact when designing your parts. If you are designing interlocking parts with slots and tabs and you are trying to create a tight fit, keep in mind that you can only control the dimension being cut by the machine (not the material thickness). You will have to decide whether to design the part so that the dimensions you control are slightly too big or too small (so that to achieve a tight fit, you might have to either sand some parts, or use glue or add some shims).
- The edges of some materials including wood, paper, felt, and cloth, will get charred from the laser. The degree of charring depends on the material. The back side might show more charring or some scorching (the laser bounces off of the metal grill on which the material sits and hits the back of the material, leaving scorch marks). You can mask the material to decrease the charring and scorching on the material surface, but the edges will still be charred. Most plastics that we cut, including acrylic, PETG, and ABS, do not char.
- Sharp, thin pieces, especially those that taper to a needle-sharp point, might warp from the laser’s heat, or crack when taken out of the scrap. This is true especially if the width of a piece is the same or less than the material thickness.
- If you have parts that taper to a thin, sharp point, note that once the two converging lines are closer than 0.01" apart, the laser beam (which is roughly 0.01" in diameter) will eat away any material left between the two lines. The material at the end of the tip will become paper-thin and brittle and will probably break off in an unpredictable spot. We would suggest that you round off any acute, sharp corners where the two converging lines are no less than 0.018" apart.
- The material sits on a metal grid during cutting. When the laser cuts through the material, it hits the metal grill and bounces back and hits the bottom of the material, causing a small dent or mark. The backs of the parts will usually have small dents along the cut edges of the part wherever the laser, metal grid, and material meet.
- Many plastics including acrylic and PETG come with a protective masking on both sides. Other plastics, such as ABS and styrene, do not have any protective masking. The masking helps to decrease denting on the back side described above, and protects the material surface from any flames or residues that are created during cutting. If you would like us to mask your material, please request this in the special instructions section of our quote request form.