Aluminum and CNC Machines

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Aluminum is one of the trickier metals used on projects made with CNC machines. Its properties are a bit different from other metals so there are usually considerations that have to be taken before you start cutting. This article will review how aluminum reacts when cut with a water jet cutter, a laser cutter and a plasma cutter so that you can be better prepared to work with aluminum regardless of what type of CNC machine you are using.
Water jets are the most common type of CNC machine used for cutting alu, being able to cut as thin as 0.001” or as thick as 12”. Because water jets are a cold cutting process you do not have to worry about heat while you are cutting like you do with laser or plasma cutters so there is no need to worry about deformation or the material hardening. The lack of heat creates a safer work environment since there are no dangerous fumes being created by the cutting process. Abrasive water jets also have the advantage of being the cheapest of the three machines discussed in this article. Almost every type of cut you could need for an aluminum project is possible with a water jet.

Aluminum and cnc machine

Aluminum and cnc machine

Laser cutting is a bit unusual for working with metals (generally mechanical tools are used for metal cutting) but it is still a viable option. Because alu reflects light and conducts heat efficiently there are considerations that need to be taken before using a laser cutter on aluminum. Due to aluminum’s properties a standard laser will not work. Instead you would need a laser with a high power setting that also uses compressed gas. Using gas during cutting is fairly common with multiple types of machines so it should not be difficult to make the modifications you need. Laser cutters supported with nitrogen can cut aluminum without any loss in the quality of your project. The downside is that the increased power usage (i.e. more electricity) and the gas that you will use are going to make cutting aluminum more costly to cut than other materials. Additionally, laser can only cut aluminum that is fairly thin; at the maximum a laser cutter can be used on aluminum that is about ⅛” thick.
Plasma cutters generate a lot of heat and are capable of cutting many materials, including aluminum, very quickly. It may take a little time for a plasma cutter to get to full power after you turn it on but once the machine is running it will do its job very well. Selecting the correct type of gas to use for the plasma is paramount in ensuring that the aluminum cuts correctly. Your choice will also determine how messy the cutting process will be (what type of aluminum you are using will also be a key factor in determining this). Plasma cutters can use less expensive gasses than laser cutters can when cutting aluminum so costs will be a bit better over a laser cutter (though they likely will not be cheaper than a water jet).
Each of these three methods has their own ups and downs when it comes to cutting aluminum. If you are choosing between all three of these methods a water jet is going to be your best bet in most cases. Not every machinist will have a water jet available so if it comes down to a plasma cutter or a laser cutter do a little research and see which one would work best on the type of aluminum you are using. Regardless of what type of machine you have access to there is usually a way to make any project work (within reason) on a CNC machine. You just may need to think outside the box a little to figure out what that way is.

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Article Name
Aluminum and CNC Machines
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Aluminum is one of the trickier metals used on projects made with CNC machines. Its properties are a bit different from other metals so there are usually considerations that have to be taken before you start cutting
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