Laser, plasma, waterjet, and oxyfuel. Four different types of equipment with one common goal: to cut your metal. When trying to decide which method is best for your project, it’s easy to get bogged down by the details. Instead, remember the three T’s to cutting metal to help get the conversation started.

Type (of metal), thickness, and tolerance range.

Consider this scenario: You submit a project request asking for your parts to be laser cut. Your supplier suggests that plasma might be a more cost-effective option, given the specifications of your project. What’s the basis for this recommendation? Setting aside expert knowledge on the specifics of the machines (things like nest spacing and burn footage), the decision ultimately comes down to three variables: metal type, thickness, and tolerance range. Let’s take a closer look at each.


Aluminum, carbon, or stainless steel. When it comes to the cut, not all metal is created equal. For instance, stainless steel will burn roughly 30 percent slower than carbon. Here’s what that means for you: roughly 30 percent more time on the machine, which means a higher cost.


Thickness is a big factor in your decision. Generally, thickness is coupled closely with our third variable, tolerance range.

Tolerance Range 

But it’s not as simple as thickness a + tolerance b = equipment c. The required tolerance range, which is the specified deviation from a dimension, depends greatly on the intended use of the product.

A general rule of thumb says that plasma and oxyfuel can hold tight tolerance levels, while laser and waterjet can hold very tight tolerance levels. But what is the determining factor between tight and very tight? Again, it all comes down to the intended use of the product.

For instance, some believe that laser is best for a two-inch thick piece of metal with a tolerance of +/- 1/16th, and anything higher will need to be cut using oxyfuel. Others think that anything with a tolerance less than 1/32” must be waterjet. It’s not always black and white. What is clear, however, is that a tighter tolerance will reduce the need for secondary operations, as well as provide greater leeway to help meet manufactured specifications.

When combined, type, thickness, and tolerance give you a good set of guidelines that say: 



Now that you know the three T’s, it’s time to dig into the rest of the story. In the next post, we tap the expertise of advanced processing specialists who work with these technologies daily to find out more about the nuances that ultimately help the equipment make the best cut.