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Plasma cutting is a process that is used to cut steel and other metals of different thicknesses (or sometimes other materials) using a plasma torch. In this process, an inert gas (in some units, compressed air) is blown at high speed out of a nozzle; at the same time an electrical arc is formed through that gas from the nozzle to the surface being cut, turning some of that gas to plasma. The plasma is sufficiently hot to melt the metal being cut and moves sufficiently fast to blow molten metal away from the cut.
How a plasma cutter works
Plasma cutters work by sending an electric arc through a gas that is passing through a constricted opening. The gas can be shop air, nitrogen, argon, oxygen. etc. This elevates the temperature of the gas to the point that it enters a 4th state of matter. We all are familiar with the first three: i.e., solid, liquid, and gas. Scientists call this additional state plasma. As the metal being cut is part of the circuit, the electrical conductivity of the plasma causes the arc to transfer to the work.
The restricted opening (nozzle) the gas passes through causes it to squeeze by at a high speed, like air passing through a venturi in a carburetor. This high speed gas cuts through the molten metal. The gas is also directed around the perimeter of the cutting area to shield the cut.
In many of today's better plasma cutters, a pilot arc between the electrode and nozzle is used to ionize the gas and initially generate the plasma prior to the arc transfer.
Other methods that have been used are touching the torch tip to the work to create a spark, and the use of a high-frequency starting circuit (like a spark plug). Neither of these latter two methods is compatible with CNC (automated) cutting.
This photo shows the swirl ring which is above the electrode and causes the plasma to turn rapidly as it passes.
While these parts are all referred to as consumables, it is the electrode and nozzle that wear and require periodic replacement.
CNC (computer numerically controlled) plasma cutters fully automate the shape production process. Early CNC machines used a tape with small holes punched through to provide instructions to a primitive (by today's standards) computer.
Today's CNC units use either expensive limited production computers made specifically for running burning machines, or personal computers adapted to run the machines. Both provide the same cut quality and production speed. In CNC cutting, you arrange your shapes on the computer screen and cut them automatically, without having to touch the material. CNC software lets you program pauses for piercing, scale up or down in seconds, set acceleration and deceleration at corners, and other functions not possible with electric eye units.
Plasma cutting offers low cost since no custom tooling is needed. The process is especially cost effective for thick metal sheets. This method of cutting is usually for thicker sheets than laser. Plasma cutting is generally used to cut 2D shapes not requiring high precision or fine detail.
Example applications include: Metal Brackets, Motorcycle Parts, Auto Parts, parts for heavy machinery, aircraft components, signs, panels, material handling equipment, etc.
Plasma cutting is mostly commonly applied to stainless steel, carbon steel and spring steel.
CNC Plasma Cutting Configurations
There are 3 main configurations of CNC Plasma Cutting, and they are largely differentiated by the forms of materials before processing, and the flexibility of the cutting head.
2 Dimensional / 2-Axis Plasma Cutting
This is the most common and conventional form of CNC Plasma Cutting. Producing flat profiles, where the cut edges are at 90 Degrees to the material surface. High powered cnc plasma cutting beds are configured in this way, able to cut profiles from metal plate up to 150mm thick.
3 Dimensional / 3+ Axis Plasma Cutting
It is a process for producing flat profiles from sheet or plate metal, however with the introduction of an additional axis of rotation, the cutting head of a CNC Plasma Cutting machine can tilt whilst being taken through a conventional 2 dimensional cutting path. The result of this is cut edges at an angle other than 90 Degrees to the material surface, for example 30-45 Degree angles. This angle is continuous throughout the thickness of the material. This is typically applied in situations where the profile being cut is to be used as part of a welded fabrication as the angled edge forms part of the weld preparation. When the weld preparation is applied during the CNC plasma cutting process, secondary operations such as grinding or machining can be avoided, reducing cost. The angular cutting capability of 3 Dimensional plasma cutting can also be used to create countersunk holes and chamfer edges of profiled holes.
Tube & Section Plasma Cutting
Used in the processing of tube, pipe or any form of long section. The plasma cutting head usually remains stationary whilst the workpiece is fed through, and rotated around its longitudinal axis. There are some configurations where, as with 3 Dimensional Plasma cutting, the cutting head can tilt and rotate. This allows angled cuts to be made through the thickness of the tube or section, commonly taken advantage of in the fabrication of process pipe work where cut pipe can be provided with a weld preparation in place of a straight edge.