Laser Cutters vs. CNC Routers vs. 3D Printers

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My friend Jeremy Cook recently bought himself a red-and-black 60-watt laser cutter from China. I helped choose a nearly identical 80-watt laser for our makerspace 3 or 4 years ago, so I was surprised he didn’t even mention his interest in owning a laser until after he had already unboxed it!

Why on Earth did Jeremy buy a laser cutter? As soon as we started working with our laser at TheLab.ms, I knew for certain that I wanted a CNC router in my garage and not a laser. Jeremy already has a nice CNC router. What is he going to do with the laser?!

We interviewed Chad Dowdell on The Creativity Podcast, and a lot of what I discussed with Chad and with Jeremy got me thinking about this quite a lot. Their laser cutters cost about as much as my Shapeoko XXL, but those lasers are supposed to be ready to go out of the box.

There’s no assembly required, and the red-and-black lasers arrive in their industrial-style metal enclosure. It took me a weekend to assemble my Shapeoko, and I had to buy a table—I didn’t have time to build one! I still need some sort of enclosure for my Shapeoko.

I’m not entirely sure who the audience for these words might be. If you own a 3D printer, and you wish you had a more serious machine, I might make you feel better about what you already have. If you’re thinking about adding a laser or a CNC to your garage, but you can’t decide which one you want, maybe this will help you make that decision.

Let’s start with 3D-printing

All these machines are related. You run a model of your object through CAM software to generate g-code, then you send that g-code to the machine. With 3D-printing, they call the CAM software a slicer.

There’s a statement that I had uttered on more than one occasion before owning a CNC router or having access to a laser cutter. I’ve seen people 3D printing things on social media and said, “Why is he using a 3D printer? He has a CNC machine! He can make something much sturdier in half the time!”

I’ve had a 3D printer for more than six years. I’ve had my Shapeoko for nearly two years. I know now that if I can get away with 3D printing something, I’m most definitely going to 3D print it!

3D-printing is so much easier than running the CNC, especially with my new Prusa MK3S. I load my model into PrusaSlicer, hit the button to send the job to the printer, and a few hours later I have my part. I usually just have to peek at the printer to make sure the first layer went down well, and then I can collect my part when it is done.

The CNC is a pain by comparison. I have to go out to the garage. I have to find material. I have to make sure my part will fit somewhere on that material. I have to secure the material to the wasteboard. I have to make sure the correct tool is in the router. I have to zero out the tool. Then I have to keep a close eye on things during the entire operation.

Oh yeah. Then I have to vacuum up all the dust. I might even have to cut away some tabs.

Sure, the CNC cuts through material at least an order of magnitude faster than the 3D printer deposits plastic, but I have to do a lot of the labor myself.

My fully assembled Prusa MK3S arrived at my door ready to print for $1,150. You can get a kit for around $750. Some of my friends own an Ender 3, and those kits can be had for around $200.

CNC routers and fixturing

I knew that I wanted to have a CNC router in my garage. I didn’t really have a choice to make, though. I need to be able to cut carbon fiber plates, and you just can’t do that with a laser cutter.

Even if the decision weren’t made for me, I still would have opted for a CNC rather than a laser. There isn’t much you can do with a laser that I can’t accomplish with my Shapeoko. A laser might be able to engrave better than I can manage to v-carve, but that’s not high on my list of priorities anyway.

Talking to Chad and Jeremy made me realize that the biggest problem with the CNC is fixturing. That’s the act of securing your material to the CNC in such a way that it won’t move out of place while cutting. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes it is tricky. Often-times you have to leave tabs on the edges to keep your part in place, and you’ll have to cut those out of the way later.

Most of what I do with my Shapeoko is prototyping. When I’m in the design phase, I might run the machine a few times a day for 3 or 4 days while trying to get things just right. Then the CNC will sit idle for a week or two while I test my parts.

Chad makes a living selling his custom creations on Etsy. He runs his laser and his CNC all day long. He doesn’t want to spend time securing his materials to the CNC. He doesn’t want to have to cut support tabs out of his cuts. He just wants to make one cut after the next.

The 16” x 16” Shapeoko is around $1,100, the 16” x 32 “ Shapeoko XL is around $1,700, and my 32” x 32” Shapeoko XXL was about $2,200. It took me the better part of a weekend to assemble the machine by myself. I had no idea what I was doing.

The red-and-black 60-watt laser cutters

Let’s start with the things I don’t like about laser cutters. I don’t like the charred edges when you cut wood. I don’t like the inaccuracy when you’re trying to carve to a specific depth. I am aware that you can tune this in for your material, but depth of cut is always precise on a CNC router. In my mind, a laser cutter just barely qualifies as a 2.5-dimension machine. A CNC router is capable of cutting smooth curves on the Z-axis.

Unlike a CNC, you don’t usually have to fixture your parts in a laser. You can just drop your sheet of plywood, acrylic, or cardboard in the machine and start cutting. The most you might need to do is put some weight or magnets on the material. You don’t need support tabs to keep your finished part in place during the cut, because there’s no tool touching the material.

If you want to operate like an assembly line, this is fantastic. You can drop a piece of material in, hit go, pull your cuts out, and repeat. You can do this all day long.

The red-and-black lasers are a tremendous value, assuming you don’t have any serious trouble with whatever winds up getting shipped to your door. Jeremy, Chad, and TheLab.ms all had good luck with theirs. Maybe you’ll have good luck.

Your $2,000 gets you a fully assembled laser cutter that lives in an industrial enclosure. It just needs to be plumbed into coolant and ventilation, and you’re ready to go. You can check out Jeremy’s laser cutter setup video to see how much work is involved here.

The red-and-black laser vs. my Shapeoko XXL

If you squint a little, these two machines are pretty comparable. They’re priced about the same. The cutting area of the laser is somewhere between the Shapeoko XL and XXL, but so is the price.

I had to spend $150 on a sturdy folding table to put my Shapeoko XXL on. You could build your own, but then you’re just trading money for time. The red-and-black laser is its own table.

I’d sure like to have an enclosure for my Shapeoko, and the red-and-black laser comes built into one. That’s awesome.

Here’s the question I don’t have a good answer for: Is installing the ventilation for the laser’s blower fan more or less work than building a Shapeoko from the kit? One of these might involve cutting holes in your home.

Should you buy a Shapeoko or a red-and-black laser?

These two machines are nearly the same price, and there is a ton of overlap in what these machines can do. If you’re only going to buy one machine, which one should you buy?

As much as I’d love to have that free enclosure and stand you get built into the red-and-black laser, I’d still buy my Shapeoko XXL again. There isn’t a doubt in my mind, and I have no desire to add a red-and-black laser to my garage.

The laser can engrave. My Shapeoko XXL can v-carve. The laser can cut. My Shapeoko can cut. My Shapeoko can cut thicker materials more quickly, and it can cut and engrave materials that the laser can’t even touch.

I understand why Jeremy and Chad both want to be able to avoid the labor of locking materials in place for cutting on their CNC routers. If you’re planning to run your machine all day long, maybe the laser cutter is a better choice.

If your goal is to cut and engrave leather, you’ll need a laser. If you want to safely engrave artwork onto the back of something like a MacBook Pro, you’ll need a laser.

If you’re prototyping like I am, or only running your machine for a handful of hours each week, maybe you won’t need to worry about that.

Conclusion

That last heading was almost a conclusion, wasn’t it? I think I lost my bearings a bit while writing this one. What do you think?

If you’re interested in these sorts of machines, there’s almost no reason not to go out and get a 3D printer first. A 3D printer ingests g-code just like laser or CNC. The print head is moved around by stepper motors, just like most CNC routers and laser cutters. You will learn a lot from your $200 to $1,150 investment, and you’ll still find plenty of uses for your 3D printer after you start cutting with a bigger machine.

Did I make the right choice by opting to go with a Shapeoko XXL CNC router? Would you rather have a red-and-black laser cutter? Are you planning on adding one of these machines to your shop? Let me know in the comments, or stop by the Butter, What?! Discord server to chat with me about it!

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