Laser cutting machine

How to Design for Laser Cutting? (Plus an Easy Checklist to Get the Job Done!)

Sep 18, 2023 | laser cutting

The old saying, “measure twice, cut once” applies to a lot of things, but it’s especially true if you are doing a big run of laser cut products with your fabricator. Once the process is started, you can’t alter it. That’s why it is essential to double check that your design for your laser cut projects are flawless. 

Fabricators will be unable to produce a laser cut design if the design itself is not done properly. So the key to a great laser cut project is a great design. Here’s how you can avoid design mistakes before submitting CAD to your fabricator. 

Choose the Right Software to Design With

The very first step in designing your project for laser cutting is to use the right software for your design. Nesting software takes information from the computer and converts it into a format that the laser can read and understand. 

In order to do this, you must create a vector-based file with your design. Vector graphics are made up of points, lines, curves, and shapes that are based on mathematical formulas. Laser cutting machines follow the paths defined by the vector file, rather than a fixed grid of pixels like raster images. 

Softwares used to create vector graphics include: AutoCAD, Draftsight, SOLIDWORKS, STP, Adobe Illustrator, and Sketch. 

K.I.S.S. (Keep it Simple Silly)

We’ve all been told the following at one point or another, “Keep it simple silly,” and this definitely applies to laser cutting too. Having a design that is too complex can be the death of your design. 

Complex designs pose problems like fragile components prone to breaking, imprecise cuts due to complexity, burn marks, discoloration from heat, and substantial crafting time that escalates costs.

However, if you keep your design simple, this will ensure the project turns out the way you want it to. To help, we created a General Design Guideline form for fabrication. A complex design isn’t impossible with laser cutting, but we suggest simplifying the design as much as possible before submitting it to your fabricator. 

Make Sure the Hole Size is Correct 

Holes can be an integral part of the design for a laser cutting project, but they can’t be too big or too small. Holes that are too small will result in parts like fasteners or mating parts not being able to fit. Holes that are too big can result in loose fits or weakened structural integrity. Standard hole tolerances are +/-0.005” 

Laser cutters will have a minimum hole size they are able to create. It is limited by the resolution and precision of the laser. Each machine and project is different, but in general it is safe to assume the smallest hole that can be accurately cut is half the thickness of the material, i.e. a ½” steel part can cleanly have ¼” holes cut through it without any secondary machining required.

It’s essential to consult your fabricator to see what the capabilities of their laser cutting machine are to make sure the holes you want in your design are achievable.  

Connect the Design

Another important factor in designing for laser cutting is connecting your design. There are a few important factors why:

  1. Besides holes, shapes will be lost when cutting if not connected to the primary material in the design. 
  2. Laser cutters follow a path, which is defined by the vector file, to accurately cut the material. When designs don’t connect, the cutter may interpret different elements as separate cuts, which will create gaps or inaccuracies. 
  3. When parts of the design aren’t connected, it can also lead to floating pieces. These floating pieces may be difficult to handle, easy to break, and hard to assemble. 

Overall, connected designs result in consistent cut edges and shapes. Consistency is key, so make sure the design connects. 

Checklist Before Submitting

Checklists are great for making sure your project turns out the way you want it to. Of the many things you will want to do, none are as important as consulting with your fabricator, but the list below should set you up for success.

  1. Make sure your design is in vector format and is scaled to the correct size
  2. Discuss the desired material to be used for the project with your fabricator to make sure it is the correct material
  3. Make sure the opacity is at 100% and there are no transparencies
  4. Verify that hole sizes aren’t too big or too small
  5. Double check that the design connects so there are no floating pieces
  6. Account for clearances and tolerances for parts that need to fit together
  7. Note the desired material thickness 
  8. Include notes or instructions with your design if needed
  9. Create a backup file of your design
  10. Double check everything before sending

Submitting Your Design to Your Fabricator

Now that you have made a vector file of your design, consulted with your fabricator, and run through your checklist, it is time to submit your design and get one step closer to having a final product. 

Perfecting your design takes time and attention to detail, but if done correctly, the results can be priceless. It’s important to work with a fabricator who will take the time to discuss your project with you in detail.

When it comes to your laser cut project, there are too many possible negative outcomes to leave anything to chance. When you work with us, we’ll be there from start to finish — even if we aren’t the best fabricator to do your job we will recommend someone else who could better satisfy your needs. 

If you want to learn more about cutting, we also have a great blog here on Water Jet or Laser Cutting.