Whether you're heavily into your DIY and are merrily slicing through metal sheets, bolts, and bars to knock together your own furniture, or managing an enormous steel manufacturing project where the end product is a ship, the main issue will always be how best to cut through the metal. Taking into account factors such as the thickness of the metal and the precision required, it's important to choose the right machinery for your needs.
Traditional techniques include the metal-on-metal approach, where screeching noises from the rotating blades and flying shards of metal create a pretty unpleasant and dangerous workspace. Additionally, the final cut will require smoothing on the edges, which can further reduce the accuracy in size and shape, often crucial when fitting pieces together.
Laser cutting is a modern technique offering greater precision and energy efficiency when applied to sheet metal, but can prove expensive on thicker metal with high power consumption in relation to the work done. It's also very sensitive to external disturbances and the process risks being halted mid-flow unless the parameters are constantly monitored by human operators.
This is where the slightly futuristic sounding, yet well established plasma cutting technology holds its own, offering near-laser precision through any conductive material, up to 50-mm in thickness. So how does an intangible physical state provide a tool for cutting through an extremely solid element? Put simply, an inert gas is blasted at high speed from a nozzle (thickness varies) with an electrical arc running through it and connecting to the target material surface. The extreme heat melts through the metal and the speed of movement blows molten metal away from the sliced edge, meaning that little or no finishing is required. The increased accessibility and size of plasma cutting machinery mean that home hobbyists can just as easily get their hands on the perfect metal cutting tool as the industrial steel workers.
Note that using a plasma cutter still requires strict safety precautions, such as leather gloves and aprons, hearing protection, and eye goggles to protect from debris and limit the risk of "arc eye," which is similar to snow blindness, resulting from the overexposure to UV rays. Finally, with any plasma-cutting machinery purchases, it is recommended to assure ongoing servicing and maintenance from the supplier as such complex equipment should only be tampered with by the professional engineers.
Emily Banham holds a 2:1 BSc Physical Geography (International) from the University of Leeds.