Both oxy-fuel and plasma-cutting systems have advantages and disadvantages. Find out more about how to choose the right one for your needs.
Metal cutting is a common step in many welding jobs, whether in the fabrication shop or on-site.
Two popular metal cutting processes are plasma arc and oxyfuel cutting. Both systems have advantages and disadvantages, so determining the best fit depends on many factors, including the type and thickness of the metal being cut, the location of the job, available power resources, and cost.
Oxy-fuel torches have long been a popular choice for cutting metal on-site due to their portability advantage. However, technological advances have made plasma a more portable option. Learn more about the basics of each process and the factors to consider when selecting a process for your application.
Plasma Cutting Machine
Ability to cut a wide range of metals: plasma cutters can cut non-ferrous metals such as aluminum, stainless steel, and cast iron - materials that are becoming increasingly common in many applications.
Cutting accuracy: plasma cutting is faster, with less slag, smoother cuts, and narrower kerfs than oxygen-fuelled torches.
No preheating required: time and money are saved as there is no need to preheat the metal before plasma cutting.
Faster speeds on thinner metals: plasma cuts thinner metals faster than oxygen-fuelled ones and with minimal or no metal distortion. Plasma also provides better performance when cutting laminated metals.
Better cuts on shaped metals: plasma cutting provides faster and more accurate cutting performance when the workpiece is angled, channeled, or tubed.
Ease of use: Compared to oxygen-fuelled systems, plasma systems are relatively simple to use and offer the advantage of minimal clean-up.
Safety advantages: plasma systems do not require the storage or handling of explosive gases or the handling of open flames.
For thicker metals: Common handheld oxyfuel systems can cut steel from 6 to 12 inches thick, with some systems capable of cutting steel over 20 inches thick. For thicker steel over 1 inch, oxy-fuel torches can achieve higher cutting speeds than typical 100 amp handheld plasma cutting systems.
Excellent portability: For on-site cutting, oxy-fuel systems offer a high degree of portability as they do not require electricity. Some of the smaller oxyfuel systems weigh around 35 lbs, so with an oxyfuel tank and torch, steel can be cut almost anywhere.
Available in extended lengths: Oxy-fuel torches are available in extended lengths to keep the operator away from the heat, flame, and slag generated during the cut. Most torch hoses are connected to a set of cylinders on a portable trolley or sometimes to a fixed manifold header system. The use of long hoses can improve portability.
Process versatility: oxy-fuel torches can cut, weld, braze, solder, heat, and chisel holes.
Plasma Arc Welding Torch
However, there are several factors to bear in mind regarding oxy-fuel cutting systems. Oxyfuel torches are usually only used for cutting ferrous or ferrous metals, such as carbon steel. In most cases, they are not used for cutting cast iron, aluminum, or stainless steel.
Although oxy-fuel torches are not dependent on mains power or compressed air, they do require the purchase of gas.
Cost considerations may also come into play when deciding between a plasma-cutting system and an oxygen-cutting system. The initial investment in a plasma cutting machine is usually more expensive than an oxy-fuel system. However, an oxy-fuel torch requires ongoing costs for the necessary gases, whereas a plasma cutter does not.
When choosing between plasma and oxy-fuel cutting tools, ask yourself: what metal do I cut most often and what is the thickest metal that needs to be cut? If the job consistently requires cutting thicker metals, then the time and money saved by using an oxy-fuel system to cut thicker metals quickly will have an impact. On the other hand, if precision cutting of stainless steel and aluminum is important, then a plasma system is the way to go.
The bottom line: plasma and oxy-fuel have a place in most metalworking applications, and many operations would benefit from having both systems in their arsenal.
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