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plasma cutting

Plasma Cutting 101: The Ultimate Guide to Choosing Your Machining

As manufacturing processes become more sophisticated, plasma cutting becomes crucial.

With its ability to cut through various materials efficiently, Plasma cut process plays a critical role in the automotive, construction, and aerospace industries.

This cutting method's precision, speed, and versatility are unparalleled, providing manufacturers with a competitive edge in an increasingly demanding market.

How does Plasma Cutting work?

how does a plasma cutter work
How does Plasma Cutting work?

Plasma cutting is like using a super-hot lightning bolt to slice through metal. The process starts with a machine called a plasma cutter, which generates this “lightning bolt.” This machine’s heart is an electrode, which creates an intense spark when powered up.

This spark is essential because it heats the air that is forced out of the cutter’s nozzle, turning it into plasma. Now, plasma isn’t just hot air – it’s air that’s so hot and full of energy. It behaves more like a liquid or solid and can conduct electricity.

Imagine this plasma like a river of electricity flowing from the plasma cutter down to the metal piece. This flow forms a complete circuit, just like connecting two battery ends.

Now, the plasma is incredibly hot – about 20,000 degrees Celsius – hot enough to melt metal on contact. And because the plasma is also moving very fast, it melts the metal and blows the melted part away. The result is a precise and clean cut in the metal.

So, in a nutshell, plasma cutting is like using a supercharged stream of electrified, ultra-hot air to melt and blow away metal, achieving a smooth cut.

What types of Plasma Cutting Processes?

Conventional Plasma Cutting

This is the oldest form of Plasma cut process and uses shop air as the plasma gas. The electrical arc is formed between the electrode (inside the torch) and the workpiece. The high-energy arc ionizes the gas, turning it into plasma, which is then used to cut through the metal. While conventional Plasma-based cutting is economical and can cut through a range of materials, it may not offer the same level of precision as the other types due to a wider kerf (the width of the cut) and more significant dross (residual slag).

High-Definition Plasma Cutting

High-definition plasma cutting is a more advanced form of the process and offers a higher level of cut quality. This method uses a tightly focused arc and a faster, more pressurized plasma stream. Additionally, it often employs a mixture of gases, such as argon and hydrogen or nitrogen and oxygen, instead of just air. High-definition plasma cutters are typically computer-controlled and offer a much narrower kerf and less dross, leading to a smoother, more precise cut.

CNC Plasma Cutting

cnc steel plasma cutting
CNC Steel Plasma Cutter

CNC plasma cutters take the plasma cutting process to an elevated level of precision and automation. The CNC system, or Computer Numerical Control, orchestrates the torch’s movement based on programmed cutting patterns. This advanced control makes producing exceptionally accurate cuts feasible, even for intricate shapes or complex patterns.

With CNC plasma cutters, both traditional and high-definition Plasma-based cutting technologies can be utilized, hinging upon the required cut quality and level of precision. This flexibility is a part of the technology’s appeal. In the heart of the operation, the plasma arc – a superheated, electrically ionized gas – does the actual cutting.

The CNC plasma cutting process perfectly fits industries necessitating high-volume production alongside strict quality control. It delivers consistent, high-quality results, making it an invaluable asset in the realm of precision manufacturing.

Different Gas Used in Plasma Cut

plasma cutter gases

The choice of gas for plasma cutting significantly influences the process’s efficiency, cut quality, and overall operational cost. Here’s an overview of how different gases affect plasma cutting:

Air: Using compressed air is a cost-effective choice. It’s readily available and works well for cutting mild steel, stainless steel, and aluminum. However, it might cause oxidation at the cut edges, potentially affecting the appearance and strength of the finished product.

Oxygen: Oxygen provides a clean cut and enhances the cutting speed, especially for mild steel. But, it’s more expensive than air and can cause oxidation on the cut edges. The faster cutting speeds with oxygen also lead to higher productivity.

Nitrogen: Nitrogen is a popular choice for cutting high-alloy steel and aluminum. It results in excellent cut quality and helps to prevent oxidation on the cut edges. However, compared to air, it can be more expensive and may not offer as high cutting speeds.

Argon-Hydrogen Mix: This combination is often used for cutting thick stainless steel and aluminum. The hydrogen increases the cutting temperature, resulting in faster cutting speeds and good cut quality. This mixture is typically more expensive than other options, but it provides cut speed and quality benefits that can outweigh the cost in some applications.

Carbon Dioxide (CO2): Though less commonly used due to the development of more efficient gas options, CO2 provides a hotter, narrower arc and is a viable option for some plasma-cutting applications. The hotter arc can result in faster cutting speeds and lead to more rapid consumable wear.

What materials can be Plasma Cut?

One of the advantages of Plasma slicing is its versatility in handling different materials. Primarily, it is used to cut metals that conduct electricity, including steel, stainless steel, aluminum, brass, and copper. However, with the right setup and equipment, plasma cutting can be utilized to cut a broader range of materials. The key consideration here is the material thickness, as plasma cutting is especially efficient for medium to thick materials.


plasma cutting aluminum
Plasma Cut Aluminum Part

Lightweight and corrosion-resistant, aluminum is another commonly cut material. In the aerospace and automotive industries, aluminum parts are frequently created using plasma cutting. The process cuts through aluminum quickly and cleanly, making it a practical choice for this softer metal. Due to its softer nature, aluminum can be cut up to a thickness of 1.5 inches using a conventional plasma cutter. High-definition Plasma machining systems can handle aluminum up to 2 inches thick or more.


steel plasma cutting
Steel Plasma Cutting

As an iron-carbon alloy, steel is a popular choice for plasma cutting due to its broad usage across construction, automotive, and various other industries. The quick and efficient plasma-cutting process excels at creating clean, precise cuts in steel, even when dealing with substantial thicknesses. Standard plasma cutters can manage up to 1 inch of steel, whereas advanced high-definition plasma systems can cut through up to 2 inches. High-capacity systems push this limit further, cutting steel as thick as 3 inches or more.

Stainless Steel

Renowned for its corrosion resistance, stainless steel is a top pick for plasma cutting, especially in sectors where strength and appearance matter, such as food service and medical industries. Plasma cutting delivers precise cuts in stainless steel with minimal heat-induced color changes. Typically, a standard plasma cutting system can manage up to 1 inch of stainless steel, while advanced high-definition systems can take on up to 2 inches. However, the maximum thickness may fluctuate based on the different grades of stainless steel alloy used.


copper plasma cutting
Plasma Cut Copper Part

Copper, while not as frequently cut as steel or aluminum, is still a viable candidate for plasma cutting. This highly conductive material is often used to manufacture electrical components and wiring. Plasma cutting can effectively slice through copper, even thick layers, but special care must be taken due to the metal’s high reflectivity and thermal conductivity. Conventional plasma cutters can manage up to 0.5-inch thick copper, while their more advanced counterparts can tackle up to 1 inch.


Brass, an alloy composed of copper and zinc, is another material well-suited to plasma cutting. Similar precautions as with the copper need to be applied due to its reflective nature. Despite these challenges, it can be cut effectively. Conventional plasma cutters can handle brass up to 0.5 inches thick, while more sophisticated systems can manage thicknesses up to 1 inch.

What are the benefits of Plasma Cutting?

Plasma cutting offers a range of benefits that make it an attractive choice for many applications. Here are some of the key advantages:


production efficiency

Plasma cutting is significantly faster than many other types of cutting, especially when dealing with thicker materials. This speed can greatly enhance productivity, making it an excellent choice for high-volume production environments.

Cut Quality

Plasma cutting offers a high-quality cut with less dross (residual slag) than many other processes. It provides a cleaner edge that often requires less secondary finishing, saving both time and resources.


Plasma cutting can be used on various conductive materials, including steel, stainless steel, aluminum, brass, and copper. This versatility makes it a valuable tool in many different industries and applications.


precision plasma cutting
precision plasma cutting

Especially when paired with Computer Numerical Control (CNC) technology, plasma cutting can achieve high precision. This makes it possible to create intricate shapes and designs that would be difficult to achieve with other cutting methods.


cost effectiveness

Plasma-cutting equipment is relatively affordable compared to other industrial-cutting equipment. Furthermore, the high speed and precision of plasma cutting can reduce waste and improve efficiency, leading to lower overall costs.


Plasma-cutting systems use inert gases, significantly reducing the risk of combustible gas accidents. Furthermore, the operation doesn’t require any direct contact between the tool and the workpiece, minimizing the risk of operator injury.

No Warping

The plasma cut process generates less heat than other cutting processes, which reduces the likelihood of warping, especially when dealing with thin materials. This means it can deliver high-quality results while maintaining the integrity of the original material.

What are the drawbacks of Plasma Cutting?

While plasma cutting offers many advantages, there are also a few drawbacks to consider. Here are some of the main ones:

Less Precision on Thin Stuff:

When dealing with fragile materials, plasma cutting may not be as precise as other methods like laser cutting. This could mean less sharp edges and a wider strip of material removed during the cutting process.

Loud and Smoky:

Plasma cutting can get pretty loud, making smoke and bright light. So, you’ll need to use ear protection and ensure good air flow where you’re working.

Uses a Lot of Electricity:

Plasma cutters, especially the big ones, can use a lot of power. This might mean higher electricity bills if you’re doing a lot of cutting.

Can Make Materials Harder:

The heat from plasma cutting can cause some materials to get harder along the cut edge. This might make it harder to do anything else with your cut piece.

Only Works on Certain Materials:

Plasma cutting only works on materials that electricity can flow through. So, you can’t use it to cut things like glass, plastic, or wood.

Costs a Bit Upfront:

While it can save you money over time, getting a plasma-cutting system can be quite expensive to start with. This is especially true for the really high-end systems.

Comparison of Plasma Cutting and other cutting methods

Based on our experience, plasma cutting is compared to other standard methods. Please note that specific performance will vary depending on the specific machine model, the material being cut, and the operator’s skills. This table provides a general overview.

Cutting MethodMaterial ThicknessPrecisionPrecisionCost
Plasma CuttingUp to 3″ (steel)HighFastModerate
Laser CuttingUp to 1″Very HighFastHigh
Waterjet CuttingUp to 6″HighMediumVery High
Oxy-fuel CuttingUp to 6″ (steel)LowSlowLow

Material Thickness: This indicates the maximum thickness of material the cutting method can typically handle.

Precision: This describes the typical accuracy of the cut, with higher precision indicating a cleaner, more exact cut.

kerf 0000

Speed: This represents how quickly the cutting method can complete its cuts.

Cost: This is a general estimation of the overall cost, including equipment, maintenance, and operating expenses. Note that actual costs can vary widely based on specific circumstances.


plasma cutting provides a proficient way to slice through conductive metals. Its key strengths lie in bolstering productivity, ensuring versatile operations, delivering pinpoint precision, and yielding top-tier surface quality.

To capitalize on the myriad benefits of plasma cutting in metal fabrication, consider collaborating with AT-Machining. We are proud to be a global leader in providing premier plasma cutting services alongside additional offerings like waterjet cutting and laser cutting. Our commitment to speed is reflected in our industry-leading turnaround times, all while maintaining competitive pricing.

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Ready to embark on this journey with us? Upload your design to our online platform and receive an immediate quote! Let’s shape your vision into reality together.

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Hey there, I’m Sam!

From AT-Machining, I’m a CNC Machining Expert in this field for more than 20 years.  We offer cost-effective machining services from China. Ask for a quote for your ongoing or upcoming projects now!

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