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If you are thinking of buying plasma cutters or plasma table kits, consider the similarities, differences, pros & cons of handheld (portable) and CNC (robot) before closing the deal, then make a choice which is best for you.

 Feb 24, 2023    651 (8 Min Read)

Handheld vs. CNC (Robotic) Plasma Cutter: Which is for You?

Intro

If you are cutting fine artwork or making metal parts in a production environment, you will need a plasma cutting machine that will give you the cleanest and fastest cuts possible. In terms of metal fabrication, there are automatic CNC plasma tables that use computers to control automatic and precise cutting in industrial manufacturing, and there are also portable handheld plasma cutters used in manual workshops. Which one is better and more suitable for you?

Plasma cutters are very powerful machines capable of cutting through metal. Some of them are powerful enough to cut through very thick shards like a knife through butter.

A plasma cutter is essential equipment for some welders. In fact, it does the exact opposite of a welding machine. Instead of fusing pieces of metal together, use a plasma cutting machine to tear them apart.

At some point in the work it will be necessary to cut away some unwanted parts, or when you are trying to shape something together.

But, like everything in the welding industry, plasma cutters are constantly evolving. For cutting thicker metals, more powerful metal cutting machines have been manufactured. Automation is a big addition to power.

Since this is a dangerous process, robots or machines utilizing CNC to automate this type of work are safer than actual humans. But what are the advantages and disadvantages of such a machine?

Some are against automatic cutting, while others see it as the way to go. Whether CNC (robot) will replace manual, we are not yet sure. However, there are definitely positive aspects to each story.

Let's understand these two cutting tools in terms of working principle, performance features, uses, pros and cons.

Portable Handheld Plasma Cutter

A handheld plasma cutter is a portable metal cutting tool with compact lightweight structure that can be carried to any job site, indoors or out. Plug in the compressed air, grab the torch and start cutting sheet metal, tubing and profiles in seconds.

Principle

The handheld plasma cutting machine is composed of a torch and a chassis. An electric arc is generated between the nozzle (anode) and the electrode (cathode) inside the torch to ionize the moisture in between to achieve a plasma state. At this time, the ionized steam is ejected out of the nozzle in the form of a plasma beam by the internal pressure, so as to perform cutting, welding, welding and other forms of heat treatment on the metal.

Features

Ultimate Portability

The internal air compressor operates in environments where external compressed air is not available.

Continuous Output Control

Focuses the arc for different material thicknesses.

Touch Start System

Starts the plasma arc without the need for high frequencies.

Fast Ignition

Quickly cuts through gaps, even in expanded metal.

Front Panel Purge Controls

Allows easy setting of airflow rates without activating the plasma arc.

Front Panel Purge Control

Easily set air flow rate without starting the plasma arc.

Cold Operation, Long Life of Consumables

New electrode and nozzle design saves you money during long operating hours.

Pros

It adopts high-frequency inverter technology, and has advantages of small size, compact, light weight, high-frequency arc ignition, easy arc ignition, and high load duration. Using cheap compressed air as cutting air source is more economical and efficient than flame cutting machine. The cutting current (digital display) is continuously adjustable, accurate and intuitive, the fan is intelligently controlled, saves energy and electricity, and reduces the failure rate of the fan. It is suitable for long-term, heavy-duty use. It can be used not only for hand-held cutting, but also for automatic cutting systems such as CNC and robots. It has analog and digital interfaces to meet the communication needs of most automatic welding equipment.

Cons

• There is an unstable phenomenon of the plasma arc, which will lead to defects such as uneven cuts and tumor buildup, and will also lead to a reduction in the life of related components.

• The bevel angle on one side of the cutting surface is large, and the verticality is poor.

• During the cutting process, more cutting residues are produced on the cutting surface. The slag after cutting must be ground, because it will affect the quality of the process, which also increases the labor cost.

• Plasma cutting has a large heat-affected area and a wide cutting seam. Since the metal is deformed by heat, it is not suitable for cutting thin metals.

CNC Plasma Table & Robotic Plasma Cutter

It is an efficient, high-precision and high-reliability cutting equipment combined with precision mechanical transmission and thermal cutting technology. The good human-machine interface makes the operation more convenient and simple, and can quickly and accurately cut various complex shapes of plates, especially suitable for automatic cutting of metals. It adopts an integrated modular design, which is smart and easy to use.

Principle

It is combined with a simple and easy-to-use CNC controller to ionize the high-speed airflow ejected from the nozzle at high temperature to form a conductor. When the current passes, the conductive gas forms a high-temperature plasma arc. The heat of the arc causes the metal at the incision of the part to partially melt (and evaporate), and the power of the high-speed plasma gas flow is used to remove the molten metal to form a processing method.

When it works, a compressed gas such as nitrogen, argon or oxygen is sent through a narrow tube. A negative electrode is placed in the middle of the tube. When the negative electrode is powered and the nozzle mouth contacts the metal, a conductive loop is formed, and a high-energy electric spark is generated between the electrode and the metal. As the inert gas flows through the tubes, the spark heats the gas until it reaches the fourth state of matter. This reaction process produces a stream of high-temperature and high-speed plasma, which can quickly turn metal into molten slag.

The plasma itself has current flowing through it, and as long as the electrodes are powered and the plasma is kept in contact with the metal, the cycle of arcing is continuous. In order to be able to ensure this contact while avoiding damage caused by oxidation and other as yet unknown properties, the cutting machine nozzle is equipped with another set of pipes that continuously emit shielding gas to protect the cutting area, the pressure of the shielding gas The radius of the columnar plasma can be effectively controlled.

Features

• The beam adopts box welding structure, and the stress is eliminated by heat treatment. It has the characteristics of good rigidity, no deformation, high precision, light weight and small inertia. The two ends of the longitudinal drive frame (end frame) are equipped with horizontal guide wheels, which can adjust the compression degree of the eccentric wheel at the bottom of the drive frame to the guide rail, so that the whole machine can maintain a stable guide during movement. It is equipped with a dust collector to limit the debris accumulated on the surface of the guide rail.

• Both vertical and horizontal drive are driven by precision rack and pinion. The horizontal guide rail adopts precision cold-drawn guide plate, the longitudinal guide rail is made of precision-processed rail (heavy rail), and the reduction device adopts imported precision gear reducer, and the backlash is eliminated to ensure the movement accuracy and stability.

• It is cost-effective and easy to operate. It adopts an integrated cutting table and receiving hopper. It can adopt a semi-dry dust removal method or an optional dust removal system to reduce the smoke and harmful gases generated by the machine during cutting.

• Advanced computer-controlled system, fully offline work, humanized design, simple and fast operation. According to the operation process, the bottom of the screen of the CNC system provides various operation function displays, the operation process is clear at a glance, and the training-free mode is provided.

• It adopts the guide-and-prompt maintenance method, and there are fault indications on the screen of the numerical control system, and the fault phenomena are clear at a glance. The maintenance of the whole machine is according to the fault instructions, and the maintenance is convenient and fast.

• Simplify the compilation procedure, the operator compiles a graphic, and then selects the cutting quantity and cutting arrangement direction, which can realize batch continuous automatic cutting and overall compilation, reducing the tedious workload of designers.

• The software adopts unit modular production technology, which improves the stability and operation sensitivity of the equipment and reduces the maintenance cost in the later period.

• The common accessories and wearing parts of the machine can be purchased in the market, which reduces the cost of customers.

• The CNC underwater plasma cutter table is equipped with a water bed for underwater cutting, which greatly reduces environmental pollution such as smoke, arc light, harmful gases, and noise generated, and has a good environmental protection effect.

Pros

Good Cutting Quality and Low Labor Cost

The plasma cutting machine utilizes the features of non-contact processing, does not damage the workpiece, the cut product has no extrusion deformation, the processed product is of good quality, has no burr, does not require manual re-grinding, saves unnecessary processing procedures, and optimizes worker labor. strength.

Save Mold Investment and Reduce Production Costs

Plasma cutting machine can directly make various metal workpieces without molds, no mold consumption, no need to repair and replace molds, can save the use of a large number of molds, save processing costs, and reduce production costs, especially suitable for the processing of large products.

High Precision, Effectively Improving Productivity

Automatic plasma cutting features with high accuracy, flexibility and high efficiency, and can effectively process various complex parts. It only needs to make a cutting graphic and import it into the control system, and then the size can be set for cutting, which helps to directly shorten the cutting time.

Fast Cutting Speed, Optimized Working Environment

It cuts quickly, and is stable when working, the noise is low, there is no dust, and it will not produce chemical substances harmful to the human body and the environment. The investment has reduced pollution, promoted the optimization of the working environment, and complied with the tide of environmental protection.

Low Maintenance Cost and High Cost Performance

The maintenance of mechanical products is very expensive, but it has stable performance, is durable and can work continuously, and is not easy to be damaged. It has great advantages in terms of later maintenance costs.

Cons

• Cutting thick metal requires a high power supply, which is as expensive as a laser cutting machine with fiber laser source.

• Operating and maintaining automated equipment involves potential hazards, and operators should exercise caution to prevent injury.

• If the limbs touch the moving machine, they may be entangled or even injured.

• Keeping hands and feet away from the moving machine, control operation of the computer numerical controlled system can be performed from the front panel keypad or remote interface.

• When operating the machine, do not wear loose clothes or clothing with cords to prevent being entangled by the machine.

• The high-voltage electric shock of the plasma CNC cutter can injure and kill people, and it must be installed in accordance with the steps and requirements specified by the manufacturer.

Uses

Typically, handheld plasma cutters are used for hobbies, and CNC plasma cutting tables and plasma robots are used for commercial use in industrial manufacturing, however they can both be used for automotive engine protection panels, chassis cabinets, garden iron, pressure vessels, chemical machinery, ventilation and refrigeration, security door manufacturing, machining, fan manufacturing, construction machinery, steel structures, boiler manufacturing, shipbuilding, petrochemical equipment, light industrial machinery, aerospace, pressure vessels and decoration, large sign manufacturing and other industries.

All types of plasma cutters & robots can cut carbon steel (flame cutting), stainless steel and copper, aluminum (plasma cutting) Aluminum sheet, galvanized sheet, white steel sheet, stainless steel, copper sheet and other metal pipes, profiles and sheets cutting and blanking operations.

Comparison

The above has brought us to understand these two types of plasma cutting machines, so what are their similarities and differences? Let us make a comparison from the following 8 aspects, so that you can make the right choice and which one is suitable for your business.

Arc Starting Method

There are two types of plasma power supply, contact arcing and non-contact (button) arcing. The handheld plasma power supply is a contact arc starting method. For the use with CNC, the non-contact arc starting method should be selected. To judge which arc starting mode the power supply belongs to, you only need to see whether there is a button on the hand torch that is equipped. Generally, power supplies with a current greater than 100A are non-contact arc starting methods.

Power Supply

The handheld plasma power supply has a strong interference to the numerical control system, which can lead to a black screen of the numerical control system in severe cases, while the influence of the computer-controlled plasma power supply is very small, almost none.

Torch

The CNC plasma torch is a straight gun, while the handheld plasma torch is a curved handle gun.

Capability

Probably the most obvious difference between an automatic robotic plasma cutter and a manual cutter is the power it produces.

Manual plasma cutters are usually smaller devices that are lightweight and easy to carry.

Because they don't have the capacity to generate that much heat, they can't generate that much power.

Robotic plasma cutters are stationary machines that generate a lot of heat. So the plasma streams they produce are really hot.

The capabilities of some CNC or robotic cutters simply cannot be measured manually.

CNC or robotics are used in industrial manufacturing and must cut through very thick metal sheets.

It would also be very dangerous for humans to stand near such enormous heat. As a result, manual plasma cutters are better suited for smaller projects, and people typically use them around the workshop for basic types of cutting or for thinner metals.

Portability

We have touched on this aspect above. CNC plasma cutters are usually huge stationary machines. They are immobile and usually require the sheet metal to be cut to be fixed to the machine.

On the other hand, manual plasma cutters are lightweight and thus portable. You can take them with you in the field and take what you need with you.

Also, they have an advantage in that you can easily maneuver them in some tight places, but this is really difficult and in some cases impossible with an automatic plasma cutter.

Precision

This is another aspect of CNC cutting success. No one can cut as precisely as a CNC machine.

The CNC is highly programmed and guided using state-of-the-art software.

In some jobs, precision is so important that it is possible to accidentally ruin the final product. Therefore, the plasma cutter needs to work properly for everything to work properly.

This is nearly impossible with a handheld plasma cutter. A human simply cannot cut as precisely as a machine.

Therefore, manual plasma cutters can work without regard to the precision of the product.

Price & Cost

If you're a hobbyist, you're definitely looking for a smaller handheld plasma cutter. The really good ones sell for about $1000 each.

A good welder who does work in the garage, or just enjoys working on DIY projects, can afford this type of metal cutter.

But CNC plasma cutters are really expensive. They cost upwards of $8,000 per unit. You can already say that robots are only useful for big companies that need automatons.

However, sometimes small companies cannot afford an expensive CNC or robotic cutter, so they have to stick with a manual cutter.

Selection

So what conclusions can we draw?

Basically, a handheld plasma cutter is a good choice if you plan to use it for some simple jobs. It's powerful enough to cut some thinner or medium thicknesses.

You can take any type of project in the garage and use it to fix things around the house. Also, it is very useful for field work.

But when it comes to automatic CNC plasma cutters, they mean a tougher job. Industries that really need precision and functionality will go to any lengths to buy one of these.

The ultimate choice will be between performance and accuracy, and affordability and flexibility. You can only choose one of the two.

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