When you want to create custom foam inserts, foam letters, or foam-based products, laser cutting can be a great choice.
Foam laser cutting is widely used in making tool shadowing, packaging, pillows, mattresses, padding, furniture, automobile cushioning, show soles, filters, and more.
Laser cutting allows you to cut complex foam shapes with ease which otherwise would be time-consuming.
While a specialized tool like a hot wire cutter can cut foam, a laser cutter lets you cut materials other than foam as well.
This article is all about laser-cutting foam. In the next sections of the article, I discuss how to laser cut foam, the best settings, the benefits, challenges, the best foams, and more.
What's in this article?
- Laser cutting foam - the basics
- How to Laser Cut Foam
- Types of foam for laser cutting
- Important aspects of laser cutting foam
- Advantages of laser cutting foam
- Challenges in laser cutting foam
- Best laser cutters for foam
- Laser cutting services
- Final thoughts
- Laser Cutting Guides for Different Materials
- Frequently asked questions
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Laser Cutting Foam - The Basics
Foams are, by definition, objects having air pockets. In most cases, the volume of the air pockets is large.
At the structural level, foams are made as closed-cell and open-cell. In open-cell foams, the air columns are connected and are porous, but in closed-cell foams, the air pockets are discrete and are not porous.
As a general rule, closed-cell foams are denser than open-cell foams. However, density is also influenced by the material used and the air pocket size.
Solid foams are now used in almost all packaging applications because of their ability to deform and reform to their original shape.
The most widely used foams are polymer made. However, foams made of ceramic and metals are also available.
Ceramic foams are used in filtration, thermal insulation, acoustic insulation, and absorbing environmental pollutants.
Metal foams are used for sound damping, crash absorption, catalysts requiring large surface area, and more.
Most polymer-based foams can be easily laser-cut, but cutting ceramic and metal foams is not easy.
How to Laser Cut Foam-Guide
Creating the design
The first step in building any project in a laser cutter is making the right design.
While designing, make sure the cut paths are not too close to each other. For example, thin cutouts on a foam sheet may sometimes burn and overlap.
Depending on the foam material you intend to use, you will have to set the proper dimensions in the CAD software.
Some foams can melt due to heat buildup when the cuts are too close to each other. So it is crucial to give enough room for each cut.
CAD programs like Fusion 360 have dimension settings for each shape you make. You can use any CAD/CAM software of your choice that exports files in the format your laser control software supports.
Some popular CAD programs are Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape, LaserCAD, CorelDRAW, Etc.
Performing Test Runs
While setting up the toolpath, make sure the needed cutout is cut first, then only cut the outline/perimeter cut.
If the outline is cut first, the foam sheet can easily move around in the work area because of its lightweight.
Also, rolled foam sheets can become slightly bent if the outline is cut first. The inside cuts on a bent sheet will not reflect the correct dimensions.
By testing the foam with some sample cuts, you can figure out the proper settings for the foam material you have in hand.
You can also refer to the laser cutting thickness and speed chart for foam to identify the best laser parameters for your application.
Making the Cut
When cutting thick layers of foam sheets, it is better to set the laser focus a little down into the sheet rather than setting the focus right on the foam surface.
With the focus set a little deep, you can get clean incisions on thick foam sheets.
Foams generally produce fewer fumes, but when cutting thick or high-density foams, you may experience high levels of smoke.
Fumes coming in front of the laser beam will reduce the laser intensity and cause uneven cuts on the work material. It can also build up heat in the work area.
It is better to run an air assist and a fume exhaust while laser cutting foam. Those will keep the laser beam free from interference.
Types of Foam for Laser Cutting
Foams like polyester foam, polyethylene foam, polystyrene foam, polyurethane foam, styrofoam, and Ethylene-Vinyl Acetate (EVA) foam are the best choice for laser cutting.
Foams like EVA foam have high density and are elastic, they are used for applications such as interior designing, wall insulation, and more.
Polyethylene foams are mostly used in packaging and sealing applications because of their high density.
Styrofoam or blue boards are stiff and lightweight and can be used to make precise replica models. It can be easily cut with a laser into various shapes.
Expanded polystyrene (Styrofoam) and polypropylene foam have a high chance of melting or catching fire. Therefore, it is better to laser-cut such foams with an air assist.
Polyurethane foam, when heated, releases Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN) gas, so they have to be laser-cut within an enclosed setup with fume exhaust running. However, they give a clean cut with a good finish when laser-cut.
In the case of metal foams, air-filled metal foams are less dense and light in weight. However, when they are laser cut, there is the possibility of a high-temperature exothermic oxidation reaction along the cut plane.
Ceramic is usually cut using a diamond saw, but ceramic foams can be laser-cut faster than mechanical cutting techniques.
Important Aspects of Laser Cutting Foam
Laser Power and Wavelength
CO2 lasers operating at a wavelength of 10,600 nm are the best choice for cutting polymer and ceramic foams. Polymer-based foams can be effectively cut with a CO2 laser power of 30W and above. On the other hand, high-powered CO2 lasers operating at kilowatt ranges are needed for cutting ceramic foam. By increasing the laser power, the general rule is that you can process thicker and denser materials much faster. In addition, short-pulse lasers offer good quality cuts compared to continuous-wave lasers.
With a 60W CO2 laser, you will be able to cut 1/5" thick polystyrene foam core laminated white foam board in a single pass at a speed of ~106 ipm by utilizing 60% of the laser power.
For cutting metal foams, fiber lasers operating at a wavelength of 1060 nm and power ranging anywhere between 0.5kW – 3kW is the optimal choice. They consume much less energy and operate at a shorter wavelength, giving a higher absorption rate (~80%). In addition, metals will absorb fiber laser's light at a much higher phase than those generated by other lasers.
Diode lasers (10W and above) operating at a wavelength as low as 445nm can also cut foams effectively, but it is only limited to dark-colored medium-density foams.
Foams of medium to high density can be cut using a diode laser operating at a wavelength of 445 nm, but cutting low-density foams and white foams is hard.
In soft low-density foams, 445 nm wavelength laser light will pass through the material without heating/cutting them.
Also, 445nm wavelength blue light lasers easily bounce off from white foams without making any effective cut. They can be painted black for cutting with diode lasers.
You can cut a 0.13" thick EVA foam with a 10W diode laser at a speed of ~39 ipm in two passes.
The thickness and material density of foam influence the cutting speed you can achieve with a laser.
You can improve the cutting speed by increasing the laser power.
Generally, a cutting speed of ~13 ipm is recommended for a 25W CO2 laser against a polyurethane foam of 1.75" thickness.
A lens with a 2" focal length and a small spot size of 0.001" will give smooth cuts while processing foam.
When cutting 0.25" and thicker foams, you will have to use a longer-length focusing lens to focus the laser beam throughout the interior of the foam to get a clean and straight edge.
The work area of the laser cutter is an important aspect. It would be best to choose a laser cutter depending on the size of the foam sheets you plan to use.
An affordable desktop laser cutter is a good choice for a small-scale business. It won't take up much of your space.
Whereas for large-scale businesses, a machine with a large working area is optimum. It gives you greater flexibility.
Foams are generally light in weight, so they can move around in the work area when the air assist or exhaust is running.
It is better to fixture foams using double-sided tape or clamps without deforming them. By doing so, they won't move around in the work area.
Air Assist and Exhaust System
When laser cutting foam, visible levels of smoke and fume are generated, a low-pressure air assist with a small-size nozzle is recommended for laser processing foam.
Some polymer-based foam releases toxic gases that have a concussion effect when breathed in. Most low-density foams are also susceptible to catching fire when laser cut.
Foams like polypropylene and polystyrene foams are known to catch fire when laser-cut.
So it is better to run the air assist and exhaust together while cutting foam.
Tricks to Improve the Quality of Cut in Foam
A laser can easily cut foam sheets of up to 1" thickness. Sheets of much higher thickness can also be cut, but they are prone to heat buildup and fire because of the slower cut speed it requires.
A small beam spot of 0.001" cuts foam perfectly leaving behind clean cuts.
A laser cutter with a power of 60W is a good choice for working on foam. It gives flexibility to your work by cutting thin and thick foam sheets and at the same time enabling you to cut other materials as well.
Advantages of Laser Cutting Foam
Foam can be cut easily with lasers having a power of 30W and above. As the power increases, you can cut thicker foams and cut with a higher speed.
Almost all lasers will cut foam, but most laser manufacturers suggest CO2 lasers for cutting foam because foam readily absorbs CO2 laser energy.
The highly focused laser beam results in smooth, narrow cuts on foam.
Cutting foam sheets using scissors or slice cutters can cause lots of material wastage and sometimes gives inaccurate cuts due to human errors.
The laser cutter's movement is automated, and it cuts foam by heating and vaporizing the material under the laser path.
Its high accuracy and repeatability ensure high precision and consistent cut results on foam.
Since foams generally are bad conductors of heat, the heat-affected area will also be less.
Since no pressure is applied while cutting, you do not have to look for clamping or fixturing options in most cases.
If you are using an air assist as the laser cuts, you will have to consider using tapes to keep them in place under airflow.
A laser cutter can control the intensity of laser power and speed. It allows you to use the same machine for cutting foams of different sizes.
Challenges in Laser Cutting Foam
High Initial Cost
The initial investment needed for laser cutters limits many from entering into laser cutting.
However, the introduction of cheap laser engravers has enabled people to explore laser engraving applications without blowing a hole in their budget.
Need for Expertise
Laser cutters require you to have good knowledge about them for their operations and regular maintenance.
The software used to design the shapes and control the laser also requires some knowledge of CAD software.
This limits many from switching to laser cutters from other traditional mechanical cutting techniques.
While selecting a foam for your project, check its chemical composition.
For example, it is better not to use foams with chlorine content as chlorine gas can corrode machine components easily.
Foams like polyetherimide foam, EVA foam, and other plastic foams have chlorine content.
Most polymer-made high-density foams release black fumes, which can stain your laser lens. Therefore, you need to use an air-assist and exhaust system for long operations.
Uneven edge cuts happen while laser cutting foam because of a foggy lens or improper feed/speed settings.
You will have to do some test cuts to find the proper settings and suitable foam material needed for your project.
Best Laser Cutters for Foam
Following are some laser machine recommendations for cutting foam. But they are not limited to cutting foam alone. They can cut and engrave on other materials as well.
ATOMSTACK A5 M30 - For Hobbyists
ATOMSTACK A5 M30 is a 30W diode laser machine with an optical output of 5.5W. It has a working area of 16.1" x 15.7".
It also engraves and cuts wood, acrylic, rubber, plywood, PCB board, and bamboo. However, on stainless steel and ceramic materials, it only engraves.
A5 M30 can easily cut foam as it has a 50% smaller focus spot than most laser machines. It can cut foam sheets at a maximum speed of ~118 ipm.
It has a full aluminum body with belt-driven machine movements. Along the linear rails, it easily moves using V-wheels.
A5 M30 fully supports LaserGRBL and LightBurn software.
AtomStack provides a 1-year warranty for this machine, and they provide customer support through e-mail and phone.
It supports LaserGRBL and LightBurn software.
The machine and parts come with a 1-year warranty.
Kern Micro - For Small Businesses
Kern Micro is a powerful CO2 laser cutter that is ideal for industrial and business applications where mass production is of primary interest.
It has a footprint of around 70″ x 36″ x 56″ and provides a work area of 24″ x 24″ or 48″ x 24″.
Kern Micro houses a CO2 laser tube with power options ranging from 100W to 650W.
The excellent drive system of Kern Micro provides high positional accuracy of around ±0.002″/ft, and its high repeatability index of ±0.0005″/ft makes it ideal for applications involving mass production.
Furthermore, the standard model of Kern Micro includes a fumes extraction system that will safely dispose of the harmful fumes produced when laser cutting foam.
It also includes a closed-loop chiller system that regulates the temperature of the equipment and makes it possible to use the laser cutter for long operational hours.
Kern Micro also offers various optional features such as auto-focus, air assist, honeycomb bed, etc., that can further enhance its productivity.
Overall, its powerful laser, high precision, and excellent customer support make Kern Micro an ideal foam laser cutter for industries.
Laser Cutting Services
If you are not interested in getting a laser machine for some reason, you can always use the laser cutting service from online and offline maker workshops near you.
You can send them the design with dimensions, material, and color details. Most custom laser cutting service providers will communicate directly with you to collect all the necessary data for a better service.
Here is a list of some popular online businesses that offer laser cutting services for foam in the US.
Many industries currently processing foam for packaging use laser machines because of their repeatability and the ease of contactless cutting.
Laser machining offers many advantages over conventional methods. They can process materials faster with great precision and speed.
Laster cut foams do not need secondary processing as the cuts will be smooth.
Laser Cutting Guides for Different Materials
Check out these guides on laser cutting and engraving some popular materials.
|Material||Link to Guide|
|Paper||Laser Cutting Paper|
|Acrylic||Laser Cutting and Engraving Acrylic|
|Aluminum||Laser Cutting and Engraving Aluminum|
|Leather||Laser Cutting and Engraving Leather|
|Plastic||Laser Cutting and Engraving Plastic|
|Polypropylene||Laser cutting polypropylene|
|Brass||Laser Engraving Brass|
|Fabric||Laser Cutting Fabric|
|Plywood||Laser Cutting Plywood|
|Glass||Laser Cutting Glass|
|Vinyl||Laser Cutting Vinyl|
|Food||Laser Engraving Food|
Laser cutting guides for other materials
Frequently Asked Questions
What's the advantage of laser cutting foam?
The advantage of laser cutting foam is that it is adaptive, automated, fast, silent, non-contact, precise, and repetitive. In addition, since foams are light in weight because of their lower density, they can be easily cut with lasers.
What foams can a laser cut?
A laser can cut foams made of polymer, ceramic, and metal. For cutting foams of higher density and thickness high powered lasers are needed. Polymer and ceramic-based foams can be cut using a CO2 laser. For metal foams, fiber lasers are the best option.
Is cutting foams on a laser harmful?
Cutting foams on a laser is only harmful when foams release harmful gases like hydrogen cyanide, chlorine, and other fumes that are toxic to inhale. Some foams are also highly flammable when heated. Therefore, it is better not to use such foams on a laser.