Punch Press vs Laser: Five things to consider in making your choice

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Choosing between a turret punch press and a laser cutting machine is a critical decision that will significantly impact the efficiency, precision, and overall success of your metal fabrication operation. And yet, the decision can be handicapped by misconceptions, misunderstandings and, to be brutally honest, a failure to do the homework necessary to understand how the advantages and disadvantages of each technology affect the specific needs and priorities of the fabricator.

The speed with which the two technologies are evolving, and the perceptions that’s creating in the marketplace, are making the decision harder. The turret punch press has been a staple of the North American metal fabrication industry since its introduction in the 1950s. The laser cutting machine is newer technology which is currently undergoing rapid change in its power and capabilities in comparison. As a result, there is a misplaced belief that the turret punch press is a technology of the past rather than a viable alternative.

Unfortunately, that’s leading fabricators into wrong purchasing decisions – either by locking in on laser cutting because they wrongly view the turret punch press as outdated technology or by purchasing it even though they work with materials such as stainless steel that are better handled with a laser.

To make your decision a more informed one, we reached out to Jean-Philippe Nadeau, blanking product manager with Amada and Peter Visser, regional sales manager with Mate Precision Technologies. These two industry experts were chosen because their companies have a stake in both technologies and their neutral insights will help us delve into each technology’s most important features, advantages, and disadvantages. 

Based on their insights, here are five key considerations to nail down about your operation to guide your decision on which technology is the best fit.

The punch press stands out for its forming capabilities, allowing the easy production of parts with extrusions, countersinks, louvers, and threads. IMAGE AMADA

1.Material and thickness requirements

This is a fundamental consideration because there is a distinct difference in the ability of the two technologies to handle thicker materials. Turret punch presses are best suited for thinner materials while laser cutting machines offer greater versatility across a wider range of material thicknesses. 

“The material thickness the customer needs to process is a crucial consideration. Punch presses have material thickness limitations due to constraints in clamping mechanisms and sheet dragging motions. Thick materials are heavy to move on the brush table, and the required punching force would pose a significant challenge,” Nadeau explains. “Even an entry level laser can handle one-inch mild steel with ease. As you move up in laser power, the capability for nitrogen cutting increases, resulting in faster processing speeds and clean edges without oxidation.”

The type of material you’re processing is also important. While the range of materials you can cut with laser seems endless, a turret punch press will have trouble with stainless, according to Visser.

“With a punch it gets really hot in stainless, and you have to run it a little slower. And because stainless is hard and abrasive there is a lot of wear on turret tools. The laser doesn’t have a tooling issue so it’s a big advantage. You can just plug and play.”

2. Precision, tolerance and forming capability

If intricate designs and tight tolerances are critical for the majority of the jobs involved, a laser cutting machine would be the preferred option. However, the turret punch press is the faster choice for hole-intensive projects in time-sensitive projects. 

“If you are doing round-hole perforations, it’s a no-brainer, buy a turret punch press. It can punch 10x the speed of a laser,” says Visser. “I can possibly make a tool hit 60 holes in one hit. There is no way a laser can do 60 holes in a split second.”

Another area where the turret punch press holds a clear advantage is its forming capabilities. 

“The punch press stands out for its forming capabilities, allowing the easy production of parts with extrusions, countersinks, louvers, and threads. This versatility minimizes the need for secondary operations, streamlining the workflow,” says Nadeau.

The variety of forms that can be used with a turret (Visser says he keeps a sample sheet to show all the different options) is important because forms can reduce spot welding.

“You can snap parts together with clip-type tools, you can have locators for stud welding, which you can’t do with a laser,” Visser says. “A lot of times people who have bought lasers, once I’ve shown them the sample form sheets, say they wish they had known this before buying the laser.”

Keep in mind though that customers who demand superior edge quality on their parts may be better served with laser cutting. With punching, as the material gets thicker, you may notice more nibble marks on the edges, potentially requiring an additional deburring step, Nadeau says.

AMADA’s EM 3612 ZRT is an automated punching system that features a 33-ton turret punch press that’s equipped with a high-capacity tool rack and an automatic tool changer. The system is able to house up to 300 tools and 600 dies. IMAGE: AMADA


Does your operation have a high part mix? If so, flexibility would be a key consideration and laser cutting wins out on that score. With laser there are few limitations on the geometry of the parts to be made. 

“Punching is straightforward for simple geometries but when dealing with corner radius, large holes, or special shapes, laser cutting often proves more suitable,” Nadeau says. “A standout feature of laser cutting is its incredible flexibility. It can effortlessly cut any part shape you design. Unlike in the past, where setting up the machine involved choosing lenses, adjusting focal points and aligning nozzles, newer machines handle all these tasks automatically. This simplifies the operator’s role to primarily loading and unloading, a process that can also be automated for efficiency.”

4. Initial investment and total cost of ownership

While turret punch presses have a lower initial cost, laser cutting machines, depending on the operational requirements, may offer long-term savings through increased efficiency and reduced material waste. 

An advantage for the laser is that there are no tools to order like there is with turret punch presses. If you have a special shape or specialty radius to deal with you don’t need specialty tooling to worry about. Another big advantage with laser is nesting.

“You don’t need to have a border like you do with a turret so you can utilize every inch of the material assembly,” explains Visser. “So you get a greater part yield in a laser compared to a turret per sheet, and sheets are expensive.”

But it’s important to take all the variables into account.

“Financially, the capital investment and running costs for punch presses are notably lower than those for lasers. Modern fully electric punch presses consume less than half the electricity of lasers, resulting in cost savings and aligning with eco-friendly practices. Additionally, punch presses don’t require an assist gas, further contributing to their cost-effectiveness,” explains Nadeau. “The assist gas is a necessary consumable, and its cost can add up. Nitrogen stands out as the most common choice for several reasons, including better edge quality, faster cutting speed, no oxidation, and reduced cleanup. However, the price of gas is beyond our control. In the event of a global crisis leading to a shortage or rise in gas prices, the necessity to purchase nitrogen remains for uninterrupted production.”

Nadeau adds, however, that tailor-made nitrogen generating solutions are available which allow manufacturers to manage their costs more effectively. This solution offers a proactive approach, allowing businesses to maintain control over their expenses even in fluctuating market conditions.

Visser emphasizes the long-term viability of turret punch press technology in keeping the total cost of ownership low. 

“You can operate a turret for 25-30 years and that thing is going to keep running. I won’t say the technology has advanced as fast as laser has but it hasn’t needed to. You can only run a punch machine as fast as a tool can go in and out of the sheet and so the heat of the tool really dictates how fast a turret machine can run,” he points out.

5. Automation and integration

Laser cutting machines, with their advanced technology, can seamlessly integrate into automated production lines, contributing to improved efficiency and reduced labor costs. The main disadvantage of turret punch presses is setting up the tools. As Nadeau explains, even with a high tooling capacity machine and efforts to minimize tool changes, some jobs may still require adjustments or special tools, adding setup time. Fortunately, certain machines can now be equipped with automatic tool changers, which removes this step and further increases tooling capacity.

Visser provides a different viewpoint on the automation theme. He believes lasers are capable of running parts so fast now that the automation can’t always keep up to maintain efficient sorting in the back end.

“And if the shop doesn’t have automation, the machine can only run as fast as a human can take the parts off it. Turrets have really had a long time to refine how that process works and the parts that come off the back can be sorted and stacked at the pace that the machine runs with no buffering happening,” he says.

Whether you decide the turret punch press or the laser is the preferred option, to ensure the best fit for your operation will require giving proper thought and weight to these five considerations. SMT

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