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Introduction

Plasma is defined as collection of charged particles containing about equal numbers of positive ions
and electrons and exhibiting some properties of a gas but differing from a gas in being a good
conductor of electricity. For arc cutting, plasma can also be defined as an electrically heated gas
stream. The gas stream is heated to such high temperature that it becomes ionized. The ionized gas
by definition can then freely exchange electrons between atoms. This electron movement is what
allows the gas to carry the cutting amperage.

Plasma cutting is a process that uses a high velocity jet of ionized gas that is delivered from a
constricting orifice. The high velocity ionized gas, that is, the plasma, conducts electricity from the
torch of the plasma cutter to the work piece. The plasma heats the workpiece and melts the
material. It creates the cut with high velocity stream of ionized gas which mechanically blows the
molten metal away. It is a precision cutting process and can be operated manually semi-automated
or automatically

The benefits of plasma cutting include


1. ease of use
2. higher quality
3. faster cutting travel speeds

Plasma Cutting Compared to Oxyfuel Cutting

Plasma cutting can be performed on any type of conductive metal - mild steel, aluminum and
stainless are some examples. With mild steel, operators will experience faster, thicker cuts than with
alloys. Oxyfuel cuts by burning, or oxidizing of metal. It is therefore limited to steel and other
ferrous metals which support the oxidizing process. Metals like aluminum and stainless steel form
an oxide that inhibits further oxidization, making conventional oxyfuel cutting impossible. Plasma
cutting, however, does not rely on oxidation to work, and thus it can cut aluminum, stainless and
any other conductive material.

While different gasses can be used for plasma cutting, most people today use compressed air for
the plasma gas. In most shops, compressed air is readily available, and thus plasma does not require
fuel gas and compressed oxygen for operation.

Plasma cutting is typically easier for the novice to master, and on thinner materials, plasma cutting
is much faster than oxyfuel cutting. However, for heavy sections of steel (1 inch and greater),
oxyfuel is still preferred since oxyfuel is typically faster and, for heavier plate applications, very high
capacity power supplies are required for plasma cutting applications.

Plasma cutting is ideal for cutting steel and non-ferrous material less than 1 inch thick. Oxyfuel
cutting requires that the operator carefully control the cutting speed so as to maintain the oxidizing
process. Plasma is more forgiving in this regard. Plasma cutting really shines in some applications,
such as cutting expanded metal (metal mesh) something that is nearly impossible with oxyfuel.
Once compared to mechanical mean of cutting, plasma cutting is typically much faster, and can
easily make non-linear cuts.
Limitations of plasma cutting

The plasma cutting machines are typically more expensive than oxyacetylene, and also, oxyacetylene
does not require access to electrical power or compressed air which may make it a more convenient
method for some users. Oxyfuel can cut thicker sections greater than 1 inch of steel more quickly
than plasma.

Plasma Torch

A plasma torch uses an alloy copper nozzle to constrict the ionized gas stream to focus the energy
to a small cross section. The principle is the same as using a magnifying glass to concentrate the
sun's energy to create intense heat. The gas flowing through the nozzle also serves as a medium to
remove the molten metal heated by the ionized gas. Approximately 30% of gas is actually ionized
(under optimum conditions) while the remaining 70% of the gas stream is used for material
removal and cooling.
Gas Swirling
A swirl ring sometimes called as a gas diffuser is used in torch to swirl the gas/air. Swirling the gas
assists cutting in several ways. Swirling increases cooling. The un-ionized gas atoms are heavier and
cooler and are thrown to the outside of the spinning gas stream (centrifuging). This cool barrier
provides protection for the copper nozzle. As amperage is increased, the amount of ionization
increases (changing the 30/70% ratio) and cooling decreases, shortening the life of the nozzle.
Nozzles are designed to operate within a specific current (amp) range.
Effects of gas swirling on cut quality
If the plasma gas is not swirled, results would be a bevel on both sides of the cut. By swirling the
gas, the arc is distributed evenly along one side of the cut. If the swirl is reversed in direction from
CW to CCW, the square side will switch. As the ionized gas (plasma) is swirled, the electrical arc
will attach itself evenly to the leading edge of the cut. These multiple attachment points provide a
more even power distribution through the workpiece. This equalizing of power from top to bottom
results in a squarer side. The other side having a 5 to 8 degree bevel.
The introduction of a shield gas will further constrict and cool the nozzle. This gas is injected in
the plasma stream after the ionization process at the tip of the nozzle.

Water injection improves cut quality and cools the nozzle. By swirling water in the same direction
as the gas, then injecting it at the point where the arc exits the nozzle, the arc is further constricted.
When cool water comes in contact with the high temperature arc, a steam layer between the arc and
nozzle bore is formed. The effects of this barrier can be demonstrated by heating a frying pan and
pouring water on it. Immediately small beads of water will dance on the pan surface instead of
vaporizing. These water beads are protected by the steam insulating properties formed when the
water comes in contact with the pan. Water temperature must stay below 70 degrees F. for water
injection to work correctly. A condition known as film boiling occurs if the temperature rises above
that point. An unstable arc, shorter nozzle life, and poor cut quality will result
What To Look for When Purchasing a Plasma Cutting Machine

Determine the thickness of the metal that you will most frequently cut
One of the first factors you need to determine is the thickness of metal most frequently cut. Most
plasma cutting power sources are rated on their cutting ability and amperage. Therefore, if you
most often cut ¼" thick material, you should consider a lower amperage plasma cutter. If you most
frequently cut metal that is ½" in thickness look for a higher amperage machine. Even though a
smaller machine may be able to cut through a given thickness of metal, it may not produce a quality
cut. Instead, you may get a sever cut which barely makes it through the plate and leaves behind
dross or slag. Every unit has an optimal range of thickness - make sure it matches up with what you
need. In general, a ¼" machine has approximately 25 amps of output, a 1/2" machine has a 50-60
amp output while a ¾" - 1" machine has 80 amps output.

2. Select your optimal cutting speed


Do you perform most of your cutting in a production environment or in an atmosphere where
cutting speed isn't as critical? When buying a plasma cutter, the manufacturer should provide
cutting speeds for all thickness of metal measured in IPM (inches per minute). If the metal you cut
most frequently is ¼", a machine that offers higher amperages will be able to cut through the metal
much faster than one rated at a lower amperage, although both will do the job. For production
cutting, a good rule of thumb is to choose a machine, which can handle approximately twice your
normal cutting thickness. For example, to perform long, fast, quality production cuts on ¼" steel,
choose a 1/2" class (60 amp) machine.

If you are performing long, time-consuming cuts or are cutting in an automated set-up, be sure to
check into the machine's duty cycle. Duty cycle is simply the time you can continuously cut before
the machine or torch will overheat and require cooling. Duty cycle is rated as a percentage of a ten-
minute period. For example, a 60 percent duty cycle at 50 amps means you can cut with 50 amps
output power continuously for six minutes out of a 10-minute period. The higher the duty cycle,
the longer you can cut without taking a break.

3. Can the machine offer an alternative to high frequency starting?


Most plasma cutters have a pilot arc that utilizes high frequency to conduct electricity through the
air. However, high frequency can interfere with computers or office equipment that may be in use
in the area. Thus, starting methods that eliminate the potential problems associated with high
frequency starting circuits may be advantageous.
The lift arc method features a DC+ nozzle with a DC- electrode inside. Initially, the nozzle and the
electrode physically touch. When the trigger is pulled, current flows between the electrode and the
nozzle. Next, the electrode pulls away from the nozzle and a pilot arc is established. The transfer
from pilot to cutting arc occurs when the pilot arc is brought close to the work piece. This transfer
is caused by the electric potential from nozzle to work.

4. Compare consumable cost versus consumable life


Plasma cutting torches have a variety of wear items that require replacement, commonly called
consumables. Look for a manufacturer that offers a machine with the fewest number of
consumable parts. A smaller number of consumables mean less to replace and more cost savings.

Look in the manufacturer's specifications for how long a consumable will last - but be sure when
comparing one machine against another that you are comparing the same data. Some
manufacturers will rate consumables by number of cuts, while others will use the number of starts
as the measurement standard.

5. Test the machine and examine cut quality


Make test cuts on a number of machines, traveling at the same rate of speed on the same thickness
of material to see which machine offers the best quality. As you compare cuts, examine the plate
for dross on the bottom side and see if the kerf (the gap left by cut) angle is perpendicular or
angular.

Look for a plasma cutter that offers a tight, focused arc. Lincoln Electric consumables are specially
designed to concentrate the plasma swirl, offering a tighter arc and concentrating more cutting
power on the work piece.

Another test to perform is to lift the plasma torch up from the plate while cutting. See how far you
can move the torch away from the work piece and still maintain an arc. A longer arc means more
volts and the ability to cut through thicker plate.

6. Pilot to cut and cut to pilot transfers


The transfer from pilot arc to cutting arc occurs when the pilot arc is brought close to the work
piece. A voltage potential from nozzle to work is mechanism for this transfer. Traditionally, a large
resistor in the pilot arc current path created this voltage potential. This voltage potential directly
affects the height at which the arc can transfer. After the pilot arc transfers to work a switch (relay
or transistor) is used to open the current path.

Look for a machine that provides a quick, positive transfer from pilot to cutting at a large transfer
height. These machines will be more forgiving to the operator and will better support gouging. A
good way to test transfer characteristics is by cutting expanded metal or gratings. In these instances,
the machine will be required to quickly transfer from pilot to cut and back to pilot very quickly. To
get around this, they may recommend you cut expanded metal using only the pilot current.

7. Check the machine's working visibility


As you are working on an application, you want to be able to see what you are cutting, especially
when tracing a pattern. Visibility is facilitated by the geometry of the torch - a smaller, less bulky
torch will enable you to better see where you are cutting, as will an extended nozzle.

8. Look for the portability factor


Many consumers use their plasma cutter for a variety of cutting applications and need to move the
machine around a plant, job site or even from site to site. Having a lightweight, portable unit and a
means of transportation for that unit - such as a valet style undercarriage or shoulder strap - make
all the difference. Additionally, if floor space in a work area is limited, having a machine with a
small footprint is valuable.

Also, you want a machine that offers storage for the work cable, torch and consumables. Built-in
storage drastically improves portability since these items will not drag on the ground or get lost
during machine transport.

9. Determine the ruggedness of the machine


For today's hard job site environments, look for a machine that offers durability and has protected
controls. For example, fittings and torch connections that are protected will wear better than those
that aren't. Some machines offer a protective cage around the air filter and other integral parts of
the machine. These filters are an important feature since they ensure oil is removed from the
compressed air. Oil can cause arcing and reducing cutting performance. Protection of these filters
is important as they ensure oil and water, which reduces cutting performance, is removed from the
compressed air.

10. Find out if the machine is easy to operate and feels comfortable
Look for a plasma cutter that has a big, easy-to-read control panel that is user-friendly. Such a panel
allows someone who does not normally use a plasma cutter to be able to pick it up and use it. In
addition, a machine with procedural information clearly printed on the unit will help with set-up
and troubleshooting.

How does the torch feel in your hand? You want something that has good ergonomics and feels
comfortable.

11. Look for safety features


Look for a machine that offers a true Nozzle-in-Place safety sensor. With such a feature, the
plasma cutter will not start an arc unless the nozzle is in place. Some safety systems can be fooled
into thinking the nozzle is in place (i.e. shield cup sensing), even when it is not. If the output is
turned on, the operator will be exposed to 300 VDC, a very unsafe condition. This cannot happen
with the Lincoln Nozzle-in-Place safety sensor.

Look for a machine that provides a pre-flow sequence. This feature provides an advanced warning
to the use before the arc initiates. In addition, look for a machine which provides a three-second
pre-flow safety which gives users advanced warning to make sure all body parts are clear of the
nozzle before the arc initiates.
HOW CAN I MAKE THE MOST OF THIS CUTTING TOOL?
After you have selected the plasma cutting machine that is right for you, here are some tricks-of-
the-trade that will help beginners make the best possible cut.

1. Set-up procedures
Before you start, check for the following items:

A clean compressed air supply, without water or oil. Consumables that wear quickly, or black burn
marks on the plate, may indicate that the air is contaminated
Correct air pressure - this can be checked by looking at the gauges on the unit
A nozzle and electrode are correctly in place
A good connection of the work lead to a clean portion of the work

2. Safety gear
Some basic safety practices should be observed. You should read your instruction manual
thoroughly to understand the machine. Wear long sleeves and gloves while cutting since molten
metal is generated during the cutting process. Eye protection such as dark goggles or a welding
shield is required to protect your eyes from the cutting arc. Typically a darkness shade of #7 to #9
is acceptable. Finally, follow all safety tips and guidelines that are detailed in your instruction
manual.

3. Piercing the work


Many inexperienced users try to pierce the metal by coming straight down, perpendicular (90
degrees) to the work. This results in molten metal being blown back into the torch. A better
method is to approach the metal at an angle (60 degrees from horizontal, 30 degrees from vertical)
and then rotate the torch to the vertical position. This way, the molten metal is blown away from
the torch.

4. Don't touch the nozzle to the work piece


Do not touch the nozzle to the work when using current levels of 45 amps or more. Doing so will
drastically reduce the nozzle life as the cutting will double arc through the nozzle. Double arcing
can also occur if the torch is guided by dragging it against a metal template. The result is the same
as dragging the nozzle on the work - prematurely worn nozzles.

5. Beginners should use a drag cup to facilitate the cut


Many systems offer an insulated drag cup, which snaps over the nozzle. This allows the torch to
rest on the work piece and dragged along to facilitate a consistent cut.

6. Travel at the right speed


When moving at the right cutting speed, the molten metal spray will blow out the bottom of the
plate at a 15 to 20 degree angle. If you are moving too slowly, you will create slow speed dross,
which is an accumulation of molten metal on the bottom edge of the cut. When moving too fast,
high-speed dross on the top surface is created since you are not allowing time for the arc to
completely go through the metal. Traveling too fast or too slow will create a low-quality cut.
Typically, low speed dross can be distinguished from high-speed dross by ease of removal. For
example, low speed dross can be removed by hand whereas high-speed dross typically requires
grinding.

7. Set the current to maximum as you begin


When setting the current, put it on the maximum output of the machine, then turn it down as
needed. More power is usually better, except when doing precision cutting or when you need to
keep a small kerf.

8. Minimize pilot arc time


Because of the wear it creates on the consumables, try to minimize the amount of time spent in
pilot arc mode. To do this, position the plasma torch by the edge of the work before starting the
arc so you can get right to cutting.

9. Maintain a constant work distance


Optimally, you should maintain a 3/16" to 1/8" distance from the nozzle to the work. Moving the
torch in an up and down fashion will only hinder your efforts.

10. Travel in the direction that will give you the best finished work
If you are making a circular cut and plan to keep the round piece as your finished work, move in a
clockwise direction. If you plan to keep the piece from which the circle was cut, move in a
counterclockwise direction.

As you push the torch away from you, the better cut will appear on the metal that is on the right
hand side, since it will tend to have a better, squarer edge.

11. End with a push angle on thick material


One trick to use on thicker material is to rotate the torch slightly, increasing the torch orientation
to a push, rather than drag angle as you cut through the last section of material. This increase in the
push angle at the finish will cut through the bottom first and get rid of the bottom corner that is
usually left at the end of thick plate. Never finish a cut by using the torch to hammer away the last
corner of the work.

After finding the right machine for your application and learning some of the tricks of the trade,
you should be ready to cut. Remember that plasma cutting offers a number of benefits and should
provide you with faster, higher quality cuts.