Laser Machining of Polymers Requires Material Knowledge

Many medical, life science, and electronic devices utilize components made from polymers such as polycarbonate, polyurethanes, ABS, FEP, polyamides, polyimides, PEEK, PTFE, PMMA, polyester, Nylon, and acrylics.

Polymers are popular manufacturing materials because they are mechanically and chemically stable and good electrical insulators. Common products made from polymers include catheters, filters, printed circuit boards, substrates for electronics, and thin insulating films. Engineers continue to design smaller and more complex devices that require micron-level features. These are best produced using laser machining, which can create microscopic features in polymer materials, maintain very tight tolerances, and produce no structural or thermal damage to the material.

The type of laser selected, and the wavelength, depends on the chemistry of the polymer being processed. Cut quality, feature size, and throughput can all vary according to the type of polymer and its absorption spectrum. Ultrafast lasers (pulse width <100 picoseconds) are often preferred because they produce extremely clean edges with very little thermal damage to the surrounding material. Excimer lasers typically use mask projection to show the features to be drilled or cut on the polymer surface which can then all be cut at the same time, speeding up production. The thickness of the material being micromachined is another factor in deciding which laser system to use. 

The smallest features that can be drilled or cut into polymers are 10-50-microns in width, with tolerances as tight as 1-2 microns—feature size and tolerance are also dependent on the thickness of the polymer material.

Laser Light performs both acrylic laser cutting and thin film polymer machining with micron-sized features. A wide variety of laser systems, combined with our post-processing cleaning technologies, allow us to laser-machine virtually any polymer to meet the most stringent specifications.

Clients frequently request complex geometries with high aspect ratio features such as trenches, wells, arrays, or custom-shaped holes drilled at specific angles, sometimes resulting in micro patterns of hundreds of thousands of holes. Particular care must be taken when laser-machining polyimides—being thinner materials that are easily damaged by heat, even the slightest thermal or structural alterations can result in diminished performance.

Another common request is laser-machining clear polymers, such as acrylic glass, for applications in the automotive, electronic, and outdoor equipment markets. Laser cutting of acrylic is a well-established process that produces immaculate edges with virtually no burning or burrs. For applications that require the material to be optically clear and mechanically robust, acrylic is a better material than other transparent polymers, such as polycarbonate, which can also break down into hazardous by-products that are health hazards for operators.

Laser machining of polymers is also well-suited for thin-film formats, commonly used in the electronics industries, which are hard to process by conventional stamping techniques.

Virtually any polymer material can be laser-machined with high precision. As engineers continue to design smaller and more complex products, laser machinists will be called upon to use their technical skills, material knowledge, and experience to build laser-machining processes that can create these tiny, high-precision features that enhance product functionality—and even save lives.