Cutting process overview

There are three general categories of industrial cutting: thermal, erosive, and mechanical.


A thermal process uses heat to cut or melt through the material being cut. Examples include oxyfuel, plasma, and laser cutting.

Here’s how each works:

  • Oxyfuel creates a chemical reaction between the oxygen and steel that is so hot (about 1,800°F) the metal softens, and then melts

  • Plasma uses a high temperature ionized gas to produce a very hot, high energy-density arc that can cut any conductive material
HPR400XD using plasma
  • Laser focuses a high-power beam of focused light, which heats and melts the material, while gas blows away the melted waste
Fiber laser


An erosive process uses air, water, or other natural agents to wear away a material. Waterjet cutting falls into this category.

  • Waterjet cutting generates a high-pressure volume of water that travels through a very small orifice to create a high-velocity stream of water. In water-only applications, this high-velocity stream of water erodes the material being cut. In abrasive waterjet cutting, the high-velocity stream of water accelerates an abrasive (typically garnet) that is mixed in after the orifice; this accelerated water-abrasive mixture erodes the material being cut. Abrasive waterjet cutting is required for harder materials such as metal and stone.


Mechanical toolsThis process involves the use of physical forces to cut an object. Examples of this type of cutting include sawing, shearing, and drilling.

  • Mechanical tools work by placing the cutting mechanism, such as a blade, into physical contact with the object being cut.

Some of these cutting processes can be either manual or automated:

Manual or handheld cutting

In this mode, the torch or cutting head is manually controlled.  With a little training, the user can simply pick up the tool and start cutting.

Handheld cutting

Automated cutting

Automated cutting uses software, electronics, or other programmable media to direct the cutting process. The object to be cut might be a metal part, piece of foam, stone countertop, pipe—practically anything. Typical examples of automated cutting systems include CNC cutting tables, pipe cutters, and industrial robots.

Automated cutting


Not sure which process or method to use?

You’ll find helpful information here:


Want to learn more about automated cutting?

Take our free "Automated Cutting Process" eLearning course on the Hypertherm Cutting Institute

Read more