Industrial Electronics

The Shape of Things to Come: Laser Cutters as Part of the 21st Century Shop Class

01 May 2018

Sponsored contentFigure 1. After sending a job to the laser at the Pikes Peak Library District makerspace, operators eagerly wait for their projects to be completed. Source: Epilog LaserFigure 1. After sending a job to the laser at the Pikes Peak Library District makerspace, operators eagerly wait for their projects to be completed. Source: Epilog Laser

"Shop class" — featuring metalworking or woodworking equipment — was a staple of mid-20th century curricula. Students learned to design, measure and finish napkin holders, birdhouses, wind chimes and myriad other projects. However, by the turn of the century, shop classes had virtually vanished from all but the most specialized of high schools.

Today, however, technology has introduced an efficiency aspect to shop classes that is appealing to both students and their instructors. Laser cutters have been introduced into many shop classes and their acceptance has been remarkable. The tools offer students endless possibilities to express their creativity. Students can experiment using a wide range of materials and the machines are capable of handling projects of varying difficulty levels.

Schools that have introduced laser cutting in a woodworking or engineering program offer students the ability to create projects as varied as balsa wood airplanes to gumball machines. The process is much more streamlined than it was a generation ago. Using a laser cutter, students can cut, mark and engrave, all with the same machine. That saves space in the shop or lab, which is at a premium, particularly at crowded schools. Learning about how one machine operates, rather than studying the ins and outs of several different machines, decreases the student learning curve. Students can get on with the creative part of designing and building more quickly. Since lasers can both engrave and cut, students can cut pieces and parts to build 3D models, prototypes or other products.

Laser shop class appeals to a range of learning abilities and is appealing to most students. Districts report that a broad cross-section of students have expressed interest in using the laser cutters. Kids without laser cutting experience, background or skills may feel a sense of accomplishment after learning to use the machines, much like the students who have already been exposed to this technology as they expand their skill set and tackle more in-depth projects.

Laser cutters are available in various price ranges, which means schools with virtually any budget can invest in the technology. Inkscape is free design software that runs on Mac, PC or Linux, but AutoCAD and other popular software can also be used to design incredibly intricate objects. And while students can still create home goods, many districts are using these shop classes to build practical items for use within the schools; for example, making acrylic enclosures for electronics projects, cardboard prototypes of larger creations or even simple signs for use around the school campus. Custom instructional materials are also a popular project done in cooperation with a teacher.

Just as in the shop classes of yesteryear, safety is a concern. Today’s technology, however, has changed.

Some tips for the shop laser cutters:

1. Laser cutters such as the Epilog CO2 models are classified as ANSI Class 2 lasers and they are generally not hazardous to the eyes or skin. The output of the embedded, high-power, CO2 engraving laser is fully contained, and the machinery automatically shuts down if the door is opened during operation.

2. Exhaust and filtration must be planned. Some materials release harmful gases and particulate when they are cut. Most facilities vent outdoors if possible, but if not, portable filtration units can be recommended.

3. There is a risk of fire because the high-intensity beam of laser light produces high temperatures and some materials may unintentionally ignite under certain conditions. Generally, wood, acrylic, cardboard and cork can be easily and harmlessly cut. Never run the laser unattended.

4. Laser companies include safety information and precautions in their manuals. Schools can mandate that teachers complete training courses or develop individual safety plans and check lists to ensure the safe operation of the machinery.

Today, shop classes can incorporate new technologies into classrooms that are transforming into makerspaces, with laser cutters taking center stage. With fun, easy-to-use equipment such as laser cutters available, shop classes may be on the verge of making a comeback as a way to teach middle and high school kids the skills that can help prepare them for adulthood.

For more information about lasers in the classroom, contact Epilog Laser.

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