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A cut above the rest

Laser technology is the state-of-the-art way of making design ideas a reality. George Cole reports

At Tonypandy Comprehensive School's design faculty sits a machine that looks like a cross between a fish tank, a photocopier and a sandwich maker. It may look unusual, but the machine literally represents the cutting edge of design technology in schools.

Tonypandy in south Wales has become the first UK school to invest in a laser cutter for producing 3-D models from designs created by its students. If design technology is about making ideas solid, then the laser cutter offers a quick and easy way of achieving this.

The head of Tonypandy's design faculty is Mike Evans, an enthusiastic teacher who runs a busy department of 12 staff. The design faculty has four multi-material workshops (for working with materials such as wood, metal and plastics), and a computer suite of 15 networked computers running design software packages such as Coral Draw! and Pro-Desktop.

The CO2 laser (a Mercury Pro model) was supplied by Technology Supplies based in Market Drayton, Shropshire and cost about pound;10,000. This isn't cheap, but Mike is convinced it will save money in the long run: "The laser lasts around 20,000 hours, which represents many years of use. It's also a complete package and includes training and support. Unlike conventional CAM (computer aided manufacturing) machines, there are no blades to break."

Tonypandy, an 11-18 school with 1,200 pupils, is in one of the poorest areas of Wales, but almost all the cost of the laser cutter was borne by the school. The purchase reflects the importance headteacher Stephen Parry places on ICT and design technology. His school has been in the finals of the Wales Student Innovation Awards for the past three years and won it outright in 1999.

The cutter was installed in one of the workshops last January. It sits inside a metal cage: "It's not just there for security. It also allows the pupils to lean on the cage and watch the cutter in action," explains Mike. Working the cutter is simple. It has a 12-watt laser so can be plugged into the mains using a standard 13-amp plug. The machine can be controlled from its own touch control keypad or via a PC, which is how Mike mainly operates it. The cutter works with standard PC Windows packages so schools can use their existing software with it.

After adjusting the speed, power and size settings to suit the cutting job, it's a case of click and go. The cutter has an A2-sized bed, but there are also front and back panels that can be opened for passing larger materials through. The laser cut uses an auto-focus system to determine the thickness of the material and then starts cutting.

The cutter works with many types of materials but not metal. However, it can also be used for 3-D engraving. A transparent cover stops any laser light leaking out of the machine and, if the cover is opened during cutting, the machine automatically stops.

So far, the laser cutter has been used by GCSE and AS-level students for project work. Janine Eschelby, a Year 12 student, used it to produce an impressive thimble rack made of a series of square and circular plastic strips.

David Howells, Year 11, has created a one-piece polypropylene gift box, with the laser cutter even scoring the folding lines. Mia Down, Year 11, has developed a stunning game called Life Line, which can be used for teaching PSHE topics. A games company has shown interest in her product. Mike Evans also proudly displays concept models of a bus shelter, cinema and a pushchair made with the laser cutter.

It has transformed design technology, says Mike: "The laser cutter doesn't make it any easier to get your ideas on-screen or to make your design accurate. But it means students can devote more of their time to developing ideas and being creative."

Technology SuppliesTel: 01630 637300 Mike Evans on 01443 436171

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