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Let’s Laser

Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas 

In 1960 you would likely not have heard of the word “laser,” let alone used it in a conversation of any kind unless you were a scientist. Today the word is common as the technology has evolved so invasively that nearly all of us have benefited from lasers whether laser eye surgery or using a laser to make something interesting at Fab Lab ICC. Indeed, the laser is the most popular machine we offer. The computer treats our laser like a printer so in many ways, using it is like printing a document. 

From a site called ThoughtCo.com, “The name LASER is an acronym for Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation. It is a device that emits a beam of light through a process called optical amplification. It distinguishes itself from other sources of light by emitting light in a spatially and temporally coherent manner. 

Most natural light is incoherent in nature, it travels in many directions all at the same time. Natural light never concentrates itself into a straight line. The “temporarily coherent manner” above means the laser can concentrate light and make it travel in a straight line, at least until it hits something. We can sort of simulate this by concentrating the light from the sun to a point with a magnifying glass. While it does concentrate the light to a point that gets very hot, it’s still not light traveling in a concentrated straight line. The differences between coherent laser light and sunlight concentrated to a point gets technical yet it still makes for a good analogy even though no one will admit to using focused sunlight to fry ants and insects as a kid. 

I was kind of what we now call a geek science kid in the early 1960’s. The space program was going full blast and NASA was doing everything it could to promote the space programs among youth. It worked. I ordered just about every poster possible for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs. I built model rockets and would like to build them again today. In about 1967, I somehow heard about lasers and wanted to build one. I told my seventh-grade science teacher, Bill Rollins about my desire to build a laser. Mr. Rollins, who taught us chemistry and physics concepts usually reserved for high school students, did something very important to my development. He didn’t say “Forget it, kid. There’s no way you can build a laser with what we have in this lab.” Instead, he encouraged me to do research and build the laser. So, although disappointed when I discovered I couldn’t build the laser, the fact that he encouraged me did a lot for what we now call “self-efficacy,” a special form of self-confidence. This story demonstrates to me why its so important not to discourage anyone from trying to build anything at the Lab, rather to encourage them to do research and come to their own conclusions about feasibility. 

Today, lasers are common. We don’t have to try to build our own. A mid-size laser was on the suggested equipment list from the International Fab Lab network. We used the list as a guideline for how to outfit Fab Lab ICC back in 2014. Ours will etch images, lines and text into many surfaces. This is called raster lasering. It will cut several non-metallic, non-glass materials such as wood, cloth, acrylic, leather, paper. This is called vector lasering or vector cutting. The machine can be set to do both in one job. You can etch a design on the surface of a piece of wood, then cut around your design in any shape you wish almost as simply as sending a print job to a printer. 

Because it’s a little like printing a document, lasering is our most popular activity. We can show people, with a 5-minute video and a few minutes of instruction how to make themselves a laser-etched and cut name badge from nice piece of 1/4” plywood. 

Here’s something we notice about people learning to laser after nearly five years of being open to the public. From young to old, gifted to challenged, no matter how “sophisticated” someone is, their eyes light up and they revert a bit to childhood when they first see a design, they created themselves manifest in a finished physical piece as they remove it from the laser.  

Fab Lab ICC is open to the public through various membership offerings. Hours are M – Th, 1 PM to 8 PM; Fri, 1 PM to 5 PM and Sat, 9 AM to 1 PM. More information at www.fablabicc.org. 

Jim Correll is the director of Fab Lab ICC at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship – 2564 Brookside - on the campus of Independence Community College. He can be reached at (620) 252-5349, by email at jcorrell@indycc.edu or Twitter @jimcorrellks. Archive columns and podcast links at jimcorrell.com.  


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