New Learning Possibilities
Walk into almost any school fab lab or maker space and you are likely to find one or more 3D printers—for good reason. They offer educators a cost-effective way to give students hands-on experience in STEAM subjects. But issues around print speed and uptime are prompting some schools to complement their 3D printers with laser machines, which opens up new learning possibilities and has some distinct advantages over 3D printers.
Lasers are up to 500x Faster
Foremost among these is speed. A 3D printer can take up to 24 hours to print a large object because it works by a slowly accreting filament. A laser machine, on the other hand, makes quick cuts from existing material—be it a sheet of plywood or cardboard—to form pieces that can then be assembled. “We made something with our 3D printer that was eight inches tall and it took about 10 hours,” said Alejandro Hernandez, an engineer with the Lennox Public Schools in Los Angeles. “With the laser machine, we can feed in a sheet of plywood and have a chair ready for assembly within 10 minutes.”
For educators dealing with an entire class of students, production speed is a major issue, especially when the emphasis is on project-based learning. “Speed definitely was a factor in our decision to purchase a laser machine,” said Hernandez. “It ensures that all students have their own projects and their own final result. We wouldn’t be able to do that with larger objects on our 3D printers.”
Larger Than Life Projects
The scale is the other significant advantage. The cutting beds of the laser machines used in education typically range from 18 x 12 inches to 48 x 36 inches, but these don’t limit the size of the end product. Students can design large objects—a giraffe, for example—using CAD software and then cut the parts needed from multiple sheets of plywood. “It was really important to us that we be able to do larger-scale projects with the laser,” said Hernandez.
Finally, a laser machine offers the ability to do engraving, a 2D skill that serves as an ideal student introduction to STEAM projects. An added benefit is that schools can bring all of their engraving needs in-house, whether it’s etching the school name on PCs, adding student names to sports trophies, or engraving memorial bricks and plaques for fundraisers. “We’ve done engravings on all kinds of materials,” said AleHernandez. “We even did engravings on marble plaques as thank-yous to our school board for setting up the program.”