Rice students build state-of-the-art laser cutter

A new, state-of-the-art laser cutter stands in a room off of the Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts’ workshop on the second floor of Sewall Hall. The price tag: $8,000 — a fraction of the cost of a factory-built laser cutter. The “good deal” comes courtesy of seven Rice undergraduate students. They built the laser cutter in fall 2012 as part of Visual and Dramatics Arts Visiting Lecturer Mike Beradino’s The Art of DIY course.

Juan Borbon, left, a Jones College junior majoring in mechanical engineering, and Visual and Dramatic Arts Visiting Lecturer Mike Beradino were part of the team that built the state-of-the-art laser cutter. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Available for use by students and faculty, the cutter was designed in an experiment in open-source technology. The design started at Nortd Labs, a New York City-based international research and development studio. Nortd Labs’ model is called the Lasersaur, and there are approximately two dozen Lasersaurs in various stages of completion around the world.

“I wanted to teach a class that revolved around this idea of problem solving in a contemporary way for artists engaging in technology,” Beradino said. “(The Lasersaur) really was a student-driven project.”

The Lasersaur is capable of etching metals and cutting through various media, including acrylic, wood, paper and cardboard. To date, students have successfully cut paper, cardboard, balsa wood, museum board and plywood. They have also etched a carbon fiber and epoxy composite.

The cutter’s frame consists entirely of extruded aluminum. The most complicated technical procedures used during its assembly were soldering and the use of a Dremel and drill press to cut holes for ventilation, the laser and the nitrogen system.

The Rice students involved in the building included Olivia Derr, Emily Wang, Sophie Eichner, Claire O’Malley, Angela Masciale, Juan Borbon and Samantha Calvetti.

Calvetti, a Wiess College junior who is majoring in visual and dramatic arts and psychology, said being involved with the cutter’s building raised her awareness and skill for integrating technology into her own art-making process. “I learned a lot about electronics and what goes into doing a do-it-yourself project, but also about working in a group and getting things done together, which is a really important aspect of art making,” she said.

“As an engineer, it’s really good to have a creative outlet that is different from your average problem sets and design work that you do,” said Borbon, a Jones College junior who is majoring in mechanical engineering. “I think that art and engineering are not too different, and from the artists’ perspective, it’s important for artists nowadays to explore the new tools that are out there.”

John Sparagana, the Grace Christian Vietti Chair of Visual and Dramatic Arts and chair of the Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts, said Beradino’s background in various art forms made him an ideal candidate to initiate the DIY course and its Lasersaur project. “Mike was trained where he has the range of experience to teach everything from welding to working with plaster and clay, but he also, in his own work, works with digital technology.”

To view a Rice News video about the Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts’ new laser cutter, go to http://youtu.be/K9YSNNmFliY.

About Jeff Falk