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New plasma cutter promises creative opportunities

(l-r) Shawn Tardiff, Trevor Clavette, instructor Chris Hipskind, and Simon Hovinghoff present a finished sign to Anne-Marie Slater, executive director of the WSVEF, and Jason Spadaro, president of SDS Lumber Co., to thank them for their donations, which made the purchase of the machine possible.

Photo by Michelle Scott
(l-r) Shawn Tardiff, Trevor Clavette, instructor Chris Hipskind, and Simon Hovinghoff present a finished sign to Anne-Marie Slater, executive director of the WSVEF, and Jason Spadaro, president of SDS Lumber Co., to thank them for their donations, which made the purchase of the machine possible.



Sparks fly when it cuts through metal, but students aren’t fazed by the sudden glints as they watch through their safety glasses. A new beast of machinery has been added to Columbia High School’s Metal-working Tech Department.

Thanks to a $5,500 grant from the White Salmon Valley Education Foundation (WSVEF) and a donation of $9,000 from SDS Lumber, CHS has added a CNC plasma cutter to the eclectic spread of available skill-building machinery in the school’s metal shop.

“Our goal here in the Metal-working Tech Department is help our students learn the knowledge, skills, habits, and attitudes to be successful at post-secondary training and career opportunities upon graduation,” explained CHS career and technical education teacher Chris Hipskind.

The CNC plasma cutter was installed this past Christmas in the metal shop above the high school. Hipskind’s students have been working with the machine since it’s been up and running. Simon Hovinghoff, Shawn Tardiff, and Trevor Clavette have been leading the charge in understanding the operation of the plasma cutter and how to use it in class.

Their first task in using the machine was to cut three thank you signs, two of which would be distributed to contributors SDS Lumber and WSVEF. The third sign would be hung above the new plasma cutter in CHS’s metal shop.

Creating the signs from scratch meant working through three different programs to first map the design of a sign, then facilitate the direction of the cut, and finally import everything into the program that would execute the imported design.

Students explained one of the programs, VCarve. “It’s what you use on the computer to build what you want to cut with the torch,” explained Clavette.

“Most of the time it’s usually used for wood shop,” added Tardiff, who mentioned the machines have been used to make parts for the high school’s robotics team.

“It really introduces the 3D modeling in to school, where normally you don’t have a CNC cutter. It’s kind of useless to model something on the computer without being able to have it as a physical model on the machine. So it kind of puts it all together,” explained Hovinghoff

The best part of working with the new plasma cutter for Clavette is watching it in action. “It looks so cool, it’s actually cutting what you made, and [you’re] watching it come to life basically.”

“I like sketching it up on the program, because it makes you work with all the different tools that you have to use to combine them in to one finished project,” said Tardiff.

I find one of the funnest parts is going through and having it not work,” noted Hovinghoff, “then having to figure out what went wrong where and fix it.”

Students experienced their first round of troubleshooting when cutting the first round of thank you signs back in December, but were quick to work out the issue after a few hours of troubleshooting.

“At first I was having issues just getting it to load up correctly,” said Hovinghoff, recalling the machine’s failure to operate when cutting the signs. The plasma cutter went through a brief intermission before students were able to get it up and running again to cut the final signs.

“I probably spent 30 hours troubleshooting, at least,” noted Hovinghoff. “I learned a lot. It was just a lot of sitting at a computer trying to get it to work.” Currently the machine is working as it should, and is carefully watched over by Hovinghoff, Tardiff, and Clavette.

Cutting the first signs took 15 hours of prep and design work in order to map the signs’ design and cut the steel sheets correctly. Students independently operated the new plasma cutter machine under Hipskind’s supervision.

In the long run, the plasma cutter will make it easier for students to create projects, construct parts, and manipulate metal, said Hipskind. The machine will also yield pieces with cleaner edges in contrast to pieces cut by hand.

Hovinghoff, Tardiff, Clavette, and Hipskind presented the completed signs to SDS Lumber president Jason Spadaro, president of the WSVEF, and Anne-Marie Slater, executive director of the WSVEF, to acknowledge the funds donated to the school in order to obtain the machine.

“We’re a small school district,” explained Spadaro when asked why SDS contributed funds to the purchase of the new machine. “We’re a rural area, we don’t always have the tools that the big cities have, and if we can help our kids learn the skills that they need so they can go into the world and be employable, or better yet stay home and work locally, that’s a win-win for everyone.”

The future of the CNC plasma cutter will be filled with projects, some relating to cutting robotics parts, or bits for the electrical car projects. Tardiff plans on using the plasma cutter for his senior project.



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