It’s 2am on a quiet, empty Telecom Drive. The hum of construction has faded with daylight, as has the frequency of the Duke Parking and Transportation authority patrolling for vehicles to apprehend. It would have been pitch black on this hot, humid night, had it not been for a soft glow of synthetic luminescence radiating onto the street from inside the Technology Engagement Center.
And like a flee to a porch light on a summer night, walked a college student into the Co-Lab, a familiar sight. This was not the student’s first time in the Co-Lab after hours, nor was it his last, yet, waiting inside was something, that would leave him quite aghast. For standing tall and alone, on the studio floor, was a bright and shiny rectangular machine, that the boy had not seen before. This device was unique, the student knew, its engineering special, because this newest expensive toy, would allow him to cut into metal.
This is more or less how Trent Lau described his first encounter with the CoLab’s new ProtoMax water cutter, a top-of-the-line personal abrasive waterjet which allows users to slice through as much as one inch of practically any material with laughable ease. Lau, a Trinity Junior, was in Durham this past summer conducting research on orthopedic 3D printing as a member of Pratt researcher Ken Gall’s lab, when he ventured to the CoLab late one night to work on a personal project. Lau, who has been a staff member at the CoLab since the fall of his Sophomore year, had no idea of the recent acquisition, though he had been dreaming of this fateful day for quite a while now.
“I personally wanted [a waterjet] because even though the CoLab has a lot of great machinery and resources that you can’t find anywhere else, most of the time people are relegated to using plastic for 3D printing, wood for laser cutting, and aluminum for CNC milling. Now, we can add steel to the mix,” said Lau. “Steel will be great for anything that requires a lot of toughness. Aluminum can be too soft and wood and plastic obviously aren’t the best to withstand stress.”
The mechanics of the waterjet are comparable to that of a laser printer. In both, a digital vector file is sent to the machine where it is converted into a set of directions that tell motors on the XY plane where to send the a metaphoric “surgical hand” to slice through material as if it were butter. However, whereas a laser cutter uses a high intensity light of a single wavelength to burn through material, a waterjet blasts a mixture of water and really hard, tiny abrasive minerals at 30,000 PSI of pressure to perform its operation. Unlike the laser printer though, use of the waterjet will not be free, but rather will operate at $0.50 per minute to recover the cost of the large quantities of abrasive material used. Yet, the waterjet cutter opens new galaxies of possibility for innovation and research in the CoLab, especially in the fields of robotics and engineering where custom steel parts will reduce overhead costs by a significant margin.
As a staff member, Lau is excited to expand the assortment of materials that patrons can use: “We can build actual, functional things. We have people that come in here all the time saying, ‘I want to laser cut copper, I want to laser cut steel’. We always have to say no and turn people away because its a CO2 laser printer and can’t do it. Now, we actually have the option to have people work in the materials they have been asking us to use for a long time.” For his own purposes, Lau has started designing a customized lock-picking set to teach himself to navigate the machine. “It’s stupid easy to use. It’s honestly easier than the 3D printers!”