One of the oldest laser electro-optic technology associate degree programs in the U.S. will soon be seeing changes as the result of a $500,000 grant. Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) in Springfield, MA, will create an advanced laser machining laboratory and one-year laser materials processing certificate training program to meet the needs of the rapidly growing laser manufacturing industry in Massachusetts and southern New England. The name of the Laser Electro-Optics Technology Program will change to Optics and Photonics Technology, reflecting its growing scope.
Instituted in 1976 in response to growing demand from United Technologies Research Center in nearby East Hartford, Conn., STCC’s two-year associate degree program has supplied more than 1,000 skilled laser technicians to United Technologies’ spinoff companies such as United Technology Photonics (now Lumentum) and DeMaria ElectroOptics Systems Inc. (now Coherent) as well as optics/photonics companies across the U.S.
Students at work in the Laser Electro-Optics Technology Program at Springfield Technical Community College. Courtesy of Springfield Technical Community College.
In 1991 the program received one of the first National Science Foundation (NSF) Instrumentation and Laboratory Improvement Program grants awarded to community colleges to build a holographic nondestructive testing lab. According to Nicholas Massa, who has been a STCC professor and program coordinator since 1986, the program has received well over $1 million in additional NSF grant funding and equipment donations from the photonics industry.
STCC has long working relationships with many of southern New England’s leading photonics manufacturers. Nufern, IPG Photonics and Prima Electro are among those who hire laser technicians almost exclusively from STCC’s program. They, along with other companies, sponsor internships and senior projects each year and provide equipment, tours and student mentoring. Company employees also actively serve on the LEOT (Laser Electro-Optics Technology) industry advisory board.
An aerial view of Springfield Technical Community College. Courtesy of Springfield Technical Community College.
“I’ve always tried to maintain a very close working relationship with the companies that hire my graduates. In fact, many of the hiring managers are former students, so they are invested in helping to make sure that our curriculum is relevant and we are preparing our current students with the knowledge, skills and attitudes they need to be successful,” said Massa.
Partnership with Quinsigamond
STCC also works closely with Worcester, Mass.-based Quinsigamond Community College, lead community college in the Integrated Photonics Institute for Manufacturing Innovation and the NSF Regional Center for Next Generation Manufacturing. The new laser manufacturing facility will be used to support the professional development for secondary and post-secondary faculty as well as workforce development in the Northeast.
In addition to the ongoing development of state-of-the art laboratories, the STCC program has taken the lead in developing a student-centered curriculum in response to industry demands for technicians with strong critical thinking, problem-solving and communication skills, and the ability to work well in teams. While working on a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership/Adult Learning at the University of Connecticut, Massa became interested in problem-based learning (PBL), an educational method that allows students to practice real-world skills by working in teams to collaboratively solve complex open-ended problems. All students in the program solve a number of such problems during their two years at STCC, many of them developed as part of the New England Board of Higher Education’s NSF-funded PBL Projects. Examples include designing a system to laser strip and cut 50-µm copper wires or a 100-hour unattended burn-in facility for high-power fiber lasers.
These so-called “Challenges” were developed in collaboration with photonics companies throughout the U.S. and feature real technical problems that were faced by the industry partners. Students who practice using structured problem-solving techniques to solve authentic industry problems are well-prepared to tackle complex problems from the start as new employees, according to Massa.
Demand for technicians
According to a recent study conducted by Deloitte Consulting and the New England Council, the Northeast region, including New England and New York, has unique capabilities in advanced manufacturing in a broad range of industries including aerospace and defense, optics and fiber optics, lasers, medical devices and biotechnology, and semiconductors and precision machining. Critical to these industries is the integrated application of lasers and photonics in the manufacturing process, for example, precision laser cutting, welding and drilling; additive manufacturing; 3D scanning; precision laser-based metrology; and machine vision/sensing. Currently, STCC is home of the only two-year laser program educating technicians in New England. Two more programs are located in New York, according to the NSF’s OP-TEC Center. With only three technician programs, the Northeast region has a far greater demand for photonics technicians than the total number of graduates produced annually.
Typically, community college students run the gamut from traditional college-age students through senior citizens, and the students in the STCC laser electro-optic technology program are no exception, ranging in age from 18 to 70. They include recent high school graduates, older individuals who have been laid off or are looking for a career change, and experienced individuals with advanced degrees in a variety of fields including electrical engineering, physics, chemistry and business, who are seeking to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to get into the optics and photonics field.
Encouraging high school students to explore technical careers can be a challenge, especially for study at the associate degree level. Students, teachers and counselors often have some idea of careers that require four-year engineering degrees, but the important role of two-year technicians in advanced manufacturing is often a complete unknown. STCC partners with West Springfield High School and Agawam High School through a Career Pathways program sponsored by the Hampden County Regional Employment Board. Through interactions with college faculty, students are exposed to career opportunities available to them in two STCC programs: Mechanical Engineering Technology (Advanced Manufacturing and Precision Computer Numerical Control [CNC] Machining) and Laser Electro-Optics Technology. In addition, STCC is currently developing several Career Pathway programs with local high schools and four-year institutions focused on increasing the STEM pipeline from high school to university.
New lab and certificate
The new laser materials processing lab will allow for the integration of industrial laser technology into STCC’s laser electro-optic technology program, mechanical and manufacturing engineering technology program, and biomedical device manufacturing program, leading to a truly interdisciplinary curricula. This new partnership will allow students to gain valuable hands-on experience in the use of lasers in the manufacturing process. Through the $500,000 Mass Skills Grant, STCC will purchase two large-format high-powered CO2 and fiber laser cutting systems; two smaller format fiber and CO2 laser marking and etching systems; a DPSS laser welding system; two 3D printers; as well as a variety of sheet metal bending, precision metrology and laser test and measurement equipment. Two new courses will be developed and integrated into existing programs: Laser Materials Processing and SolidWorks for Sheet Metal Fabrication.
Nick Massa (left), a professor at Springfield Technical Community College, and his student Alex Rivera, stand in front of a 20-watt fiber laser marking and etching system built by Massa’s students. Courtesy of Springfield Technical Community College.
The new Certificate of Completion in Laser Materials Processing will prepare students for careers in advanced manufacturing using state-of-the-art laser materials processing equipment. Students will be qualified to pursue careers in fields such as aerospace and defense, biomedical device manufacturing, rapid prototyping, opto-mechanics and semiconductor manufacturing, custom sheet metal fabrication, and other micromachining machining fields where laser precision is paramount. Building on existing course offerings in the mechanical and laser technology programs, students will learn about the many different applications of lasers in advanced manufacturing including laser welding and surface treatment, cutting and material removal, surface annealing, additive manufacturing laser marking and etching, and precision laser-based metrology. Students will gain hands-on experience in programming and using state-of-the-art laser materials processing. Quality concepts will be applied throughout the program to ensure product integrity and compliance with engineering standards.
STCC has a 40-year demonstrated history of working closely with the advanced manufacturing and laser industry in southern New England to establish working relationships aimed at improving the employability and workforce opportunities of its graduates. With the addition
of the Advanced Laser Machining Laboratory and one-year Laser Materials Processing Certificate training program, STCC will be uniquely positioned to build on these relationships to increase the number of skilled graduates and expand its reach to companies throughout Massachusetts and the surrounding region.