Students are a (Plasma) Cut Above with CAD/CAM

The students in Dale Sunderman’s shop classes at Oregon’s Stayton High School are so busy cutting, pressing, milling and welding unique projects they wish there were more hours in a school day. The courses begin with Manufacturing 1 and include the basics in shop safety, sheet metal work, drill press, lathe and mill operations and automated manufacturing. Here, the students get their feet wet in CAD (Computer Aided Design) and CAM (Computer Aided Machining) operations. After a basic fabrication class, students enter Advanced Manufacturing, where they hone their skills in MIG and TIG welding, as well as industry-oriented CNC programming and machining. “It is at this level and in the Independent Studies Manufacturing course,” says Sunderman, “that the more eager students really begin to stand out. Their projects even capture the interest of the surrounding community.”
Sunderman oversees a well-outfitted shop at Stayton High, providing students with a full complement of manual machine tools, as well as CNC router mills, a CNC lathe and even a CNC plasma-cutting machine they built themselves that features a heavy-duty water table and Mach3© controls. “To cap it off,” he says, “we have 13 seats of Mastercam® (CNC Software, Inc., Tolland, CT) in our CAD/CAM lab and I’m replacing the computer systems with 64 bit hard drives so we’ll be able to access all the advanced capabilities of today’s CAM software for the hundred or so students I see every day.”
While the school provides grants for equipment and tooling, Sunderman has reached out to the community’s metalworking businesses for materials needed by his students for their course work. “We leave barrels with several machine shops,” he says, “and they fill them with workable pieces of scrap metal for our pick-up. A local metal supplier has been very generous with aluminum remnants. I’ll go in there and come out with strips and blocks of aluminum in all sizes and thicknesses for my kids’ projects. A nearby fabricator is also very good to us with donations of steel remnants for projects winding up on the plasma-cutting machine and for our welding classes. The area’s Linn-Benton Community College has also been very supportive of our programs. As they update their machines and other metalworking tools, they offer us the replaced equipment, which is still in very good shape and put to good use in our curriculum.”
A unique relationship has been formed between Sunderman’s classes and the Stayton Police Department. The officers in the department had always used the standard paper targets in wooden frames for shooting practice. As a give-back-to-the-community gesture, Sunderman had the students in his welding class make steel-frame stands as a more durable replacement for the wood. One of the officers, who had previously worked for a metal fabricating company, approached Sunderman with a request for steel silhouette targets to replace the paper ones. “The students thought this would be a great project,” he says, “and came up with an idea for a swing-away target that would allow the officers to practice handling a situation where the ‘bad guy’ was holding a ‘good guy’ in front of him as a hostage. We have courses where students can learn drawing using a dedicated CAD system, but I’ve always had them use Mastercam to do their drawing and then continue directly to the Mastercam tool path programming for the CAM portion because it gives them more practice in Mastercam.  It is simpler and the results are excellent.”
The students first designed the target and then scaled it to the appropriate size for the police shooting range. “We do all the geometry in Mastercam”, says Sunderman, “and save it as a DXF file for the CNC plasma cutter. Using a program called SheetCAM©, we enter all the parameters. We call out the kerf of the cut, how fast the plasma will cut through the plate, whether it’s cutting inside, outside, or right on the line, and so on. We have literally cut thousands and thousands of parts with plasma and every single one has come off a Mastercam program. For the shooting target, the students designed it so the ‘bad guy’ appears offset to the side of the ‘good guy’ and it’s cut out of AR500 abrasive steel plate for lasting durability.”
The students used their math skills to determine the optimum angle of deflection for the bullets, which turns out to be fifteen degrees, and designed a special swing-away mechanism for the back. “When the ‘bad guy’ is hit, he swings away from the ‘good guy’ to indicate shooting skill,” says Sunderman. “They even used some artistic license to give the ‘bad guy’ a Mohawk haircut and an earring.” The students did not stop there, but designed and cut out a couple of smaller swing-away targets within the main one that will “wink” at the officer to signal a thumbs-up for proficiency. “We all hope our police officers are never faced with a hostage situation,” says Sunderman, “but these targets help them become more proficient in their shooting skills. The project has been good for our students, helping them hone their own programming skills, and the relationship between them and our police officers has resulted in a very positive atmosphere.”
As is common today at most high schools, many of Sunderman’s students are into skateboarding. “I think every kid’s dream is to design their own board,” he says. “I figured that if we were going to make this a project, let’s do it right and make a mold for the boards.” First they drew the board’s dimensions in Mastercam, putting in all the geometry and surfaces for the mold. Because their router mill had a capacity of only 24” by 30” and the length of the mold was 35”, they programmed it in two sections, front and back. Because a mold has both male and female halves they had a total of four programs for the toolpaths to machine the mold. Sunderman purchased hard rock maple veneer, roughed it to size to fit in the mold and had the students laminate sheets of the veneer with glue up to the desired thickness. “We then manufactured a large hydraulic press frame,” he says, “powered by two 4,000 pound jacks. We put each laminated board into the mold and put the squeeze on it for a few days until the contour is set. Then we take out the board, cut the outer shape on the router mill and attach wheel assemblies. The kids have gotten very creative with their personal designs.”
Sunderman credits his students’ love of metalworking for some very impressive achievements in math-oriented programming and automated machining operations.   “I’ve had kids with only a 5th or 6th grade reading level that quickly learn Mastercam and CNC machine parts for a wide variety of projects,” he says. “You have no idea how much this capability does for their self-esteem. From what I’ve seen, Mastercam is the CAM software of choice in industry and my kids are being offered some pretty nice jobs in manufacturing companies. Others are continuing their education at Linn-Benton Community College with a degree or advanced certificates as a goal.”
Many of the CAD/CAM projects at Stayton involve the design and manufacture of items that are sold at Christmas bazaars in the town. They range from snowflakes and Santa heads used as tree ornaments to wall hangings, all designed in Mastercam and plasma cut out of 14 -gauge steel. A lot of the hangings are wildlife scenes with elk, deer and bears. Others are more intricate, where they will design and cut out pine trees in five different sizes and weld them together with spacers, creating three-dimensional scenes. Sometimes the students will paint their work and at times will leave them in natural metal. “They’ve made as much as eight hundred dollars at the bazaars with their creative metal art,” says Sunderman.     
With the lure of outdoor living becoming more pronounced during the school’s spring session, many of Sunderman’s students turn their burgeoning skills toward creating some very impressive steel fire pits. “These are very substantial steel pits,” says Sunderman. “Four individual sides are cut with plasma, with each student designing and cutting out some unique decoration for the fire to show through when the flames get going. One student has used Mastercam to design and cut a patriotic pit with flags, stars and U.S. Army logos, another has cut each side with a mama bear, bear cubs and a mountain background, while another took his love of everything Star Wars to create an homage to the series. After the sides and bottom plates are welded together, the pits are either welded to legs or are hung by chains from a tubular frame.”
Sunderman believes it is his responsibility to learn as much as he can about automated machining in order to give his students an extensive variety of skill sets, providing them with a competitive edge, whether they are going on to college or directly into the job market. “Over the past several years, I’ve gone to more than a half-dozen teacher-oriented courses at Mastercam’s educational facility in Gig Harbor, Washington,” he says. “Each class lasts a week, covers a different aspect of programming for automated machining, and is the best teacher training I have ever received, anywhere. I’ve gotten to know many of the other teachers in the classes. They come from high schools and colleges around the country and we exchange ideas and build a base for information sharing. The instructors for the classes are amazing, whether from Mastercam’s own staff or from outside. We had a journeyman die maker, for example, teaching us how to use Mastercam for injection mold making. How great is that, to be able to spend a whole week with a person so knowledgeable in a skill we can share with our own students back home!”
Stayton HS, MasterCAM