The Internet is changing our world, including the way we deliver education. A multitude of conventional manufacturing processes worldwide, such as high-speed, quality cutting and welding, would benefit from the application of high-power lasers. In order to apply the technology to manufacturing, the European photonics industry needs engineers who are trained to work with lasers. This type of training is not necessarily readily available, however. Laser technology is essentially interdisciplinary, which means mechanical engineers, for example, lack the knowledge of very essential electric components for laser systems and thus need additional education.
Unfortunately the very engineers who need to apply laser technology to manufacturing cannot be fully trained because as full-time employees they cannot afford the time to attend lectures and do laboratory work. In order to reduce the time away from home and work for attendees, the European Commission has launched a postgraduate education system called EuroLaser Academy (ELA) to convert lecture-hall teaching to distance and home learning by creating «virtual lectures» on CD-ROM. The ELA has used technology to bring otherwise unavailable lectures to hundreds of students who are unable to travel to take courses.
The lectures on these CD-ROMs have been given in Liverpool, Berlin, Vienna, Marseilles, Valencia, and Athens by some of the most recognized laser scientists from the EU countries. The CD-ROMs demonstrate laboratory exercises in institutes with cutting-edge equipment. The user sees the lecturer’s original transparencies and slides on the screen and hears the lecturer’s words in voice-over. At present, virtual lectures are available on laser physics, high-power laser sources including multi-kilowatt semiconductor lasers, beam/workpiece interaction, materials processing, and safety.
ELA students still need to participate in laboratory exercises to acquire practical experience. The solution to this dilemma is the partial substitution of hands-on, trial-and-error lab-work exercises conducted off-site rather than in a university laboratory. This method employs computer simulations that allow users to «assemble» experimental setups from parts and elements by drawing them to appropriate locations on the screen and adjusting the necessary parameters such as laser power, processing speed, and other variables to chosen values. The ELA supplies the user with instructional tips in the actual program that simulate laboratory exercises in a very realistic and highly illustrative manner. The code uses the choices to model performance and presents the result on the screen, allowing the user to optimize performance. The demo version on CD-ROM allowed users to build a high-power CO2 laser and to operate it at a desired power level. These types of CD-ROMs will be available from the Austrian Laser Association (ARGELAS) by the end of the year.
With the support of the European Commission and the Austrian government, the virtual experiments will be expanded within the framework of a project called VIRTUELA (by a technically and regionally complementary partnership), and will be released on DVDs, which are also supported by Internet meetings. After the attendees have successfully carried out all the virtual experiments, they must visit one of the main European laser laboratories for just an extended weekend, a significant reduction in off-site time commitment compared to conventional course requirements.
After 2003 the project will include DVDs with experiments on CO2 lasers, Nd:YAG lasers, high-power semiconductor lasers, cutting, welding, surface treatment, rapid prototyping, and laser safety. The completion of the program in 2003 is expected to allow larger numbers of trained industry workers to bring laser technology into the production lines.
(By Dieter Schuoecker, Vienna University of Technology, OEmagazine, December, 2001)
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