Fire in The Nest: Laser Cutter Sparks Flame

S.Bahnasy/The Phillipian

The fire was likely caused by the selection of an incorrect material setting on the laser cutter software.

The Nest allows students to build and create freely using a wide array of resources and tools. Last week on October 22, however, The Nest did not just spark creativity. A group of students was using the laser cutter when complications lead to a small fire.

The situation was largely contained by Neil Thorley ’19, who was in The Nest for work duty. No one was harmed during the incident.

According to Thorley, the fire was likely caused by the group’s decision to change the material in the laser cutter. The students had been trained by Claudia Wessner, Makerspace Coordinator and Lead Experience Designer, to use a specific material. The students, however, had changed the material before using the laser cutter, and had not adjusted the machine accordingly.

In an email to The Phillipian, Kevin Guo ’21, one of the students using the cutter, wrote, “The laser was causing the cardboard to smolder, so Neil went to turn down the intensity of the laser. As he was walking over to the computer, the cardboard lit up. There was one person there, [Kylie Lough ’22, who] had the notion to get the fire extinguisher.” 

Guo continued, “At that point, the fire had lit a good amount of the cardboard on fire but not enough to warrant using the extinguisher. Neil got a piece of wood and smothered the cardboard until it stopped burning.” 

Thorley also said that the laser cutter’s software misinterpreted the density of the material. According to Thorley, the fire was caused by the laser cutter’s false detection that the cardboard was of a much higher density than it actually was, leading to an excessively concentrated energy level in the beam.

According to Michael Barker, Director of Academy Research, Information, and Library Services, the incident occurred during the one evening time interval when an adult supervisor was not present at The Nest.

Barker said, “This year, in Gelb [Science Center], we try to have an adult present at all hours of the day. Ms. Wessner sometimes needs a lunch, and she leaves and so forth in the middle of the day. In this case, the adult was coming at 6:00 p.m., so just for 20 minutes it was unstaffed by an adult.”

Barker says that although The Nest has never had a fire before this incident, there have been inappropriate applications of its equipment in the past. An example of this was when a group of students ran an experiment to test the maximum heat a BlueCard can withstand. There was no laser cutter involved, but Nest staff still considered the experiment dangerous.

The Nest works closely with the Office of the Physical Plant (OPP), specifically with OPP’s department that oversees lab safety to develop strong safety standards. As long as students follow posted precautions, The Nest complies with these standards.

Wessner wrote in an email to The Phillipian, “I think the biggest takeaway about the fire is the importance of supervision and training regarding this machine. It is very important to follow all of the posted signage in the space, which indicates that students cannot use the laser cutter unless they have been trained by me.”

Wessner added, “Training on the laser cutter can oftentimes take several sessions working together across multiple projects in order for students to officially use it on their own.  It is a piece of equipment that needs to be treated with care and respect. Throughout the term students can get stressed out or anxious about getting access to certain resources in [The Nest]; however, proper safety, training, and the rules of [The Nest] must always be followed in order to prevent accidents like this from happening.”

Guo also said that the equipment in The Nest can be dangerous, but taking the right precautions can help ensure safety.

“The laser cutter has a laser in it, so it is inherently dangerous. With the right precautions and training, however, I believe that most dangers can be successfully mitigated,” said Guo.

Students can reach out to Wessner by email for training in order to use The Nest.

“At the end of the day, that is our biggest goal: for all students to enjoy and utilize [The Nest] in a safe and productive way. As always, students can reach out to me to get trained on any machine in [The Nest],” wrote Wessner.