WCU unveils new precision laser system

Western Carolina University unveiled Wednesday, Dec. 13, a precision laser system unique to U.S. higher education that officials say will enable the university to ramp up efforts to provide high-tech assistance to business and industry in the region while giving students hands-on experience with cutting-edge equipment.

The Oxford Laser DP system, purchased in collaboration with WestCare Health System, will enable faculty, staff and students in the university’s engineering and technology programs to conduct significantly more-precise measurements, cuttings, drilling and two-dimensional data-matrix barcode markings than can be accomplished through traditional machining processes.

The laser and a new engineering tele-learning center also unveiled on Wednesday were made possible through $2.45 million in federal funding obtained with the assistance of U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor to help WCU develop its electrical and computer engineering programs.

“Today, we are celebrating an opportunity for Western to help support the manufacturing and modern technology industries that can become a viable economic basis for this region,” Chancellor John W. Bardo said. “We have an opportunity to reverse a century-old pattern of out-migration, and we have an opportunity to build high-quality jobs in Western North Carolina.”

Taylor said he has directed federal resources toward WCU during his term in Congress because the university has been a leader in a regional effort to upgrade technological infrastructure through broadband initiatives, collaborations with other colleges and universities, and the addition of an engineering curriculum. “While Western is developing the first engineering program for this end of the state, other institutions have started two new law schools,” he said. “I suppose we might be able to sue our way into prosperity.”

The $580,000 laser system, which officials say can be used to create surgical instruments and medical devices to improve the quality of life for residents of Western North Carolina, is housed in the recently renamed Center for Rapid Product Realization at WCU. The device is capable of dividing lengthwise a strand of human hair into 100 sections, and can slice a single red blood cell into three sections, university officials said.

Mark Leonard, president and chief operating officer of WestCare Health System, said the collaborative effort to bring the laser system to Western is the latest example of the two institutions’ long-term philosophy of working together, including clinical rotations for healthcare students, a regional sports medicine program, and cooperation in emergency medical services.

“The acquisition of the Oxford Laser highlights the strong mountain values of collaboration and teamwork. Western Carolina University and WestCare have a strong tradition of working together for the benefit of our communities,” Leonard said. “This Oxford Laser will present enhanced learning experiences for our future leaders and professionals.”

Bill Blubaugh, president of U.S. Conec in Hickory, said that his company has already utilized the capabilities of WCU’s Center for Rapid Product Realization to design prototypes for the tiny connectors needed to link fibers less than the width of a hair. “With the university’s help, we can develop products faster. By getting them in our hands, we can discover errors. By getting them in our hands, we can show them to our customers and get immediate feedback,” said Blubaugh.

In addition to the unveiling of the laser, WCU also showcased its new engineering tele-learning center via a live Web link featuring Robert McMahan, senior adviser for science and technology to Gov. Mike Easley. “In the face of globalization, free trade and the emergence of the technology economy, we are asking ‘how do we use our universities and centers of innovation to fundamentally change our economy through interaction and the conversion of intellectual activity into economic outcomes,’” McMahan said.

“Under Dr. Bardo’s leadership, Western Carolina University has become a leader and a model in thought leadership, in action, and in deed,” he said. “I can think of no better model of living up to the state motto than Western Carolina – to be, rather than to seem.”