Cutting out a piece of history

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Samson Elledge watches as the Torchmate plasma cutter forms one of the street banners the class is creating for the city of Monona. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

Last fall, the city’s visioning committee, along with Monona Chamber and Economic Development, Inc. (MCED), sponsored a contest that encouraged residents of all ages to develop imagery they felt best represented Monona. Six different designs were eventually selected for the banners: a soldier, an MFL MarMac bulldog, a tractor and field scene, a tree with a trail wrapping around its trunk, a butterfly among flowers and a butterfly in the palm of a hand.

Teacher Joe Milewsky and student Cayden Ball show how a computer program is used to determine which pieces the plasma cutter will remove from the banner and how it will move while doing so.

Sophomore Thaddeus Herold worked on the Bulldog banner, which, in addition to the animal’s face, includes a line of paw prints.

Samson Elledge shows off his finished product.

The class hopes to have the metal banners, which will be painted, cut out by the end of April. They should go up this spring.

Monona street banner project connects students with community

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Samson Elledge watches intently as the plasma cutter skims over the blackened sheet of metal. Sparks fly as it traverses the space, carving out stars in its wake, followed by a soldier’s silhouette then the letters “M-O-N-O-N-A.” 

It’s pretty cool, acknowledged the MFL MarMac senior, to watch one of the city of Monona’s new street banners form before his eyes—thanks to his hard work and determination. 

Elledge and the other students in what industrial technology teacher Joe Milewsky calls the “Torchmate Class” have been working throughout the semester to create the unique metal banners, which will hang in downtown Monona.

The project dates back even farther, however. Last fall, the city’s visioning committee, along with Monona Chamber and Economic Development, Inc. (MCED), sponsored a contest that encouraged residents of all ages to develop imagery they felt best represented Monona. 

Six different designs—the soldier, an MFL MarMac bulldog, a tractor and field scene, a tree with a trail wrapping around its trunk, a butterfly among flowers and a butterfly in the palm of a hand—were eventually selected. Some of the designs were created by MFL MarMac high school art students.

To begin the process of cutting out the banners, Milewsky said he first had to photograph the designs, which were drawn to scale on large pieces of poster board. But doing so tapered the top part of the image, so the first challenge was to bring it back to proportion in the computer program the students utilize for this class. The measurements—35.5 inches-by-19.5 inches—also had to be right.

Before delving into the project, he said the students completed three or four chapters in the book he uses, helping them learn the basics of the program. It’s developed by Lincoln Electric, the owner of the Torchmate computer-controlled plasma cutter they use. 

Milewsky noted he usually has kids go through eight chapters before starting the process, but many of the students had previous experience in 3D CAD. Plus, he wanted to make sure the over 30 banners were cut out by the end of April.

Next, explained sophomore Cayden Ball, each student had to “vectorize” the banner they were given. During this step, the image is covered in nodes.

“Every node on there is a point on the computer that tells [the plasma cutter] when to turn,” Milewsky said. “Getting rid of one affects the shape.”

The goal is to remove a large portion of the nodes, leaving only the most important.

“If it has 50 points between here and here, it’s got to make 50 different corners,” Milewsky shared, pointing to Ball’s computer screen. “Whereas, if there are only five, it can just kind of make a curve as it goes.”

“That wasn’t really hard,” Ball said. “It was just the amount of time we put in to these. It takes quite a while.”

Milewsky said it also takes time to determine which portions of the metal banner should be cut out and which ones should remain. 

“We wanted it so there’s less metal in there to catch the air and wind, so it doesn’t bend the whole thing all over,” he stated.

They assured the middle section of each banner was connected to the sides in certain places, preventing it from flexing too much or falling out.

Sophomore Thaddeus Herold worked on the Bulldog banner, which, in addition to the animal’s face, includes a line of paw prints. On the computer screen, he showed the white areas that will be cut out and the black areas that will stay.

“I had to put in parts to make sure there’s black instead of white because, if I hadn’t, all the black stuff in the center of this would’ve been cut out,” he explained. “I also had to space out the paws because they were too close. If they’re too close, it would have miss-cut and fallen out.”

The final step was adding the text “Monona” at the top of the banner.

“You had to be patient on how to get the right size and measurements,” he said.

Through these steps, Cayden said he learned about organization and using his time wisely.

“The patience part took a lot of time,” Herold agreed, “but after you put enough hard work into it, I think the most fun part is getting to cut it out and run the actual machine.”

The Torchmate is computer-controlled; the G-code, or programming language, for each project tells the plasma cutter where to go and what to do.

According to Torchmate, plasma cutters work by sending an electric arc through a gas that is passing through a constricted opening, or nozzle. This elevates the temperature of the gas to the point it enters a fourth state of matter, called plasma. Since the metal being cut is part of the circuit, the electrical conductivity of the plasma causes the arc to transfer to the work. The nozzle the gas passes through causes it to squeeze by at a high speed, cutting through the molten metal. 

The amount of time it takes to cut out each banner depends on how many details there are, Elledge explained. 

“The butterfly had a bunch of small pieces,” he explained, “but the tree has a big trunk, so it’s a lot quicker.” 

The pieces of metal, all of which were donated for this project, rest in a water table during the cutting process. This way, the generated smoke is pushed down into the water.

The metal cools quickly, allowing the students to safely handle the pieces right away.

The process is handy, Milewsky said: “It would take forever to cut out by hand.”

Although the school has had the Torchmate plasma cutter for seven or eight years, Milewsky said students only began using it regularly a year and a half ago. This is the biggest project, to date.

“Usually, we just have them do small, 12-inch circles,” he said. “We’re trying to get them to learn the program and learn how to use Torchmate, but not use up a whole lot of metal.”

He feels this is a good partnership between the town and school because it gives the kids more pride in their work.

“Instead of just saying, ‘Oh, it’s good enough for me,’ now, it’s got to be good enough for somebody else,” Milewsky said.

The street banners, which will be painted, are expected to go up this spring. The metal material should make them last for years to come—a reminder to the students of their contribution to the community.

“I’ll see it on the street and think, ‘I did that,’” Elledge said.

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