A fish story

Laser cutting and engraving play a big roll in creating a donor wall for the new Georgia aquarium

Laureen J. Belleville

Since it’s opening on November 23, 2005, the Georgia Aquarium has been overwhelmed with visitors, selling out on many days. At what is arguably the world’s largest aquarium-with 8 million gallons of fresh and marine water and more than 100,000 animals representing 500 species from around the globe-visitors are sure to see things they’ve never seen before, including the Fish Scales donor wall.

The Fish Scales donor wall was designed to honor the ($55 tax-deductible) contributions of individuals within the local community. Thousands of personalized fish scales are displayed, individually backlit by LED lighting, on an interactive Plexiglas light wall inside the aquarium’s rotunda. The laser etched scales are further highlighted by aquatic video and abstract images that shift across the wall, resembling an ocean current. The names of all the fish scale owners, some 35,000 laser engraved on the fish scales, are searchable on kiosks located near the display. Once a name is entered into the kiosk, a shooting star arcs across the light wall to the scale bearing the person’s name.

The initial design specifications projected the donor wall to be about 80 feet long and 12 feet high. But the community response was greater than anticipated, and the wall grew to some 150 feet long and 14 feet tall at its highest point. In fact, aquarium staffers had to turn people away. “On the day we announced that we had 500 fish scales left to sell, we had 5000 people respond to purchase,” recounts Dave Santucci, the aquarium public relations director.


The laser cut and engraved panels are joined by a laser cut stainless steel joint.
Click here to enlarge image

High profile projects like those associated with the Georgia aquarium are often awarded to “someone who knows someone,” comments Randy Williams, general manager of Lasertech Metal Works, the Fayetteville, GA, company responsible for laser cutting and etching the panels using a Bystronic Byspeed laser cutter and two Vitek etching lasers. “I got wind of the project about a year and a half ago,” recalls Williams. “A friend of mine was the designer on this project. He asked if my laser could etch Plexiglas,” Williams says. Not one to back down from a challenge, Williams gave it a shot. “We don’t say ‘no’ very often. We’ll figure it out, which is what happened with this project.”

Laser cutting wasn’t in the original design plan for the wall. But having the Byspeed in house made it that much easier. The wall comprises 4- x 8-foot panels that needed to be cut and have a joint between them. “As far as the joints go, we couldn’t configure it where the acrylic itself could be used as the joint,” Williams explains. “So we came up with a ½-inch brushed stainless-steel piece that goes over the joint. This was cut using the laser as well.”

The project-cutting the panels and joints and etching the fish scales, names, and aquarium logo-required about one and a half months of actual physical work, which, according to Williams, posed no problems. The programming was another issue. Lasertech Metal Works was given 33 files (33 sections from top to floor with some sections having two panels). These 33 files translated into more than 1000 files once they factored in the clear panels on the front, frosted panels on the back, etching on both, and different cuts.

The laser proved to be the most economical method for etching, considering that each fish scale is engraved on the panel and has a name (2 x 3 inches) etched in it and, on the back panel, the aquarium logo is etched behind every fish scale. “They actually had looked at doing it with a router,” says Williams, “but the router was going to take them about three to four times as long and with the router you have issues where the bits have to be perfect. We’re talking about 750 names on one panel. One mistake and the hours that are involved are a nightmare.” With the laser, the etching took about eight hours per panel.


Kiosks help visitors locate names on the donor wall.
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Williams considers the successful completion of the donor wall to be a big feather in his cap. Although the project itself wasn’t particularly lucrative for the company, the exposure and the ability to complete the project on time mean a lot. “From what I understand, that was a large part of the aquarium itself-people wanting to be a part of it-having something there that will remain for a very long time,” comments Williams.

Founded just last year as a spin off from a family-owned OEM metal fabricating business started in 1976, Lasertech Metal Works is housed in a 40,000-sq.-ft. facility, has seven full-time employees, and, in addition to the lasers, has a press brake, plasma machine, and equipment for painting and sandblasting. “The laser enables us to offer a better, more precise, competitive product,” says Williams. Since completing the aquarium job, the company has found that its lasers are bringing in more work, including, for example, sign work for a benefit group in downtown Atlanta, parts for a customer that does satellite work, an ice-making machine, and Yamaha golf carts. “We’re only running one solid shift on the laser now, with supplemental second shifts,” notes Williams. “We’re hoping to push to 2 ½ to 3 shifts.”


Lasertech Metal Works used a Bystronic laser to cut the Plexiglas panels for the Georgia aquarium’s Fish Scale donor wall.
Click here to enlarge image

With the laser cutter and etchers busy, Williams is looking at tube processing for his next purchase. “I really feel like laser is going to be the future of tube processing,” he says. “As with sheet lasers, you can design and do things that you never could before, but engineers have to think and design in those terms.” Unfortunately, Williams says that the cost of a laser tube cutter currently is prohibitive. “I salivate every day over it [laser tube cutter]. I’m nervous that I’m not going to be able to pull it off before I’m behind the curve.”

In the meantime, Williams is diversifying his customer base to include the Miami airport and the rapid transit system in Atlanta, among others. He’s got a contract with Home Depot Expos whereby laser cut and formed parts for the kitchen industry will be included in 34 stores starting in April. The company also has redesigned pit boxes for a customer in the racing industry. “The customer was basically making them out of a tubular structure and aluminum sheeting, and we’re redesigning them to all sheet metal, all being laser cut,” explains Williams. “The first prototype shows that it is a much lighter, more rigid, more precise piece of equipment-it will put us into one of the top slots as far as the pit box industry goes,” he predicts.

“The laser gives us a certain level of confidence in approaching people with options,” says Williams. “I say, ‘if you can draw it, we can cut it.”


Behind the scenes

Lasertech Metal Works sprung off from a family-owned business that was well known for its work in producing amusement park rides. The company had been outsourcing its laser work for a number of years and, after about five years of research and preparedness, decided to buy its own. “Aesthetics are an important element for us,” says Randy Williams, general manager of Lasertech Metal Works. “Not only does the laser offer us the ability to design around any contour structure, it also enables us to offer products that look good.”

When asked why he chose the Bystronic Byspeed 4.4kW laser, Williams points to a host of reasons: power, ability, system design, and software user interface. “Originally, there was a big learning curve because we didn’t have anyone on staff who was familiar with laser technology-and it was our first piece of CNC equipment. We jumped in with both feet,” Williams recalls.


Steve Sjoholm (left) Randy Williams (right) in front of Byspeed
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Six months after the Byspeed purchase, Williams met Steve Sjoholm, who had several years of experience with Bystronic machines and an extensive CAD background. “The company he was working for was shutting down and moving facilities to an area that he didn’t want to relocate to,” explains Williams. “If I hadn’t got the Byspeed, I wouldn’t have him. They’ve both been a huge asset.” Sjoholm describes the Byspeed as a racehorse, but says, “If you learn how to ride it originally, you won’t even care about the slower stuff.”

Williams reports that he’s getting excellent performance from the machine and couldn’t be happier. He tells the story of the day when the quality control representatives of a big client arrived for an inspection. Williams says there were two factors that got him the job: “They appreciated the look and style of the machine. Bystronic did a good job of finishing it-including an integrated tool box for the part you need, shelved and stored in a proper fashion.” The second factor impressing the QA reps was that operators were taking parts off the system and randomly checking them to make sure there weren’t any burrs on the bottom or other issues. “The QA guys were impressed to see that,” boasts Williams.

His outlook for 2006 is very good: “We’re trying to hit the ground running.” - LJB

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