Greater Springfield could be home to future laser industry
A hyper-concentrated beam of light, operated by a highly-trained laser technician, can zap rust off metal, return eyesight to 20/20 and help military scouts detect landmines.
This is not science fiction or even future science; this is the world in which we are currently living. Laser technology is pivotal to developing countless industries that are reshaping our economy and our way of life, from driverless cars to the facial recognition software used in the latest iPhone.
The Greater Springfield region is known for many manufacturing "firsts." We also know that Springfield sits in a strategic location -- the "Crossroads of New England" -- between the country's first major ports at Boston to the east, Albany to the west and New York to the south.
But did you know that we are also living in the country's "Laser Corridor"?
Springfield Technical Community College has one of the premiere photonics (or "lasers") training programs in the state and even the country. And it's one of the major stops on the I-90 corridor between the programs at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
In other words, Springfield is perfectly positioned to be an essential site in the growing laser industry. And, with the right investments, policy choices and public-private partnerships, we can make sure our region seizes this opportunity and becomes the "Silicon Valley of Lasers."
In April, I joined industry representatives and Professor Lionel Kimerling, director of MIT's own photonics program, to see STCC's program in action.
I watched as students in STCC's Photonics Lab used lasers to shave blocks of titanium and even engrave a beer glass with my name as a parting gift. They worked under the direction of Professor Nicholas Massa, an inspiring instructor who previously told Masslive, "The applications are huge. Aerospace, biomedical, automotive -- you name it, anything that's manufactured there's probably a laser involved in that process."
Last month, STCC announced that it is working with MIT on proposing a state-of-the-art photonics "factory" on STCC's campus in Springfield. MIT launched the first Photonics Education and Practice Factory this past spring, and Quinsigamond Community College and Worcester Polytechnic Institute -- both in Worcester -- are already planning the second.
While there is much talk nationally about the decline of manufacturing, we are poised to buck this trend in Massachusetts because of the quality of our workers and the strength of our institutions.
But we need to be proactive and strategic on a number of overlapping fronts. The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center provides investment in cutting-edge technologies just like this. It needs our support, and steady state funding, to continue building on these innovations and enabling Massachusetts to be the first to find them.
We also need to invest in vocational education -- like the program at STCC -- that trains the workers who will be implementing these innovations. That training must adapt to an industry that is changing by the day.
This is not a partisan issue. Earlier this month, Gov. Baker announced $7 million in funding for advanced manufacturing projects through the Massachusetts Manufacturing Innovation Initiative. This is welcome news.
But we also need to champion our region and the resources we have here. Most of this funding went to projects in Eastern Massachusetts; we need to make sure more of it comes here. Placing Springfield at the center of the "laser" industry's development will create new jobs and new businesses for many generations to come.
Photo credit: Dan Glaun, Masslive
State Sen. Eric P. Lesser is co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies, vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Financial Services, and leads Millennial Outreach for the Massachusetts State Senate. He represents the First Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Massachusetts.