School Subjects: Biology, Chemistry
Personal Skills: Helping/teaching; Technical/scientific
Work Environment: Primarily indoors; Primarily one location
Minimum Education Level: Some postsecondary training
Salary Range: $15,000 to $31,000 to $55,000
Certification or Licensing: Required for certain positions
Outlook: Little or no change
Optics technicians design, fabricate, assemble, or install optical instruments, such as telescopes, microscopes, aerial cameras, & eyeglasses. The four most common types of optics technicians are opto-mechanical technicians, precision- lens technicians, precision-lens grinders (sometimes called optical technicians), & photo-optics technicians.
In general, these four careers may be distinguished from one another in the following ways: Opto-mechanical technicians build & test complete optical & opto-mechanical devices. Precision-lens technicians handle the whole range of manufacturing activities to fabricate the lenses that go into optical & opto-mechanical devices. Precision-lens grinders grind, polish, cement, & inspect the lens. Photo-optics technicians install, maintain, or actually use the optical or optomechanical devices for scientific & engineering measurements & projects.
Humans have been using simple lenses for magnification for more than 1,000 years, & eyeglasses have been in use since the 14th century. More complex optical instruments, however, such as the microscope & telescope, were not developed until the 17th century. These scopes were crude by modern standards, as the first lenses of moderately good quality for these instruments were not developed until the 19th century.
During the 19th century, many of the basic principles used for making the calculations necessary for lens design were expounded, first in an 1841 book by Karl Friedrich Gauss, & later in other first microscopes & telescopes were crude by modern standards, as the first lenses of moderately good quality for these instruments were not developed until the 19th century.
During the 19th century, many of the basic principles used for making the calculations necessary for lens design were expounded, first in an 1841 book by Karl Friedrich Gauss, & later in other studies, based on Gauss’s work, published during the 1850s. These principles remained the basis for making the calculations needed for lens design until around 1960, when computer modeling became the predominant way to design lenses.
Up until the early part of the 20th century, engineering problems associated with the design of optical instruments were handled by mechanical engineers, physicists, & mathematicians. During World War I, however, because of the increasingly important applications of optical instruments, optical engineering emerged as a separate discipline, & today it's taught in a separate department in many universities.
Similarly, the optics technicians described in this article emerged as distinct from all other engineering & science technicians. They have their own instructional programs, their own professional societies, & their own licensing procedures.
The optical manufacturing industry offers many different types of jobs for the skilled & well-trained technician. There are jobs, especially for optomechanical technicians, that mostly involve scientific & theoretical matters. There are other jobs, such as those that precision-lens grinders often perform, that focus on craftworking skills. The work of precision-lens technicians, & for many other optics technicians as well, combines both of these kinds of activities. Finally, there are many jobs for optics technicians, but especially for photo- optics technicians, that require the mechanical skills & ingenuity of a repairer & troubleshooter.
In general, optics technicians are employed in one of the following areas: research & development, product manufacturing, maintenance & operations, & lens fabrication.
Technicians working in the research & development area seek to create new optical instruments or new applications for existing instruments. They are often called upon to invent new techniques to con duct experiments, obtain measurements, or carry out fabrication procedures requested by engineers or scientists.
Among the products that research-and-development technicians may be involved with are night-vision instruments for surveillance & security, ultraprecise distance-measuring devices, & instruments for analysis of medical & clinical specimens, monitoring patients, & routine inspection of materials including industrial wastes.
Technicians in the product-manufacturing area work mostly at the assembly, alignment, calibration, & testing of common optical instruments, such as microscopes, telescopes, binoculars, & cam eras. They may also help produce less common devices, such as transits & levels for surveying or spectrographs & spectrophotometers used in medical research & diagnosis.
A relatively new field that allows both research-and-development technicians & product-development technicians opportunities to combine their interests in optics & photography is the development & production of integrated electronic circuits. These highly complex, tiny devices are used widely in calculators, computers, television equipment, & control devices for electronic systems, whether in the cock pit of a jet airliner or in the control room of an electric generating plant. The manufacture of these electronic circuits requires a wide variety of skills, from the production of large patterns & plans, called art work, to the alignment & operation of the microcameras that produce the extraordinarily small printing negatives used to make the final circuits on the tiny metallic chips that are the basis of the integrated circuits.
In the field of maintenance & operations, technicians are involved with the on-site use of optical instruments, such as technical & scientific cameras, large observatory telescopes & auxiliary instruments, light-measuring equipment, & spectrophotometers, some of which operate with invisible or ultraviolet radiation.
Operations & maintenance technicians (usually photo-optics technicians) may find themselves working at a rocket or missile test range or at a missile or satellite tracking station, where they may assemble, adjust, align, or operate telescopic cameras that produce some of the most important information about missiles in flight. These cameras are often as big as the telescopes used by astronomers, & they weigh up to 15 tons. Large, powerful motors enable the camera to rotate & , thus, to follow a rocket in flight until it comes down. The picture information gathered by these long-range tracking cameras is often the only clue to missile flight errors or failure, as there is often virtually nothing left of a missile after it lands.
Another kind of optics technician, called a photonics technician, works in a specialized area of optics called photonics. Photonics is a technology that uses photons, or particles of light, to process information. It includes lasers, fiber optics, optical instruments, & related electronics. Photonics technicians assist engineers in developing applications utilizing photonics. One such application is a wireless data communications network that links computer workstations through infrared technology. Photonics is being used in areas such as data communications, including using photons to send information through optical cables for telephone & computer communications, solar energy products, holograms, & compact discs.
In the lens-fabrication area there are many different kinds of jobs for optics technicians. Lens molders work with partially melted glass. Their principal task usually is to press the partially melted glass into rough lens blanks. Lens blockers assist senior lens makers in setting lens blanks into holders in preparation for curve generating, grinding, & polishing. Lens generators, using special grinding machines, give the glass blanks the correct curvature as they are held in the holders. Lens grinders work with cup-shaped tools & fine grinding powders. They bring the blanks in the holders to the required curve within close tolerances. Lens polishers use ultrafine powders & special tools made of pitch or beeswax to bring the surfaces of the fine-ground blank to bright, clear polish. Lens centerers or lens edgers make true, or perfect, the various optical elements with finished spherical surfaces. Optical-coating technicians carefully clean finished lenses & install them inside a vacuum chamber. Special mineral materials are then boiled in small, electrically heated vessels in the vacuum, & the vapor condenses on the lenses to form extremely thin layers that reduce glass surface reflections. Quality inspectors examine the finished lenses for tiny scratches, discolorations of the coating, & other faults or errors that may require rejection of the finished element before it's assembled into an instrument.
If you are considering a career as an optics technician, you should take courses that provide a strong general background & prepare you for further study in technical fields, including mathematics, science, technical reading & writing, & shop. Courses in photography, particularly those involving darkroom work, are also valuable, since photography plays an important role in many fields where optics technicians work.
There are only a few schools that offer specific training for optics technicians. A good alternate way to obtain advanced education is to attend a technical institute or community college where two- or three- year engineering or science programs are available & to pick out those courses best suited for a career as an optics technician.
During your first year of a two-year program, you should take courses in geometrical optics, trigonometry, lens polishing, technical writing, optical instruments, analytical geometry, & specifications writing. During your second year, you may take courses in physics, optical shop practices, manual preparation, mechanical drawing, & report preparation.
Some large corporations have training programs for beginning technicians. These programs are not always publicized & may take some searching to find. There are also some commercially run technical schools that provide training; however, they are often costly & should be investigated carefully, preferably by talking to former students, before undertaking such a program.
Certification or Licensing
Except for those optics technicians who not only make but dispense eye glasses, there are no licensing requirements. However, in a few cases, optics technicians must be certified to manufacture & inspect instruments to be used in a government application or for medical or clinical purposes. In these instances, technicians should discuss any licensing or certification requirements with their employer or supervisor.
To be an optics technician, you should have a strong interest in & a good aptitude for mathematics & physics. Patience, care, & good manual skills are important to design precision telescopic lenses, grind & polish the glass elements, & assemble & align the instrument.
One of the best ways for students to gain experience in & exposure to the field of optics is through membership in a club or organization related to this field. These include hobby clubs, student societies, or groups with scientific interests. Some examples include the following:
organizations for amateur astronomers, amateur radio builders & operators, & amateur telescope makers; & school photography clubs, especially those involving activities with film processing, print & enlargement making, & camera operations.
Through visits to industrial laboratories or manufacturing companies, you can witness technicians actually involved in their work & may be able to speak with several of these people regarding their work or with employers about possibilities for technicians in that particular industry or company.
Optical grinding & polishing shops provide employment opportunities. Among the largest employers of optical technicians are the space program & weapons-development programs run by the military. Other employment opportunities are available with manufacturers of optical instruments, such as microscopes, telescopes, binoculars, cameras, & advanced medical equipment.
Many students enrolled in two-year training programs can find jobs through interviews with company recruiters conducted on campus during the second year of their program. Other students find employment through participation in work-study programs while enrolled in school. In many cases, the student’s part-time employer will offer full- time work after graduation or provide leads on other possible jobs.
For students who don't find suitable employment in one of these ways, there are some employment agencies that specialize in placing personnel in the optics industry. There are also very active societies in the optical, photographic, physical science, & engineering fields that can be sources of worthwhile job leads. Contact technical societies for advice & help in job hunting. The primary purpose of a technical society is to aid the industry it represents, & there is no better way the society can do this than to attract interested people into the field & help them find a good job.
As technicians gain experience & additional skills, new & more demanding jobs are offered to them. The following paragraphs describe some of the jobs to which experienced technicians may advance.
Hand lens figurers shape some lenses & optical elements, using hand-operated grinding & polishing methods. These shapes are called “aspheric,” as they can't be made by the normal mass-production grinding & generating machines. Special highly sensitive test machines are used to aid these advanced polishing technicians.
Photographic technicians use the camera in many important research & engineering projects, as well as in the production of optical items such as reticles (cross hairs or wires in the focus of the eye piece of an optical instrument), optical test targets, & integrated electronic circuits. These technicians will be involved in the operation of cameras & with photographic laboratory work, sometimes leading a team of technicians in these tasks.
Instrument assemblers & testers direct the assembly of various parts into the final instrument, performing certain critical assembly tasks themselves. When the instrument is complete, they, or other technicians under their direction, check the instrument’s alignment, functioning, appearance, & readiness for the customer.
Optical model makers work with specially made or purchased components to assemble a prototype or first model of a new instrument under the direction of the engineer in charge. These technicians must be able to keep the prototype in operation, so that the engineer may develop knowledge & understanding of production problems.
Research-and-development technicians help to make & assemble new instruments & apparatus in close cooperation with scientists & engineers. The opportunities for self-expression & innovation are highest in this area.
EARN I NGS
Salaries & wages vary according to the industry & the type of work the technician is doing. In general, starting salaries for technicians who have completed a two-year postsecondary training pro gram range from around $15,000 to $25,000 a year. Technicians involved in apprenticeship training may receive reduced wages during the early stages of their apprenticeships. Technicians who have not completed a two-year training program receive starting salaries several hundred dollars a year less than technicians in the same industry who have completed such a program.
Most technicians who are graduates of these programs & who have advanced beyond the entry level earn salaries that range from $21,000 to $31,000 a year & average around $26,000 a year. Senior technicians receive salaries ranging from $35,000 to $55,000 a yea; or more, depending on their employers & type of work performed.
In some polishing & hand-figuring rooms, & in the first assembly rooms, it's sometimes necessary to provide special dust, humidity, & temperature controls. Technicians are required to wear clean, lint-free garments, & to use caps & overshoe covers. These rooms are widely used whenever the work requires the most meticulous cleanliness, since a single piece of lint might cause the loss of an entire component or assembly.
On the other hand, technicians working with large astronomical telescopes, with missile-tracking cameras on a military test range, or with instrument cameras for recording outdoor activities will have to work in a variety of conditions.
Very often, optics technicians, particularly those associated with the assembly, alignment, & testing of complete instruments, will find themselves working in the dark or at night. In very few cases is the work apt to be grimy or dangerous.
Part of the discipline of optics is scientific & technical, & another part calls for the skilled hands & eyes of the artisan. For prospective optics technicians who have an interest in & an aptitude for both of these kinds of activities, optics technology provides many opportunities to make personal contributions to the advancement & development of optical science & the optical industry.
Because optics technology is involved in creating the instruments & equipment necessary in ever-expanding fields such as medical research, space exploration, communications systems, & microcircuitry design & manufacture, optics technicians can feel some satisfaction in knowing that they are working in some of today’s most exciting fields of scientific & technological research. The work that optics technicians perform directly affects the lives of most Americans.
As with all technicians in the engineering & science field, optics technicians are often called upon to perform both very challenging & very routine & repetitive work. Optics technology offers technicians a spectrum of jobs, so prospective technicians can choose those that fit their temperaments. However, almost all technicians should expect some mixture of the routine & the challenging in their jobs.
Optics technicians almost always work as part of a group effort. Often they serve as intermediaries between scientists & engineers who run projects & skilled craftsworkers who carry out much of the work.
The field of optics technology & manufacturing should have little growth over the next several years. Employment is expected to increase slowly in manufacturing as firms invest in automated machinery. Most job openings will arise from the need to replace technicians who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force. Only a small number of job openings will be created each year because the occupation is relatively small.
Traditionally, the space program & weapons-development pro grams run by the military have been employers of large numbers of optics technicians. Employment in this field is determined by levels of government spending & is difficult to predict. Even if there are cutbacks in this spending, however, the public demand for modern complex cameras, binoculars, & telescopes & the need for
advanced medical equipment should sustain employment levels for most kinds of optics technicians.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
For information on optics & career opportunities, contact
American Precision Optics Manufacturers Association
University of Rochester
P0 Box 20001
Rochester, NY 14602
For information on technician careers & optical engineering, contact
Junior Engineering Technical Society, Inc.
1420 King Street, Suite 405
Alexandria, VA 223 14-2794
For information on student membership, optics, & job listings, contact
Optical Society of America
2010 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20036
For information on careers, educational programs, & job listings, contact
SPIE—The International Society for Optical Engineering
1000 20th Street
Bellingham, WA 98225
John Kern is a photonics technician at Simpson County College in Joneswood, New York. Photonics is the technology that deals with the creation, transmission, detection, & utilization of light energy. Laser surgery, supermarket scanners, & high-speed fiber optic Internet systems are some of the advances of photonics. Mr. Kern spoke with the editors of Career Resource Basics about his career.
Q. What are your main job responsibilities as a photonics technician?
A. My principal job responsibility is keeping the photonics labs & equipment up to date & running properly. I also work closely with the professors & students on lab experiments. Presently, I am working with a group of students on creating & testing optical coatings for use on lenses, mirrors, & filters. I also work with the faculty in assisting with grants, equipment upgrades, & experimental setups for demonstrations & some research. I am also involved in the marketing of the program to the general public through tours & presentations about photonics.
Q. Do you travel for your job?
A. I travel to local high schools to give educational presentations on photonics to students. Some technicians working in industry travel all over the world, while others may stay in one facility. It depends on the type of lob the individual chooses.
Q. What training did you receive to become a photonics technician?
A. I received an associate’s degree in Photonics from Camden County College’s photonics program. I will complete a bachelor’s degree in physics this fall at Rowan University [ Glassboro, New Jersey]. I also receive extra training from photonics companies that train me on their specific equipment I have also traveled for training related to laser safety.
Q. What was your first job in the field?
A. I worked for a company that manufactures a holographic bar code scanning system. I was hired during my last semester in the photonics program at Camden County College. I created trans mission holograms, different than the type seen on credit cards or on some cell phones, using high power lasers & photosensitive holographic film that would be incorporated into the scanning device. I also maintained & repaired the high precision optical equipment used in the process. I worked closely with the optical engineering department in developing new & more efficient ways to create the holograms.
Q. What qualities should people have to be successful in this field?
A. People interested in a career in photonics should have an interest in technology & how things work. They must also be willing to develop good communication skills because developing new technologies requires teamwork
Q. What are some of the pros & cons of your job?
A. The versatility of my job can be both a pro & con. I am never bored because I am never working on the same project for too long. One day I may be giving a tour of our facilities, researching or purchasing new equipment for the program, & later working directly with a few students or setting up an experiment. The downside is that I sometimes would like to focus & dedicate more time to one project
Q. What advice would you give to students who are interest ed in photonics?
A. Middle school & high school students should concentrate on both math & the physical sciences. A fundamental under standing of both subjects will make the transition to college much easier; however, these subjects will soon be offered through our program.
Photonics is constantly changing, & a person in this field must be willing to learn new technologies. Thirty years ago, lasers never left the laboratory; now we can find them everywhere, whether in a hospital or inside your computer.
Q. What is the future employment outlook for photonics technicians?
A. The present outlook is for continued growth in the field. Photonics companies send me two to three lob opportunities per student in the program. Students have many options after finishing their associate’s degrees & normally earn salaries that are comparable to students graduating with bachelor’s degrees. Some may work in the research & manufacturing of laser systems used in fields ranging from medical to homeland security, while others may work in a telecommunications environment installing or researching high-speed fiber optic communication systems. Some even venture towards the business side of photonics & work in technical sales. It depends on the individual’s interests.