Optical Engineers


Exploring this Job

Students interested in optics can join science and engineering clubs that provide opportunities for experimentation, problem solving, and team-building activities. These clubs provide good grounding in science and math principles and the skills students will need as engineers. Ask your science teacher if you can arrange an independent study project. Another way of exploring is through conducting simple experiments on the properties of light. Books on optics often provide instructions for experiments that may be done with a minimum of equipment. Contact your school or local library for books and other resources to explore.

College students may wish to consider joining a student chapter of a professional association such as SPIE or The Optical Society. Participation in association-sponsored events provides an excellent means to meet with professionals working in the area of optical engineering and to learn more about the field. In addition, membership may include a subscription to trade magazines that include interesting and informative articles on optics. Although these associations do charge membership fees, they are relatively inexpensive for college students.

The Job

Optical engineers may work in any of the many subfields or related branches of optics. Three of the largest areas are physical optics, which is concerned with the wave properties of light; quantum optics, which studies photons, or individual particles of light; and geometrical optics, which involves optical instruments used to detect and measure light. Other subfields of optics include integrated optics, nonlinear optics, electron optics, magneto-optics, and space optics.

Optical engineers combine their knowledge of optics with other engineering concepts, such as mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer engineering, to determine applications and build devices using optics technology. Optical engineers design precision optical systems for cameras, telescopes, or lens systems. They determine the required specifications and make adjustments to calibrate and fine-tune optical devices. They also design and develop circuitry and components for devices that use optical technology. Some optical engineers design and fabricate inspection instruments to test and measure the performance of optics systems. In designing this equipment, they test that all parts perform as required, diagnose any malfunctioning parts, and correct any defects. Together with electrical and mechanical engineers, they work on the overall design of systems using optical components.

In creating a new product using optical technology, optical engineers go through a multistep engineering process. First, they study the application or problem to understand it thoroughly. Then they brainstorm to come up with possible solutions to the problem. After developing a creative concept, engineers transform it into a design or several designs. They work out all of the details and create a computer-generated model or test unit. This model or unit is tested, and any required revisions to the design are made and tested again. This process continues until the design proves satisfactory. The design is then sent to production, and a product is manufactured. The process is completed with marketing of the product.

For some products, an engineer may perform all of these steps except marketing. Other products require a team of engineers and may include other professionals such as industrial designers, technologists, and technicians.

Some optical engineers specialize in lasers and fiber optics. These engineers, also known as fiber optics engineers and laser and fiber optics engineers, design, develop, modify, and build equipment and components that utilize laser and fiber optic technology. Lasers are used to produce extremely powerful beams of light that can be transmitted through fiber optics, which are hair-like strands of plastic-coated glass fibers. Using this technology, lasers can cut through material as hard as a diamond, travel over long distances without any loss of power, and detect extremely small movements. Lasers also can be used to record, store, and transmit information.

These engineers may be involved in testing laser systems or developing applications for lasers in areas such as telecommunications, medicine, defense, manufacturing, and construction. For example, lasers are used in surgical procedures and medical diagnostic equipment. They are used in manufacturing industries to align, mark, and cut through both metals and plastics. Military applications such as navigational systems and ballistic and weapon systems use laser technology. Other areas where optical engineers use lasers include robotics, holograms, scanning, digital video discs, and printing.

Fiber optics engineers may specialize and work within a specific area of fiber optic technology. They may work with fiber optic imaging, which involves using fiber optics to transmit light or images. These engineers also use fiber optics to rotate, enlarge, shrink, and enhance images. A second area of specialization involves working with sensors. These engineers work with devices that measure temperature, pressure, force, and other physical features. A third type of specialization is in communications, where fiber optic networks allow voice, data, sound, and images to be transmitted over cables. This is used in telephone systems, computer networks, and undersea fiber optic communications systems.

Another career specialty is that of photonics engineer. They work in the design, production, and use of laser and fiber optics technology. Photonics engineers use light to generate energy and detect or transmit information. Their work often involves finding and resolving problems related to the light sources used in fiber optics. Some photonics engineers focus on optical fibers and refining their purity, while others specialize in laser technology.

Optical engineers use many different types of equipment to perform their work. Among them are spectrometers, spectrum analyzers, digital energy meters, calorimeters, laser power meters, leak detectors, and wattmeters.