Exploring this Job
One of the best ways for students to gain experience in and 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 and operators, and amateur telescope makers; and school photography clubs, especially those involving activities with film processing, print and enlargement making, and camera operations.
Through visits to industrial laboratories or manufacturing companies, you can witness technicians actually involved in the work and 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.
The optical manufacturing industry offers many different types of jobs for the skilled and well-trained technician. There are jobs, such as those that precision-lens grinders often perform, that focus on craftworking skills. The work of precision-lens technicians, and 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 photonics technicians, that require the mechanical skills and ingenuity of a repairer and troubleshooter.
In general, optics technicians are employed in one of the following areas: research and development, product manufacturing, maintenance and operations, and lens fabrication.
Technicians working in research and development seek to create new optical instruments or new applications for existing instruments. They are often called on to invent new techniques to conduct 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 and security, ultra-precise distance-measuring devices, and instruments for analysis of medical and clinical specimens, monitoring patients, and routine inspection of materials including industrial wastes.
Technicians in product manufacturing work mostly on the assembly, alignment, calibration, and testing of common optical instruments, such as microscopes, telescopes, binoculars, and cameras. They may also help produce less common devices, such as transits and levels for surveying or spectrographs and spectrophotometers used in medical research and diagnosis.
A relatively new field that allows both research-and-development technicians and product-development technicians opportunities to combine their interests in optics and photography is the development and production of integrated electronic circuits. These highly complex, tiny devices are used widely in calculators, computers, television equipment, and control devices for electronic systems, whether in the cockpit 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 and plans, called art work, to the alignment and 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 and operations, technicians are involved with the on-site use of optical instruments, such as technical and scientific cameras, large observatory telescopes and auxiliary instruments, light-measuring equipment, and spectrophotometers, some of which operate with invisible or ultraviolet radiation.
Operations and maintenance 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, and they weigh up to 15 tons. Large, powerful motors enable the camera to rotate and, 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.
Photonics technicians work 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, and 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 and computer communications, solar energy products, holograms, compact discs, and digital video 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, and 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 and fine grinding powders. They bring the blanks in the holders to the required curve within close tolerances. Lens polishers use ultrafine powders and 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 and install them inside a vacuum chamber. Special mineral materials are then boiled in small, electrically heated vessels in the vacuum, and 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, and other faults or errors that may require rejection of the finished element before it is assembled into an instrument.
In recent years the trend toward miniaturization that began in the computer industry with microchips has been extended through nanotechnology to such inventions as miniature lenses for cameras that can, for example, see inside the smallest parts of the human body.