Optical engineers apply the concepts of optics to research, design, and develop applications in a broad range of areas. Optics, which involves the properties of light and how it interacts with matter, is a branch of physics and engineering. Optical engineers study the way light is produced, transmitted, detected, and measured to determine ways it can be used and to build devices using optical technology.
Optical Engineer Career History
The study of the properties of light began during the 1600s when Galileo built telescopes to observe the planets and stars. Scientists, such as Sir Isaac Newton, conducted experiments and studies that contributed to the understanding of light and how it operates. Among Newton’s many experiments was his work with prisms that separated sunlight into a spectrum of colors. Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch physicist, also conducted important studies to develop a theory that concerned the wave properties of light.
During the 1800s, other physicists and scientists performed research that confirmed Huygens’s theory and advanced the study of light even further. By the mid-1800s, scientists were able to measure the speed of light and had developed means to show how color bands of the light spectrum were created by atoms of chemical elements. In 1864, a British physicist, James C. Maxwell, proposed the electromagnetic theory of light.
Two of the most important discoveries of the 20th century were the development of lasers and fiber optics.
The first laser was built by an American physicist, Theodore H. Maiman, in 1960. In 1966, it was discovered that light could travel through glass fibers, which led to the development of fiber optic technology.
Optics, the branch of science that studies the manipulation of light, is a growing field. Engineers today work in applications that include image processing, information processing, wireless communications, electronic technology (including compact disc players, high-definition televisions, and laser printers), astronomical observation, atomic research, robotics, military surveillance, water-quality monitoring, undersea monitoring, and medical and scientific procedures and instruments.
Optical Engineer Job Description
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, compact 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.
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.
Optical Engineer Career Requirements
While in high school, take physical science, physics, chemistry, geometry, algebra, trigonometry, calculus, social studies, English, composition, and computer science classes. Courses in computer-aided design are also helpful. Honors classes in science and mathematics are recommended.
A bachelor’s degree in engineering is required to become an optical engineer. Most engineering programs take four or five years to complete. Many students also receive advanced degrees, such as a master’s of science degree or a doctorate degree, as they are required for higher-level positions.
There are about 120 colleges and universities in the United States and approximately five in Canada that offer classes in optics. Only a very small number of schools, though, offer programs that grant degrees in optical engineering. Most colleges offer degrees in a related field, such as electrical engineering or physics, with a specialization in optics.
Because each college program is unique, classes in optical engineering may be offered through various departments, such as physics, electrical and computer engineering, electronic and electrical engineering, electronics and photonics imaging, optical engineering, or optical science. Some schools emphasize the engineering aspects of optics, whereas others focus on optical science or the research aspects of optics. Optical science varies from optical engineering in that it is more concerned with studying the properties of light and its interaction with matter than in developing applications that utilize optical technology.
Classes vary based on the type of program, but they generally include intensive laboratory experience and courses in mathematics, physics, chemistry, electronics, and geometric and wave optics. Advanced courses may include electrooptics, lasers, optical systems design, infrared systems design, quantum mechanics, polarization, fiber optics communication, and optical tests and measurement.
Some colleges require internships or cooperative work programs during which students work at a related job for one to three semesters. Alternating study with work experience is an excellent way to gain on-the-job experience before graduation and can lead to employment opportunities upon graduation.
A high number of students receive master of science degrees, which generally take two years of additional study beyond a bachelor’s degree. Those who plan to work in research generally earn doctorate degrees, which take four years of additional study beyond a bachelor’s degree.
Because the types of programs vary, you should thoroughly research and investigate as many colleges as possible. SPIE, the International Society for Optical Engineering, provides a detailed directory of colleges and universities offering optics courses and describes programs and requirements in depth.
Certification or Licensing
All states require engineers to be licensed. There are two levels of licensing for engineers. Professional engineers (PEs) have graduated from an accredited engineering curriculum, have four years of engineering experience, and have passed a written exam. Engineering graduates need not wait until they have four years experience, however, to start the licensure process. Those who pass the Fundamentals of Engineering examination after graduating are called engineers in training (EITs), engineer interns, or intern engineers. The EIT certification usually is valid for 10 years. After acquiring suitable work experience, EITs can take the second examination, the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam, to gain full PE licensure.
To become an optical engineer, you need to have a strong foundation in mathematics and physics as well as an inquisitive and analytical mind. You should be good at problem solving, enjoy challenges, and be methodical, precise, and attentive to details. You should be able to work well both individually and with others.
Exploring Optical Engineer Career
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 of America. Participation in association 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.
Optical engineers work for companies that produce robotics. They also work in laboratories, hospitals, and universities, as well as in telecommunications and construction. Companies that employ optical engineers can be found in all geographic areas of the country, although some areas have a higher concentration than others. Employers in areas along the Atlantic coast, from Boston to Washington, D.C., and in large metropolitan areas around cities such as San Jose, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, and Orlando provide many opportunities for optical engineers.
Some students work part-time or during the summer during their college years as laser technicians, optics technicians, or in another related technician job. This work experience is not only a valuable learning tool, but it may lead to a full-time employment offer once they complete their education.
Students in an undergraduate or graduate program can learn about job openings through internships or cooperative programs in which they have participated. College placement offices can also be a source of job leads. Professional associations also provide information on companies that are seeking optical engineers. In many cases, new graduates research companies that hire optical engineers and apply directly to them.
Optical engineers with a bachelor’s of science degree often start out as assistants to experienced engineers. As they gain experience, they are given more responsibility and independence and move into higher-ranked positions. Engineers who show leadership ability, good communication skills, and management ability may advance to project engineers, project managers, team leaders, or other management positions.
Engineers often return to school to obtain advanced degrees, such as a master’s or doctorate degree. With advanced training and experience, they can move into more specialized areas of engineering. Some engineers move into areas of research and become principal engineers or research directors. Engineers may also become college professors or high school teachers.
Some engineers move into sales and marketing. Selling optical devices requires a depth of technical knowledge and the ability to explain the features and benefits of a product. Many engineers, after having spent years designing products, are well equipped for this type of work.
Other optical engineers go into business for themselves, either becoming consulting engineers or starting their own design or manufacturing firms.
Salaries for optical engineers are similar to those of electrical and electronics engineers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median annual earnings of electrical engineers were $73,510 in 2005. The lowest paid 10 percent earned less than $47,750, and the highest paid 10 percent earned $110,570 or more.
Optics engineers can expect to be paid highly for their expertise, partly due to the fact that the demand for their highly technical skills outweighs the supply. According to a salary survey by Payscale.com, median salaries for optical engineers ranged from $63,000 to $97,000 in 2005.
Companies offer a variety of benefits, including medical, dental, and vision insurance; paid holidays, vacation, sick leave, and personal days; life and disability insurance; pension plans; profit sharing; 401(k) plans; and tuition assistance programs. Some companies also pay for fees and expenses to participate in professional associations, including travel to national conventions, annual meetings, and trade shows.
Optical engineers generally work in comfortable surroundings—usually offices or laboratories. Most facilities are equipped with modern equipment and computer workstations. Most engineers work five-day, 40-hour weeks, although overtime is not unusual, particularly when working on a special project. Some companies offer flexible work policies in which engineers can schedule their own hours within certain time periods. Most engineers work with other engineers, technicians, and production personnel.
Optical Engineer Career Outlook
Employment of optical engineers is expected to grow at a healthy rate through the coming decade. At present, there are more openings for qualified engineers than there are available engineers to fill these positions, so opportunities should be plentiful.
Applications that utilize optics technology are growing steadily and should provide opportunities in many different industries. The use of fiber optics in telecommunications is expanding, providing opportunities for engineers in the cable, broadcasting, computer, and telephone industries. New applications are being developed in many other areas, such as the medical and defense fields. The increasing use of automated equipment in manufacturing is also providing opportunities for optical engineers, particularly in applications involving robotics technology.