Optics technicians design, fabricate, assemble, or install optical instruments, such as telescopes, microscopes, aerial cameras, and eyeglasses. The four most common types of optics technicians are optomechanical technicians, precision-lens technicians, precision-lens grinders (sometimes called optical technicians), and photo-optics technicians.
In general, these four careers may be distinguished from one another in the following ways: Optomechanical technicians build and test complete optical and optomechanical devices. Precision-lens technicians handle the whole range of manufacturing activities to fabricate the lenses that go into optical and optomechanical devices. Precision-lens grinders grind, polish, cement, and inspect the lens. Photo-optics technicians install, maintain, or actually use the optical or optomechanical devices for scientific and engineering measurements and projects.
Optics Technician Career History
Humans have been using simple lenses for magnification for more than 1,000 years, and eyeglasses have been in use since the 14th century. More complex optical instruments, however, such as the microscope and telescope, were not developed until the 17th century. These first microscopes and 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 a book by Karl Fried-rich Gauss published in 1841 and later in other studies based on Gauss’s work 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, mechanical engineers, physicists, and mathematicians handled engineering problems associated with the design of optical instruments. During World War I, however, because of the increasingly important applications of optical instruments, optical engineering emerged as a separate discipline, and today it is taught in a separate department in many universities.
And, in the same way, the optics technicians described in this article emerged as distinct from all other engineering and science technicians. They have their own instructional programs, their own professional societies, and their own licensing procedures.
Optics Technician Job Description
The optical manufacturing industry offers many different types of jobs for the skilled and well-trained technician. There are jobs, especially for optomechanical technicians, that mostly involve scientific and 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, 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 photo-optics 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 the research and development area seek to create new optical instruments or new applications for existing instruments. They are often called upon 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, ultraprecise distance-measuring devices, and instruments for analysis of medical and clinical specimens, monitoring patients, and routine inspection of materials including industrial wastes.
Technicians in the product-manufacturing area 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 (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, 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.
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, 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.
Optics Technician Career Requirements
If you are considering a career as an optics technician, you should take courses that provide a strong general background and prepare you for further study in technical fields, including mathematics, science, technical reading and writing, and 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 and 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, and specifications writing. During your second year, you may take courses in physics, optical shop practices, manual preparation, mechanical drawing, and report preparation.
Some large corporations have training programs for beginning technicians. These programs are not always publicized and may take some searching to find. There are also some commercially run technical schools that provide training; however, they are often costly and 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 eyeglasses, there are no licensing requirements. However, in a few cases, optics technicians must be certified to manufacture and 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 and a good aptitude for mathematics and physics. Patience, care, and good manual skills are important to design precision telescopic lenses, grind and polish the glass elements, and assemble and align the instrument.
Exploring Optics Technician Career
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.
Optical grinding and polishing shops provide employment opportunities. Among the largest employers of optical technicians are the space program and weapons-development programs run by the military. Other employment opportunities are available with manufacturers of optical instruments, such as microscopes, telescopes, binoculars, cameras, and 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 do not 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, and engineering fields that can be sources of worthwhile job leads. Contact technical societies for advice and help in job hunting. The primary purpose of a technical society is to aid the industry it represents, and there is no better way the society can do this than to attract interested people into the field and help them find a good job.
As technicians gain experience and additional skills, new and 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 and optical elements, using hand-operated grinding and polishing methods. These shapes are called “aspheric,” as they cannot be made by the normal mass-production grinding and generating machines. Special highly sensitive test machines are used to aid these advanced polishing technicians.
Photographic technicians use the camera in many important research and engineering projects, as well as in the production of optical items such as reticles (cross hairs or wires in the focus of the eyepiece of an optical instrument), optical test targets, and integrated electronic circuits. These technicians will be involved in the operation of cameras and with photographic laboratory work, sometimes leading a team of technicians in these tasks.
Instrument assemblers and 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, and 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 and understanding of production problems.
Research-and-development technicians help to make and assemble new instruments and apparatus in close cooperation with scientists and engineers. The opportunities for self-expression and innovation are highest in this area.
Salaries and wages vary according to the industry and the type of work the technician is doing. In general, starting salaries for technicians who have completed a two-year postsecondary training program 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 and who have advanced beyond the entry level earn salaries that range from $21,000 to $31,000 a year and average around $26,000 a year. Senior technicians receive salaries ranging from $35,000 to $55,000 a year, or more, depending on their employers and type of work performed. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists a median annual salary for optical instrument assemblers in 2004 of $23,750.
In some polishing and hand-figuring rooms, and in the first assembly rooms, it is sometimes necessary to provide special dust, humidity, and temperature controls. Technicians are required to wear clean, lint-free garments, and to use caps and 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, and 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 concentrated in the scientific and technical world, another in the world of the skilled artisan working with the hands and eyes. For prospective optics technicians who have an interest in and an aptitude for both of these kinds of activities, optics technology provides many opportunities to make personal contributions to the advancement and development of optical science and the optical industry.
Because optics technology is involved in creating the instruments and equipment necessary in ever-expanding fields such as medical research, space exploration, communications systems, and microcircuitry design and manufacture, optics technicians can feel some satisfaction in knowing that they are working in some of today’s most exciting fields of scientific and technological research. The work that optics technicians perform directly affects the lives of most Americans.
As with all technicians in the engineering and science field, optics technicians are often called upon to perform both very challenging and very routine and repetitive work. Optics technology offers technicians a spectrum of jobs, so prospective technicians can choose those that fit their temperaments.
Optics technicians almost always work as part of a group effort. Often they serve as intermediaries between scientists and engineers who run projects and skilled craftsworkers who carry out much of the work.
Optics Technician Career Outlook
The field of optics technology and manufacturing should have little or slower than average growth through 2014. 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 and weapons-development programs run by the military have been employers of large numbers of optics technicians. Employment in this field is determined by levels of government spending and is difficult to predict. Even if there are cutbacks in this spending, however, the public demand for advanced cameras, binoculars, and telescopes and the need for advanced medical equipment should sustain employment levels for most kinds of optics technicians.