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11th May 2020

What Is Optical Engineering

The science of optical engineering dates thousands of years but despite its age, it continues to be core to modern technology development.

Photo by Octavian Rosca

Optical engineering relates to the study and control of light including designing lenses, light sources, and sensors. It included four basic disciplines:  imaging design, illumination design, optomechanical design, and optoelectronic design. 

Imaging system designers are usually physicists who specialize in optical physics and use ray tracing tools such as Zemax, Code V or Trace Pro to design the shapes of lens elements and the layout of those lens elements to create a custom lens designs  

Illumination design requires tracing rays of light as they leave a source, the inverse of imaging design. The same software tools are used but the methods are different, typically non-sequential ray tracing is used.

Optomechanical engineers are  specialists with strong expertise in both optical design and mechanical design, these engineers use a  CAD design tool like ProE or Solidworks to design the mechanical structures needed to hold lens elements in position and create the  opto mechanical design documentation

Optoelectronic design can include a wide range of electronic design activities including laser power control, signal processing, control of focusing motors and autofocus motors, and drivers of CMOS and CCD sensors.  

5 Industries Powered By Advances In Optics

Here are five industries that leverage these skill sets to design advanced products.

Medical Devices

Companies including Stryker, Johnson and Johnson, Boston Scientific, Alcon, Welch Alyn  and many more use optical engineer to design products like surgical and dental lights, ophthalmoscope, otoscopes, endoscopes, laser skin resurfacing, laser eye surgery equipment, surgical planning, thermal measurement with each new product allowing the viewing identifying and treatment of the human body with higher levels of precision than ever before.

Robots, Self Driving Vehicles   

The machine vision lenses, imaging systems,  LIDAR, or time of flight system used for moving robots and self-driving vehicles around the physical world and avoiding obstacles all have had the participation of optical, optomechanical and optoelectronic engineers. 

Smart Homes

Companies like Ring, Ecobee, Nest, Simply safe and others are on the forefront of the smart home future, their products allow homeowners to view and track activity in their home, the sensors include imaging optics, optoelectronics and illumination optics for the light pipes and indicators integrated into those products.  

Lighting 

Any light you encounter in your daily life, from your overhead kitchen lighting, the flashlight in your drawer, the little indicator lights on your car dashboard or laptop computer the street lights in your neighborhood and the technical lights used by your doctor or dentist likely involved the work of an optical engineer who specializes in non-sequential ray tracing. They would have designed another of the lenses or reflectors integrated into your light. 

Smart Phones

The billions of smartphone cameras include highly complex optical subsystems including autofocus systems, flash lighting, aspherical lens designs, and high precision optomechanics. In terms of the photo and video content created on those cameras make products like Instagram and TikTok fun to use.

Summing Up

You might not notice it, but optical engineering is everywhere around us. And advances of this industry make our life better in lots of ways. 

By John Ellis – founder of Optics for Hire an  optics consultant with offices in US, Ukraine and Belarus in 2002..

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