In 2009, ATE’s National Center for Optics and Photonics Education conducted a survey which found that to keep up with industry demand, U.S. employers will need to add approximately 1,200 new photonics technicians each year through 2014. Photonics is “the technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon.” The demand for technicians trained in its applications is not surprising — it turns out there’s hardly an industry in existence that doesn’t require workers with this expertise. From Agriculture to Engineering, from Environmental Technology to Homeland Security, as well as Manufacturing, Medicine and Transportation, there’s a growing need for photonics technicians. (See full list below.)
We turned to the National Photonics Skill Standards for Technicians to learn about a few of these wide-ranging career opportunities and to better understand what the jobs entail. (With so many industries to choose from, we decided to start at the beginning of the alphabet.)
A is for Aerospace. Photonics technicians are critically important to the aerospace and national defense industries. Why? Because unlike using conventional electronic energy, the photonics devices must be resistant to electromagnetic interference. In this industry, light energy is specifically used in infrared systems and image processing. Technicians work with engineers and scientists to construct, test, operate and maintain systems for all kinds of spacecraft and national defense control systems. Specific job responsibilities might include operating, installing, calibrating, troubleshooting and repairing equipment.
On a typical day, a photonics technician in the aerospace industry might find himself or herself collecting and recording data, operating test equipment, performing lab tests, developing tests to ensure quality control, modifying procedures to solve specific problems, or laying out experimental circuits to test scientific theories.
B is for Biomedicine. Biomedical optics and medical imaging are key components of the health care industry, and photonics technicians play key roles in their operations.
According to the Photonics Skill Standards, photonics technicians in medicine work in hospitals and research facilities to install, inspect, maintain and repair complex equipment and instruments used in medical diagnosis and treatment. Equipment might specifically include electronic devices, optical components, diagnostic scanners, ultrasound equipment, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines and lasers used in surgery.
Day-to-day responsibilities could include inspecting and testing equipment to make sure it complies with performance and safety standards. If you go into Biomedicine, you might also find yourself handling equipment maintenance to head off problems and prevent small problems from becoming serious issues. Technicians also might find themselves dissembling equipment to locate malfunctioning components, replacing defective parts, and then reassembling the equipment. Once those tasks are complete, you might also be responsible for adjusting and calibrating the equipment to make sure it’s operating according to manufacturer specifications. Keeping careful records of machine repairs and maintenance checks is another essential component of the job.
C is for Communication (including fiber optics, transmitters and sensors). If you’re a photonics technician who chooses a career in the Communication field, you are likely to wind up working for a company that uses optical fiber capable of carrying telephone voice services across local regional and nationwide networks. Which companies, you ask? It could be any corporation, bank, university or other large entity that depends on private networks to transmit digital data. You might also wind up working for a cable television or community antenna television (CATV) company, both of which use optical fiber systems to transmit signals to subscribers via video. On any given day, you might work with sophisticated electronic test equipment as well as fusion splicers, optical power meters and laser sources and detectors.
Still curious about the rest of the alphabet? Here are some more industries where photonics applications — and photonics technicians — are integral to business.
Agriculture – Uses satellite remote sensing to detect large-scale crop effects, scanning technology and infrared imaging to monitor food production and quality, and sensor systems for planting and irrigation.
Construction – Includes scanning site topography, laser bar-code readers to inventory materials, laser distance measuring and alignment, and three-dimensional analysis to track the progress of construction.
Engineering, microtechnology, and nanotechnology – Uses lasers in the manufacture of electrical devices, motors, engines, semiconductor chips, circuits, and computers; via photolithography, photonics is central to production.
Environmental technology – Uses ultraviolet Doppler optical absorption spectroscopy (UV-DOAS) to monitor air quality; uses fast Fourier transform analysis to monitor particulate matter in effluents released from stacks.
Geographic information systems and global positioning – Uses optics and photonics in imaging and image processing to refine atmospheric and space-based images.
Information technology – Uses optics for data storage, ultrafast data switching, and (especially) transmission of data across fiber-optic networks.
Chemical technology – Relies on molecular optical spectroscopy for analysis and on ultra-short laser pulses to induce fluorescence; chemical vapor deposition and plasma etching support photonics thin film applications.
Transportation – Uses optics for monitoring exhaust emissions to ensure the integrity of shipping containers arriving from foreign ports, and navigation with ring laser gyroscopes .
Homeland security – DNA scanning, laser forensics, retinal scanning, identification of dangerous substances, optical surveillance.
Manufacturing – Laser welding, drilling, and cutting; precision measurements.