Optics: Trends, Challenges, and the Future

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Optical technologies are integral to devices such as sensors, microscopes, and lasers. Today, there is much emerging for optical systems, including freeform optics, that has prompted new capabilities in manufacturing. However, freeform optics’ nontraditional surface geometry makes them challenging to manufacture, despite their ability to ultimately enhance the performance and efficiency of optical systems.

Optics-related technology for augmented reality could potentially change manufacturing as well. In addition, optics components and systems are aiding the speed of and access to global networks and data centers.

But in the midst of optics’ advancement, challenges exist. Photonics Spectra spoke with three optics experts about the current state of the field, its continual evolution, and expectations for the future:

Michael Bechtold, president of OptiPro Systems in Ontario, N.Y., a developer and manufacturer of precision optical fabrication machines and metrology systems.

Jessica DeGroote Nelson, Ph.D., director of technology and strategy at Rochester, N.Y.-based Optimax Systems Inc., an optics prototype manufacturer that specializes in asphere, cylinder, sphere, and plano/flat optics.

Mike DeMarco, business manager at QED Optics, a division of QED Technologies in Rochester, N.Y., which offers precision optics finishing, metrology, and manufacturing services.

Photonics Spectra (PS): Over the past several years, the field of optics has evolved and advanced, and continues to. What changes and developments are most notable?

Bechtold: The immense capability of freeform optics is influencing optical designers to incorporate them in optical systems more than ever before. Because of their complex geometry, freeform optics can enhance the performance of an optical system while making the system itself more compact. Applications for freeform optics can be found in a wide range of industries, including aerospace, defense, automotive, and medical. These complex optical components also have greatly influenced the need for new capabilities in manufacturing methods, including computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software, along with grinding, polishing, and measurement machines.

DeGroote Nelson: One of the most notable changes has been the speed and access to information. Innovations are created through collisions of different ideas and technologies. The ability to easily communicate and collaborate on a global network is allowing more opportunities for these innovation collisions to occur.

DeMarco: I think the most notable change in recent years is the interest in the use, and therefore the manufacturing, of freeform surfaces. Like the introduction of aspheres and the various techniques needed for producing them decades before, the cart arrived somewhat ahead of the horse. What I mean is, a few years ago, it seemed that freeforms were on everyone’s mind, but the need for robust manufacturing methods to make them a reality was a bit of an afterthought. Now, a few years in, a number of research consortia and companies have made significant strides toward standardizing how to define, machine, polish, and test these surfaces. Their success in driving performance up and costs down will guide how quickly components employing these surfaces become mainstream. We are not there yet, but I might expect a different answer in [a future] edition of this survey.

PS: What significant challenges has the optics field experienced in recent years, and what can be done to overcome them?

Bechtold: The same qualities that make freeform optics desirable, specifically their nontraditional surface geometry, are also what make them challenging to manufacture. OptiPro has made great progress in the past few years developing technology that can overcome the challenges associated with freeform optics manufacturing. Optical grinding and polishing machines with five axes of computer-controlled motion are necessary to manufacture freeform optics. The grinding and polishing tools on these machines are driven by tool paths generated in CAM software. Because traditional CAM software is designed for the metalworking industry, OptiPro developed its own CAM software — PROSurf — which is tailored specifically for the precise manufacture of freeform optics. The main advantage of PROSurf over traditional CAM software is the ability to perform corrective tool paths on freeform optical surfaces using feedback from metrology equipment. This allows optical manufacturers to polish freeform surfaces to stringent surface quality specifications.

DeGroote Nelson: A significant challenge in the optics industry is finding enough engineers and technicians to keep up with the growth the industry is facing. Continuing educational outreach to our next generation about the benefits of entering into STEM fields will become increasingly more important in future years.

DeMarco: It may seem strange to say this, but I think the biggest challenge many shops have been facing, and continue to face right now, is continued prosperity. After a number of lean years, the optics industry appears to be on a several-year run of being at or near capacity, and folks are trying to understand where the cliff is. No one wants to be a lemming, but no one wants to let work get away either. Thus, the folks I talk to are all in a similar mode of trying to grow, without putting themselves in a danger zone if and/or when things do slow down a bit. We have all seen various industries we serve take off and drive short-lived booms like this before, but I cannot remember a time in my career when the demand is seemingly coming from all corners at one time. This situation has companies re-evaluating what their strengths are, sharing work with partners to increase their virtual capacity, and winning work often more on lead time and delivery rather than pricing. It is an unfamiliar but very exciting time in our industry and I know I am not alone in the hope that this ride continues for a long, long time.

PS: What are some expectations for the future of the optics field?

Bechtold: An optics-related innovation that has high expectations as an enabling technology is augmented reality (AR). AR can potentially change the way manufacturing companies perform day-to-day tasks. OptiPro believes that AR in the future will help workers perform their job more efficiently and accurately. We are currently working with the Rochester Institute of Technology, as well as Optimax Systems Inc. and Harbec Inc., to develop a cost-effective, AR-enabled system for electronic work instructions that would be displayed on hand-held and wearable hardware. The benefits of AR for businesses include a reduction in manufacturing task time, improved task accuracy, and the enabling of new data collection and collaboration. We also are seeing a growing interest and demand for grinding, polishing, and measuring automated cells utilizing a robot for part loading and unloading. These cells will include intelligent software capable of monitoring and adjusting the processes based on in-process metrology information. Advancements in vision systems and sensor technology will certainly have a positive impact on making these a reality.

DeGroote Nelson: One of the biggest trends in optical systems is that they are getting smaller. Systems are becoming more compact, yet the performance expectations are the same or even higher, which creates more complexity in their design.

DeMarco: Optics and photonic systems are already pervasive in our daily lives, and we already largely take their role for granted. Cameras of all shapes and sizes document virtually every aspect of our daily lives, whether we want them to or not. Our military relies more and more heavily on the use of lasers and other optical systems in the execution of their various tasks on land, at sea, in the air, and in space. As our energy needs continue to grow despite the finite resources available to us, we continue to look to optical means of generating energy as a realistic alternative.

Scientists continue to look to the stars for signs of life or to perhaps find us a new home. Thus, the customers of these optics-based applications will be pushing for better imaging, higher power, lower cost, smaller footprints, etc., all while expanding the roles these systems already play into new spaces. Optics is far from being a mature and stable field, and the next disruptive technology is out there, poised to upset the apple cart. We just don’t know what it is yet.

Published: August 2018
freeform optics
Freeform optics refers to the design and fabrication of optical surfaces that do not follow traditional symmetric shapes, such as spheres or aspheres. Unlike standard optical components with symmetric and rotationally invariant surfaces, freeform optics feature non-rotationally symmetric and often complex surfaces. These surfaces can be tailored to meet specific optical requirements, offering greater flexibility in designing optical systems and achieving improved performance. Key points about...
augmented reality
Augmented reality (AR) is a technology that integrates digital information, typically in the form of computer-generated graphics, images, or data, with the real-world environment in real-time. AR enhances the user's perception of the physical world by overlaying or combining digital content onto the user's view of the real world, often through devices like smartphones, tablets, smart glasses, or specialized AR headsets. Key features and principles of augmented reality: Real-time...
Metrology is the science and practice of measurement. It encompasses the theoretical and practical aspects of measurement, including the development of measurement standards, techniques, and instruments, as well as the application of measurement principles in various fields. The primary objectives of metrology are to ensure accuracy, reliability, and consistency in measurements and to establish traceability to recognized standards. Metrology plays a crucial role in science, industry,...
Sensors & DetectorsmicroscopesLasersOpticsfreeform opticsaugmented realityARMichael BechtoldOptiPro SystemsJessica DeGroote NelsonOptimax Systemsmetrologymanufacturingcomputer-aided manufacturingCAMSoftwarenetworkvision systemsQED TechnologiesQED OpticsMike DeMarcoOptics Special Section

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