This photonics engineer survey was carried out to identify the issues plaguing photonics engineers on a daily basis. Most (if not all) online surveys focused on photonics discuss salary.
No one thinks about solving actual problems photonics engineers run up against on a daily basis. Solving these issues is crucial to making photonics engineers more effective in their daily jobs.
A lot of photonics engineers have a hard time being effective in their day-to-day jobs. Photonics as a discipline is quite unique. It is a proper research and development (R&D) discipline.
In photonics, we have fundamental research and cutting-edge product development happening simultaneously. There are hardly any standard tools or reusable technology blocks that can be used to build complex products at scale.
I can only see one way around this. We need to perform a photonics engineers survey in order to identify the most common issues. After identifying these issues, we can then move on to solving them and advance our discipline further.
Since photonics is multidisciplinary, boosting the output of photonics engineers should have a positive knock-on effect on applications in other fields like medicine, telecoms, sensing, display, and manufacturing.
The rationale for this photonics engineer survey
I got the idea of doing this survey after working in close contact with people from different disciplines like embedded software, industrial automation, quality assurance, medical devices, intellectual property, and electronics.
I quickly realized these disciplines are a lot more mature than photonics. There are best practices available to facilitate the work of those active in these fields.
Photonics is a fascinating technical field with lots of applications. It relies on deep insights in physics, mathematics, and material science. As a discipline, it is still relatively young and decidedly multidisciplinary; especially, when compared to its “cousin” electronics.
The physics of the fundamental building blocks of an electronic circuit is well known. There are standard libraries of basic devices like resistors, capacitors, inductors, diodes, and transistors.
These basic components come together to form complex reusable blocks like amplifiers, analog to digital converters, filters etc.
Based on these reusable blocks, building new products is a modular matter involving putting together ‘lego-like’ blocks compatible with each other.
This is a simplification of what happens in reality but I hope you get the gist. On the other hand, when it comes to photonics, there are very few reusable blocks.
Since fundamental research and advanced product development are happening at the same time, we get a very interesting situation. Each new product requires new technology blocks to be built from scratch. This means first-time-right designs are the exception rather than the rule.
Each R&D team develops its own approach and usually becomes the world’s leading experts in that specific area. This results in the creation of isolated pockets of know-how and best practices.
Photonics as a discipline is still young. At this point in time, is still important for companies to guard their knowledge.
It is not necessarily straightforward to share know-how since such information may be non-patented research secrets. This information may be the only tangible competitive advantage a company has.
What kind of issues do photonics engineers face?
I reached out to photonics engineers in my network to find out what issues they were facing. These are mostly former mates from my university days. I was able to interview 9 photonics engineers (2 based in the US and 7 based in Europe).
From my interviews, it is clear they could waste less time and be more effective in their jobs if only they could find standard tools and systems to;
- accurately design photonics tests
- easily implement photonics test automation
- find and purchase specialized equipment
Photonics engineer survey feedback 1: test design
The photonics product development life cycle typically requires proper characterization of individual components as well as complex photonic devices. This is often done to verify design choices and confirm that performance matches simulation results.
There are several types of tests that can be performed depending on the type of device. For example, characterizing a lens is very different from characterizing a photonic integrated circuit such as an on-chip spectrometer.
In general, there are many ways to perform any given test. However, given the test equipment available, there are some methods that are better than others. The crucial details of successful measurement techniques and procedures remain within research teams and companies. Engineers actively resist sharing this information.
Consequently, each engineer performing a test for the first time has a huge learning curve. They have to figure out the most optimal way to perform the measurements by trial and error. This means a lot of time is wasted before eventually ‘discovering’ the most optimal way to do the measurement.
Photonics engineer survey feedback 2: test automation
Photonics tests usually involve repetitive measurements of some key parameters. For example, in order to characterize an on-chip spectrometer, it is typically necessary to perform a wavelength sweep.
This can be done manually by choosing a power level on a laser, setting a starting wavelength and measuring the transmitted light.
Next, we increment the wavelength and repeat the procedure. The example mentioned here is a simple one. There are a variety of photonics tests that can be performed a lot faster with automation.
Automating a measurement setup requires programming knowledge in a given language e.g. think of Python or Labview.
It is not always the case that engineers have these skills. We have to remember photonics is seldom taught as a full-fledged program at the bachelor’s level.
It is usually only offered from the master’s level onwards.
Photonics engineers can have very different backgrounds like bachelor’s in theoretical/applied physics, electronics/electrical engineering, chemistry, mathematics etc.
Consequently, some very good photonic engineers may just have a weak point in programming.
This makes means there is a learning curve involved in producing automation programs that suit given test scenarios.
Photonics engineer survey feedback 3: purchasing equipment
Photonics engineers have difficulties finding and purchasing the specialized equipment needed to perform new measurements.
Whenever there is a need to build a new measurement/test setup, it is an uphill battle.
During the interviews performed for this photonics engineer survey, the respondents all mentioned this issue.
There are several photonics-focused buyer’s guides online. Examples include sites like the photonics buyer’s guide or the RP photonics buyer’s guide.
Unfortunately, these only provide generic information. You basically get long lists of companies (with contact details) organized by product category.
You don’t immediately find the answer to your own specific query. You may need to engage with multiple vendors and talk to many salespeople before eventually finding what you need.
No one likes being sold to, especially if it is something they don’t need. As a sales guy, I have first-hand experience with this.
These buyer’s guides aim to serve as wide an audience as possible. In so doing, they miss the point and may truly serve no one.
For example, imagine you are looking for a near-infrared fiber laser with tunable wavelength control and 250mW output power.
You would typically just get a list of laser manufacturers and have to figure out for yourself which one has the exact thing you are looking for. Very time-consuming and inefficient.
How can photonics engineers work more efficiently?
Photonics R&D would receive a tremendous boost if engineers could be more efficient in their work. Just imagine a world where engineers don’t have to wait for weeks (for some laser, wavelength meter, or other equipment to arrive) before performing that crucial test that could verify a key design choice.
Just think about an engineer who doesn’t have to worry about building and automating their test setup from scratch. They could gain so much time which could then be used in developing better photonics devices.
Photonics finds applications in diverse fields like medicine, industrial manufacturing, sensor technology, telecommunications etc.
As such an increase in the productivity of photonics engineers should have a knock-on effect on other industries. Needless to say, more productive engineers should also have a positive impact on the bottom line of their organization.
One way of resolving the issues mentioned in this article entails building frameworks to ease information sharing between photonics engineers.
I am talking about non-confidential information here. We could build up a community of engineers who are encouraged to share:
- tools for experiment design and automation,
- tips and tricks on specific measurement techniques, data analysis methods, etc.
Additionally, equipment suppliers can also contribute their fair share here. For example, they can provide more information upfront which allows engineers to make informed choices about their products without having to engage in unnecessary back and forth discussions with salespeople.
It is my opinion, that the photonics supply chain could be more streamlined than it is today. Equipment vendors should provide enough technical information for the engineers to reliably narrow down their options.
Engineers should only be reaching out to those companies (and ideally to that one company) who are most likely to offer what they need.
I performed this photonics engineer survey to find out what problems photonics engineers face in their jobs. I gathered first-hand information by interviewing (over the phone) photonics engineers working in the industry.
I found respondents by checking out former coursemates from my university days. The participants are based in Europe and the US. I must confess I had hoped for more respondents; 9 participants is a rather small “sample”.
The results of the photonics engineer survey indicate engineers struggle with the design and automation of product tests.
They also have to frequently deal with severe difficulties when finding equipment for new setups. The information available online is not always reliable. They sometimes need to engage with multiple vendors at the same time, wasting valuable time in the process.
This photonics engineer survey is by no means the finished article. Rather, this report is meant to be the starting point for an ongoing survey. More information will be added here as time goes on and I find the chance to interview additional awesome photonics engineers.
I hope this article spurs interest in some other engineers to provide the tools, tips, and tricks which will greatly increase the effectiveness of their peers in their day-to-day jobs.
Feel free to drop a comment below or reach out to me through the contact page in case you wish to participate in this photonics engineer survey.