Closing the
Optical Technician Gap

Lawrence Livermore joins Monroe Community College in an innovative program to train more skilled technicians.

In Monroe Community College's laboratory (above), Emmett Ientilucci, a graduate of MCC's optical fabrication training program, watches as an SPM 50SL generator donated to MCC by LOH Optikmaschinen shapes a lens. (Photo by Andrea C. Martino & Vincent J. Rotella/MCC).




The National Ignition Facility (NIF), being built by Lawrence Livermore for the Department of Energy, will integrate civil, commercial, and national security research in a single facility. When NIF's 192-beam laser is operational, LLNL researchers estimate they can achieve inertial confinement fusion ignition within a decade, leading to the production of safe, clean, and abundant energy. Fusion-powered plants are expected to replace fission plants during the next century, thus limiting radioactive inventories by a factor of 1000 and markedly reducing radioactive wastes.

New technologies for NIF's engineering and optics requirements are being developed in coordination with more than 300 team members from science, academia, and 35 U.S. corporations. The NIF laser will be the world's largest optical instrument, its total precision optical surface area measuring three-quarters of an acre, 40 times that of what is now the world's largest telescope, the Keck Telescope in Hawaii.

Inside the National Ignition Facility's target chamber (above), where a tiny fuel target is lowered from above on the vertical stalk. The other instruments pointed at the target will measure its performance at ignition.
(Photo courtesy LLNL)



Chalking up the first milestone in what the optics industry looks upon as a path-breaking effort, Monroe Community College (MCC) in Rochester, NY, has graduated 36 optical technicians from a newly minted certificate training program. Already virtually all have had job offers, some more than one. But offsetting that good news, as Robert Novak, the longtime chairman of the optical systems technology department at MCC, points out, this number will not even satisfy local needs for optical technicians.

The graduating class is the first in a new program spearheaded by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California. Livermore will soon begin construction of the 192-beam $1.2-billion laser for the National Ignition Facility (NIF), the Department of Energy's center for inertial confinement fusion and high-energy-
density scientific research. The NIF laser will be the world's largest optical instrument, requiring more than 7000 large -- greater than 2 feet diagonally -- optical components and more than 15,000 small ones. Meanwhile, optics companies nationwide are suffering from a shortage of trained optical technicians, whether their work is scientific, military, or commercial.

LLNL chose Monroe because of its well-established and highly regarded two-year curriculum in optics technology. MCC agreed to add to that a related single-year course focused on the machinery and methods of optical fabrication. The laboratory is providing MCC with tools and equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for use in the training program. According to David Aikens, an optics manufacturing manager for the NIF, MCC was chosen because of the excellence of its existing facilities and faculty, its close ties to precision optics companies in the Rochester area, and the national reputation of its optics program. LLNL may also supply guest lecturers in photonics disciplines.

"The optics program at MCC has been a leader in delivering training and education to LLNL's industrial partners and to other local and nationally based optics firms for many years," Aikens said. "The close relationship to these companies in the future will be crucial to the success of the program."

LLNL is joined by the 86-member American Precision Optics Manufacturers' Association (APOMA) in supporting the new certificate program: Rochester-area APOMA members have made about $400,000 in in-kind contributions to the program.

Further support came from what might seem an unexpected source. Last November, LOH Optikmaschinen AG of Wetzlar, Germany, donated to the college an SPM/SPS 20 Spheronorm spherical generator and polisher system, so that MCC students could receive hands-on computer-numerical-controlled (CNC) equipment training in the college's optical fabrication laboratory. More recently LOH, an APOMA member, donated a state-of-the-art SPM 50SL generator and SPS 50SL polisher, bringing the total value of the company's gifts to approximately half a million dollars.

MCC's optical science technology faculty still teach students the conventional manual process for producing lenses, but with the LOH equipment students also learn how to use CNC equipment, a key skill for today's technicians. In February, Manfred Hanisch, LOH's manager of process engineering, came to MCC and provided advanced training to the faculty, demonstrating that generating a spherical lens with the SPM/SPS system would take only five to six minutes.

"We can now provide CNC-trained technicians, and they are a hot commodity," Novak said. "It's extremely difficult to find such well-trained technicians, particularly in CNC technology. Our graduates will have experience on the finest precision optical equipment available. That's like learning to drive using a Mercedes-Benz."

MCC's optical technology program was the first of its kind in the United States in 1962, when the college opened. The synergy with local industry was quickly established, what with such leading photonics companies as Eastman Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch & Lomb in the area. Kodak set up the first optics apprenticeship with MCC in 1972. The partnership still stands as the oldest of its kind in the country. MCC training programs in optical fabrication have been developed since and delivered to many other national firms and the military. The new certificate program, designed by Novak, consists of a minimum of 360 lecture hours and 465 laboratory hours, to be completed in a year of full-time study, or more for those already employed in optics companies and attending MCC part-time.

According to Walter Czajkowski, president-elect of APOMA and an engineer in the optical products group at Kodak, "New equipment, coupled with increasingly higher optical performance specifications, requires the optician to have a broad understanding of all the technologies associated with the total manufacturing cycle. This not only includes traditional optical fabrication skills," he continued, "but also an exposure to CNC, metrology, and statistical process control. To date, we have done little in developing training programs that target these needs." Czajkowski is a member of the new program's steering committee, along with Ronald Colavecchia of Melles Griot; James Sydor of Stefan Sydor Optics; Robert Wiederhold of Optimax Systems, Inc.; and Novak, Dustin Swanger, and Andrea Martino, all of MCC.

Up to three colleges might ultimately offer the one-year training programs by the upcoming school year--"depending on how it goes at Monroe," Aikens said.

William Kutz of K and S Optics in Rochester, NY, head of an APOMA committee to study training of technicians, said, "We recognize there is a serious shortage of trained optical technicians and an even greater lack of training programs. Now, with this deal between Lawrence Livermore and Monroe, we're on our way."

This article originally appeared in the August 1998 issue of Photonics Tech Briefs

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