laser techs setting up a test

“Affinity to Learn” Helps Photonics Technicians Advance

As a senior scientist with more than 30 years of experience in the Photonics and Quantum Sciences Department at L3Harris Technologies, Inc., Michael R. Lange leads a multidisciplinary group of 170 versatile employees that include photonics technicians; machinists; photonics, optical, electrical, mechanical, and chemical engineers; and PhD scientists.

“We do a combination of research, engineering development and even small scale production,” said Lange. He is also an L3Harris Senior Fellow.

“We make the optical control systems that control the quantum states of trapped atoms and ions. In fact, that’s a lot of what Rich Spencer works on. (To read our profile of Spencer click here. ) He builds these units,” Lang said.

Given the department’s focus on cutting-edge technologies, Lange especially appreciates technicians who have “an affinity to learn and take on more challenging tasks.” Technicians who learn continuously through the company’s internal training opportunities, paired mentoring, or on their own informally or through associate degree programs are the ones who advance to become engineering specialists whose pay and rank are on par with engineers.

When Lange hires entry-level technicians they are usually individuals who have earned an associate degree in photonics, are military veterans who have photonics training and experience, or are experienced technicians who have electrical or mechanical skills.

Lange says the “ideal technician” has a mixture of the following:

  • Knowledge of electrical circuits, radio frequency, both free-space and fiber optics
  • Experience designing and assembling hands-on laboratory set-ups
  • Skill in testing and measurement, particularly using automated testing equipment
  • Ability to modify software or firmware within test equipment

“Of course it is a plus if they have skills in exporting the data and doing data reduction,” he said.

Because “the ideal is certainly not the norm,” Lange explained that most entry-level technicians receive in-house training in optics and photonics, and are encouraged to continue their education. L3Harris reimburses employees for college tuition.

Lange anticipates that in the future, technicians will be expected to have “a basic understanding of the subtleties of quantum optics.” Bulk optics, he said, are moving toward photonic integrated circuits, which makes knowledge of them and of wave guides, aptitudes that will be in demand in the future.

Suggestions for Preparing Students for Careers in Photonics & Quantum Sciences

To prepare students for future work in photonics and quantum sciences, Lange recommends that educators provide students with the following:

  • Hands-on laboratory training
  • Opportunities to work with optics and photonics
  • Lessons in fiber optics, integrated circuits, and basic quantum optics
  • Instruction in electrical circuits and radio frequency
  • Experience using test equipment including manipulation of basic software for data collection and data reduction

“I’m not looking for advanced data analysis capability. But usually test equipment just spits out data in columns of numbers. Just being able to format them into [a spreadsheet], and knowing what to look for when something goes bad – when a test is not going like it should – being able to look at the numbers and understand that this isn’t right, something’s not working right. Or something’s not set up right,” Lange said.

In other words, photonics technicians – like technicians in other fields – need to know what’s going on with the equipment they operate and the meaning of the numbers that the equipment generates.

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