Peter Emmel, a well-known Senior Optical Engineer in the Rochester, New York optics community, celebrates his 50th anniversary working in the optics industry this year. We caught up with Peter in the midst of a typically busy day.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
My wife, Sally, and I own waterfront property in Canada, so we spend a lot of our warm-weather time there. In cooler seasons, we enjoy square dancing and going on “nature discovery” trips in Europe, Africa and the Americas. I’m a sailor and a skier—both cross-country and Alpine. In college, I raced as a freshman but later joined the ski school, instructing fellow students, which turned out to set me up for a future after-work job at Bristol Mountain.
You have had a very broad career history. How did you go from being a ski instructor to becoming a senior optical engineer?
I definitely had an unusual path to optics. I have always had an interest in technology and how things work. I entered Dartmouth College expecting to follow my parents’ path into life sciences, but in a "stunning lapse of focus,” after missing most of organic chemistry due to mononucleosis, I decided to focus on skiing. I graduated with an economics degree (no afternoon labs). As an indirect result of Dartmouth’s invention of a popular computer language called BASIC, I stumbled into optics by way of software. In 1968, I was hired by Tropel as a software assistant, where I would work to debug optical design software. Working directly with a top-notch team of lens designers, in a company devoted to making some of the highest-performance commercial optics in the world, I learned a ton about practical optics technology. I developed a reputation as an innovator, a communicator and a team-oriented problem solver in areas such as photolithographic lens manufacturing, optical metrology instrumentation and laser printing. Having accrued more and more responsibilities along the way, I was the manager of engineering by 1981. From there, things got complicated. Ever since the mid-1800s, when Mr. Bausch and Mr. Lomb decided to locate their business here, Rochester has been a very active center for optics. Through acquisitions, sales, mergers and a bit of good timing, I have participated in the growth of about a half-dozen of Rochester’s emerging optics companies. I’ve also been active in optics outside of work, serving for several years as an adjunct faculty member at Monroe Community College, and as president of the Rochester Section of the Optical Society of America. I was also part of the team of local technologists that helped Rochester’s Strasenburgh Planetarium develop its first laser light show. Purportedly, I retired in 2004. Almost immediately following my official retirement, I accepted an irresistible part-time system engineering position at ASE Optics, which RPO acquired in 2011. That covers the “optical engineer” part of your question. The “senior” part comes from so many years of enjoying this fascinating field and the interesting people who work in it.
Describe your role at RPO.
The common thread through my career is that I am a builder, literally and figuratively. I love physically putting things together, testing them and improving them, but a good chunk of my career has also been devoted to assembling and leading teams. At RPO, I am able to do both. I am a project engineer on specific programs, but I also play a key role in finding and mentoring new optical technicians and engineers. Helping younger folks develop their careers in optics has been one of my most satisfying roles and is certainly the role with the most lasting impact.
What are some current projects you are working on?
I am working on three main projects that are typical of the range of things we do here. One involves lens adaptation. Customers with aerial imaging applications come to us with commercial lenses that have the desired optical features but that don't perform as needed over the desired usage environment. We have the capability to modify the optical and mechanical design to broaden their usable range in terms of temperature and vibration.
A second project involves pushing the envelope of what is possible in wide-angle imaging. The lens in this project was designed by my RPO colleagues and is capable of imaging over a full sphere. It is built entirely with non-spherical elements; assembly tolerances are extremely tight and controlling stray light is a real challenge.
My most complex project involves partnering with Adarza Biosystems to develop a sophisticated illumination and imaging system for life-science applications. The design has evolved through a progression of prototype configurations. Adarza came to us because of our reputation for responsiveness to customer needs. We have developed a very long history with Adarza. They are a life-science company, not an optics company. They came to us with a very clear concept and performance specifications. They also had an initial research-oriented prototype as a starting point, from which they had already learned that there was more to the optics than met the eye, so to speak. We brought together the optical horsepower and the industry relationships to move their optical system from a lab-oriented form to a practical product. We are now refining the assembly and alignment methods for manufacturability and attending to quality control requirements for life-science applications. This program brings together all the elements I like best in optics: a seemingly simple optical system, with subtleties that have stumped others; a multi-disciplinary system (optics, mechanics and electronics); an important application that could make a difference in the world; to top it all off, great collaboration, both inside and outside the company.
To learn more about our work with Adarza, read the case study.
Are you ever going to retire?
My work at RPO doesn't really feel like work. I enjoy it. What I’ve been telling people who ask me this question is that I’ll retire when I’m creating more problems than I’m solving.
Any final thoughts?
One reason I love RPO is that there is such a wide "field of view" for someone like me. There is a never-ending stream of optical challenges and new equipment to learn about and use. A lot of companies can tell you they *design* optical systems, but there’s a big difference between those that can *design* and those that have the test equipment, clean room facilities, tools, fixtures and most importantly, the kinds of people who can do the hard work of fabrication and integration and that get things built. That's what sets RPO apart. As I said before, it's the kind of work I enjoy.
If you have a custom, complex optics project that could benefit from RPO's expertise, send us your specs!