Precision Photonics Internship

By Alex Shaffer junior mechanical engineering

This past summer I worked for Precision Photonics, a relatively small laser optics company in my hometown of Boulder, CO. Its primary business is manufacturing optical components for laser applications in the telecom, defense, and R&D industries, to name a few. While I performed a wide variety of tasks, my primary responsibilities were remodeling the bill of materials (BOM) and costing methods, design and implementation of various parts and fixtures to improve the manufacturing process, and getting my hands dirty with some hands-on manufacturing work.

Throughout the summer I experienced many of the different roles that an engineer can play in a company. My first task was to collect data from the shop technicians about the process times for several common products and then use that data to build a more accurate method for determining the cost of parts they manufactured. I learned a lot about production control and how all of the different parts of a company work together to form a functioning business. I was able to use analytical engineering skills when my supervisor gave me a certain problem on the manufacturing floor, and then I was relatively free to solve the problem however I thought best. I worked extensively with 3D CAD programs to design parts and make drawings, which I then worked on with the other engineers in the company to revise and optimize. I enjoyed having the combination of independent problem solving and support from my superiors. The last major part of my internship was performing hands-on manufacturing work with various machines such as a diamond-coated core drilling press and a computer-controlled laser scriber. By actively involving myself with the manufacturing process, I was able to suggest improvements while expanding my field of both general and engineering-specific knowledge.

Over the course of the summer I learned more about the subtleties and nuances of an active business than I possibly could ever learn in a classroom. One of the things that surprised me most was the importance of human relations. The company’s Vice President took me out to lunch on one of my last days and explained to me that you can create a successful company regardless of what product or service you produce; the most important thing is to have skilled, passionate employees who cooperate well. His advice underscored the importance of networking and the interview process, and opened my eyes because in just a few years, my peers and I may be a part of this specific workforce.

In addition to the lessons regarding management I learned, I also picked up some interesting technical knowledge. Because the company manufactures optics with nano-precise tolerances, Precision Photonics is one of the only places where a measurement of 20.045673 millimeters is actually accurate to the nanometer and not a blatant lapse of significant figures. I also learned the difference between waveguides and waveplates, TTV and TWE, and Bob Dylan and Bob Dillon (one is a terrible singer, one was my boss).

However, my summer was not ALL work and no play. I still have my fair share of good memories: laser scribing the company logo on the lone tomato cultivated from the parking lot garden or watching a senior research scientist try the superhot habanero salsa at the company lunch. I certainly enjoyed myself this summer, and working at a photonics company put me in some unique situations, like going from wearing a clean room gown, hair net and shoe covers, to being splattered with core drilling coolant within the hour. While I maybe could have had more fun vacationing in Mexico or worked an easier job at my local grocery store, the skills and experiences I gained this summer were invaluable. Thank you Precision Photonics for a great summer and I hope you got as much from me as I did from you.

(Reprinted, DukEngineer 2011)