What does an Optical Engineer do?

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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
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  • Last Modified Date: 03 November 2019
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An optical engineer researches and develops new technologies related to the science of light. Most professionals work in highly sophisticated physics laboratories, studying the behavior of light and seeing how it can be manipulated to enhance electronic systems and equipment. Among other technologies, an optical engineer might work with microscopes, computer chips, telecommunications lines, or consumer electronics.

Optical engineers need to be intimately familiar with the properties of light and optics. Experts understand the mathematics and physics behind light wave movements, transfer, generation, refraction, and detection. Knowledge of chemistry and electricity is also important to be able to study light reactions in different types of mediums. An engineer with a very strong science background can work quickly and design experiments that are likely to be successful.

An optical engineer at a research and development facility usually works alongside a team of other engineers and technicians. Team members create highly detailed schematics that outline the size, shape, and function of all mechanical parts in a piece of equipment. They also track the movement and intensity of light, electricity, and other forms of energy through the hypothetical system. Once the team is confident in the schematics, prototypes can be built and tested. Supervising engineers review the work of the team, consider costs, and approve successful technologies for mass production.


Many different industries employ optical engineers. Professionals at consumer electronics firms design televisions, cellular phones, stereos, DVD players, and many other products. An optical engineer may also work for a computer hardware manufacturer, building light-sensitive mouses, monitors, and motherboards. Medical equipment companies rely on engineers to develop new diagnostic imaging tools and screening equipment.

The field of optics engineering is constantly changing. Available technologies and scientific breakthroughs regarding the principles of light advance all of the time. Engineers keep up-to-date on the latest innovations by reading scientific journals and attending seminars on a regular basis.

A master's degree is typically the minimum requirement to become an optical engineer at a manufacturing plant or research and development lab. An advanced degree program in physics, mechanical engineering, or electrical engineering can prepare a person for a career in the field. In order to hold a supervisory position or conduct individual research, an optics PhD and several years of postdoctoral research training may be needed. Professionals who gain practical experience can obtain certification or licensure by taking official written exams. With the appropriate training and credentials, advancement opportunities are usually ample.


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Post 2

@allenJo - I believe that an optical test engineer would be the person responsible for testing the accuracy of the optical character recognition product.

I think nowadays the accuracy rates are close to 90% or above, but the test engineer would make the final determination. I also believe that a lot of your accuracy depends on the clarity of the document, and the kind of fonts used.

In either cases, the test engineer would put it through its paces and the manufacturer would slap the final accuracy rate numbers onto the finished product.

Post 1

I think one of the most fascinating fields of study for an optical design engineer is how to build more accurate image scanners.

I bought a scanner years ago and while the resolution was quite high and the image quality good, it didn’t fare so well with optical character recognition.

I would say that it had maybe an 80% accuracy rate; that may seem high, but that left a lot of words that were garbled or messed up. At that rate, I was better off typing by hand the text documents I wanted copied.

Of course I realize that I could have scanned the document as an image instead of text, but that would have defeated the purpose. I wanted to edit the final document.

I am sure the technology has improved since then, but I believe that optical character recognition still remains one of the biggest challenges in optical engineering.

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