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Optics facility seeking funds, a new director

Proponents of the Center for Optics Manufacturing at the University of Rochester are hoping its success does not lead to its downfall.
The 10,000-square-foot research and development center, on the first floor of the university’s Center for Optoelectronics and Imaging on East River Road, was created in 1990 with the goal
of finding new ways to fabricate optical surfaces. It is a partnership among the American Precision Optics Manufacturers Association; several universities, including UR, Central Florida and Arizona State; and the U.S. Army.
The center is funded through the U.S. Department of Defense, but in 2005, no money has been earmarked for COM, causing some concern over its future.
“We were created to improve the optics industry and COM did it,” said John Schoen, COM’s acting director since January when COM co-founder and director Harvey Pollicove died. “Some are saying we did so well, our job might be done.”
The center helped change the optics industry from a labor-intensive focus to a more deterministic one where there is a repeatable process, Schoen said. That change also created a product that often can be made faster, cheaper and better.
With the Army cutting its spending on research and development, COM has seen its funding drop over the years. The center receives on average $3 million annually but in 2004 was given $1 million.
To adjust, COM has cut its staff from 12 full-time employees to five. It also receives help from professors from the optics and engineering departments as well as students. The center’s summer school, a session for military and industry professionals, also was cut this year, but Schoen hopes to bring it back in 2005.
While he does not believe COM will shut down, alternative funding sources are being pursued, said Schoen, who has worked at COM since 2001and was its engineering manager.
Those alternative funding sources include seeking grants or money for certain projects through the National Science Foundation.
He acknowledged part of the reason for waiting to hire a new director has to do with the funding. A search committee for the position also wants to make sure the right person is selected.
The search committee is composed of Robert McCrory, director of UR’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics; Stephen Jacobs, senior scientist at LLE; and professors in the optics and mechanical engineering departments.
In the meantime, COM researchers are concentrating on their work. While COM’s focus has been on changing the optics industry in general, its direction has shifted slightly to a more project-based approach, Schoen said.
Researchers at COM, along with those at Moore Nanotechnology Systems LLC and Panasonic Factory Automation Co., are working on a way to equip tanks and other military vehicles with improved night vision capabilities by using phase-mapped optics, a unique shape of optics that improves the depth of field for infrared imaging systems.
Another military project under study involves reducing the weight and size of a rifle that includes video and infrared capabilities. With the help of COM, which is working on the project with Brashear L.P., the military may get the weight of the gun down from around seven pounds to three.
The other focus at COM remains education, Schoen said. For example, the center’s optical suitcase-a portable lesson on optics with the goal of getting elementary and middle-school students excited about the field-has been demonstrated in classrooms around the world.
While the frustration over a lack of funding still looms, COM has some political supporters. Last year, U.S. senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton helped secure funding, and Blake Zeff, Schumer’s spokesman, said recently the senator remains a strong supporter of COM and will do everything he can to make sure it continues its work.
Those in the optics field also spoke of the impact COM has had on the industry, helping some companies grow and even spawning new ventures, including QED Technologies Inc. The precision optics firm markets an innovative automated technique to polish lenses using magnetic fluids-moving away from traditional labor-intensive methods.
Duncan Moore, the Rudolf and Hilda Kingslake Professor of Optical Engineering at UR who helped establish COM with Pollicove, said COM created the right technology at the right time.
“COM is really important to the optics industry,” Moore said.
Previously, the optics industry relied on artisans whose skill was critical to how a good lens was made, he said.
“COM took a lot of that necessary skill and put it into machines,” Moore said.
The process did not take away from the work force, he added. Artisans in the optics field were aging, and the number of those in the next generation who could replace them was limited.
Michael Bechtold, president of OptiPro Systems Inc., has worked with COM since its infancy. OptiPro, located in Ontario, Wayne County, designs, manufactures and sells computer numerically controlled grinding and polishing centers for the precision optics industry.
Bechtold is collaborating with COM researchers and the DOD’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on a new technique for optics polishing. The process, called UltraForm Finishing, will be unveiled at Optifab 2005 in Rochester, May 2 to 5, 2005.
Bechtold, who was new to the optics field when he began working with COM, said the opportunity to work with the center gave his company national exposure and many other benefits.
“It gave us credibility in the optics industry,” he said. “People figured if we were working with them, we must know what we’re doing.”
Bechtold hopes funding for COM comes through, noting the research there has helped companies grow, including his own. OptiPro started with some six employees and reached as high as 30. Today it employs about 25 people.
He also believes COM still has work to do.
“The bottom line is the solutions for optical fabrication are not nearly complete,” said Bechtold, noting that the field is one that should stay in the United States, especially since it creates jobs and involves projects for the military. “COM could very well be the key to keeping optical fabrication in the U.S. It would be a real shame if it just fades to black.”
(adeckert@rbj.net / 585-546-8303)

11/05/04 (C) Rochester Business Journal


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