Posted November 07, 2018 | Industry Interviews, Photonics | No Comments »

[Interview – Part 2] Optical Design – Duncan Walker

Earlier in the year, we interviewed Duncan Walker of Walker Optics, about the optoelectronics industry, globalisation and hidden technology. We really enjoyed our last chat so we thought we’d ask him some more about his career in photonics and optics, how he views the industry and his advice to people looking to navigate their career in the optoelectronics industry.

Hi Duncan, thanks for chatting with us. Firstly could you tell us a little about yourself and what you do?

I am a freelance Optical Designer and I’ve been doing it for about 10 years now. It basically means that I provide all design services to a whole range of companies and businesses who need it. Usually, I work a mixture of longer-term contracts, often with larger organisations, and one-off projects with smaller companies that don’t necessarily have the optical expertise in-house and don’t have the requirements to have it in full time, so they make use of someone like myself for a project that requires optical design for their systems.

So what made you decide to set up your own company and pursue contracts? Are there better opportunities in Optical Design as a Contractor?

It’s a mixture of factors. For me, it was that I’d reached a stage in my career where the pathway, the more traditional pathway certainly in the UK, is to get to a certain level as an engineer, as a technical expert, and then to some extent get shunted into management. Managing projects and managing teams isn’t really my strength. I regard myself as very strong technically and I can do the organisation side of it, I have to obviously running my own business as part of the contracting, but it’s not something I want to be the primary focus of what I do. I also like a variety in what I do. I don’t want to just be working on one massive three to five year project and that is all I do for that period of time. I like working on a range of different problems, using the same basic principles. The combination of not looking to be in management and wanting to work on a range of projects meant moving out of the traditional way of working and moving towards more contracting and freelance work.

What influenced your career choice? How did how did you get into Optoelectronics?

In my case, it was very much that I was always fascinated by lasers and light. I did a degree in physics and then did a PhD in using lasers and non-linear optics because that was what I was interested in. When it came to the end of my degree, I decided at that point I wanted to be making things, seeing how lasers or optics could be incorporated into products and so that was the route I chose and I’ve stayed within that sort of technical space, rather than move into a profession.

I didn’t know at the time but the way the industry has expanded in the last 20 years or so that I’ve been working is phenomenal. I look back at what the state of the products were then and of the things we have now and take for granted. It’s day and night in terms of the advancement in technology since I started my career. To run a laser when I finished my PhD meant pretty much needed to have a PhD physicist available just to set it up, tweak and adjust it the whole time. Nowadays, you can go out and buy an industrial laser and it’s plug and play. You can stick it into the wall and point where you need it, switch it on and it works.

The development of this technology has enabled a lot of applications off the back of it and so there’s now an awful lot of lasers used in machines in manufacturing today. It’s now a reliable source. The high intensities now mean you can cut through steel and other metals or whatever material you need to create all sorts of fancy shapes on one hand and on the other hand, you can mass produce millions of highly complex lenses that go into mobile phones to take high-quality images. I think that the range within the industry is fascinating. I still wake up in the morning and think it’s exciting to have a problem and see how I can apply the optics to solve the problem.

Do you find yourself constantly learning new things as the technology develops then?

Oh definitely, but I think that’s the same with any technology. I think the moment you stop learning, that’s the moment you probably need to stop and re-evaluate what you’re doing because things are moving and evolving all the time. There is always something to learn about how to use it and apply it. When you’re building a product, it doesn’t matter what your field is, whether you’re an optics Designer, Mechanical Engineer or an Electronics Engineer, part of the process of building a product is combining it all together into one product that does what it needs to. There’s a balancing act between the requirements and the whole cost environment that also need to be contained in that design. So every time and for every type of new project, there’s always something new to learn.

 What challenges have you had to overcome in your career?

I think that the main challenge we all face is working out what our strengths and what our weaknesses are, and how to do something which feeds best to your strengths. So in my case, I regard myself as technically strong, I enjoy the problem-solving side of my work so that’s what I’m good at and that’s why I’m perpetually learning to try and deal with the fundamentals of my job. On the other side, as a freelance Consultant Designer, I also have to go out and sell myself to people on a regular basis and try and understand what they’re doing and what they need. Building my business over the last 10 years has been and continues to be the single biggest challenge for me. It doesn’t matter how good my technical designs are, if I can’t communicate it to anybody, I can’t persuade them that I am the right designer for that project.

What opportunities do you see for people coming into the optoelectronics market?

I think it’s a great time to be in photonics and optoelectronics. There are so many areas that photonics is spreading across to at the moment, the medical market is one of them. It’s a big driver of the broader optics and photonics market as people are using optics in medical devices more and more for diagnosis, as well as also for basic operations. There are an awful lot of lasers being used today in the medical world too, so it’s a very exciting time to be in photonics. There are loads of opportunities in big companies, in small companies, in start-ups coming out of university, and in research.

Finally, what’s one key piece of advice you would give people to navigate the industry, whether it be people coming into the industry or people who are already in the industry?

Bizarrely, it’s a small world. A lot of technical areas, when you get down to it, are relatively small worlds and so you can easily become known within an area. The main thing that I’ve had to work on and has made a big difference to me is going out and meeting people. Networking! Going to the conferences, going to the trade shows, talking to people to make people aware of the industry and my role within that industry.

This really works on two levels, first, you make people aware of what you’re doing, and secondly, you can discover what everyone else is doing and how that might inform the approaches you might take in the future with the problems you have to solve. So my key piece of advice is, don’t get stuck in the lab or in the office! You need to go out and see what everyone else is doing as well, it’s all about learning. If you’re stuck on a project, seeing what others are doing with different problems can give you some ideas about how to get around your problem.

Read [Interview – Part 1] Optical Design – Duncan Walker


Enigma People Solutions is an award-winning technology recruitment consultancy. Visit our job search page for the latest vacancies in photonics, electronics, semiconductor, and software in Scotland. Check out our blog for the latest in the technology industry. You can get in touch with us hello@enigmapeople.com or call us on 0141 332 4422/0131 510 8150

Subscribe or follow for the latest job vacancies