The beauty of Physics lies not in what you study, but how you apply it based on the fundamental concepts you learnt while growing up!

Amiel Lopes, our next pathbreaker, Laser Technologist, applies cutting edge laser processes in manufacturing related to sensors, solar cells, battery welding, texturing of surfaces, removal of coatings as well as machine vision illumination based quality control of products.

Amiel talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being introduced to the fascinating world of light by building a working model of a spectrometer and continuing his love for research through a PhD on ultrafast lasers for machining micro-optics on glass materials.

For students, and especially those who consider physics difficult, boring and dull, read on to know how your favourite gadgets come to life through the power of optics !

Amiel, can you give us an introduction about yourself and your field of work?

I am a laser process development engineer with a PhD in applied physics. Although physics can be considered as difficult and boring for many students, let me introduce you to the exciting world of photonics and laser applications. 

Photonics deals with the science of light and has multiple applications in the modern world. The field of photonics is rapidly growing as many modern technologies are made possible due to photonics. For instance, the internet that we know of today is made possible due to optical fiber based communication and it is also now possible to laser link satellites to provide internet. Many electronic gadgets are produced using lithographic techniques and optical based sensors are adding new capabilities to instruments and consumer products. LED technology is not only used for home lighting but also empowers new indoor horticulture techniques. LIDAR and camera technology enable the development of self-driving automobiles. There are a host of photonic applications today that affect us either directly or indirectly. 

Laser stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Lasers have found a way into multiple uses such as industrial applications of cutting, welding and drilling of parts. They are also used as sources and amplifiers for telecommunication, for manufacturing of parts and cutting of glass for display technologies used for phones and tv screens etc. As lasers are a contactless tool, they are preferred in industry and have started to replace conventional tools and manufacturing processes. During this interview, I will provide insight into this industry and my journey into becoming a laser process development engineer.

Tell us what did you study?

I was born and raised in Mumbai and studied in a convent school. In school, I was an average student who usually struggled with studies.  After my tenth standard (SSC board exam), I took up the field of science for my higher secondary level (HSC board). I was hoping to get into engineering, but my score wasn’t good enough to get me a seat. Hence, I continued with BSc in the field of physics and studied at Wilson College in Mumbai. I was blessed to have good professors who helped me understand the subject and also directed me in some of my career choices. I completed my BSc with a first-class score and was among the toppers in my class. Having a keen interest in electronics, I continued to do an MSc in instrumentation science from the University of Pune. I thoroughly enjoyed the subject and was able to get an outstanding score during my MSc. After completing my MSc, I worked for a few years in Mumbai and then had a breakthrough with an opportunity to do a PHD from a University in the UK (Heriot-Watt University). I completed my PHD in laser process engineering in the year 2019 and worked in the field of developing laser processes for industrial requirements.

How did end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

As a kid I had a keen interest in electronics and had a small kit with which I would make small projects during my free time. This interest made me want to get into engineering in the field of electronics and telecommunication. However, during my high school, I wasn’t able to get the appropriate score to get into the field of engineering. Frustrated and dejected I took up BSc in the field of physics as it had electronic instrumentation as one of the applied components. I was able to get a decent score for my BSc in the field of physics and as I was interested the field of electronics took up Instrumentation science for my masters. The rest, as they say, is history !

Tell us about your career path

The master’s course in instrumentation science at the University of Pune had an industrial internship and industrial project as a part of its curriculum. I was selected by a small company (which specialised in the field of developing projects, instruments and kits for other companies) for my internship. The company decided to give me a project on the development of a spectrometer. A spectrometer is an instrument that measures the spectral content of light and can be used for analysing light sources, measurement of absorption spectrum of materials or fluids, measurement of the spectral content of stars etc. The proprietor of the company Mr. Archie Bhave as well as his mentor Mr. Anand Bhave rekindled my interest in photonics as I was able to bridge the two subjects of electronics and optics because of my background in Physics. I was able to demonstrate a working model of a spectrometer prototype for my master’s project and was able to impress my supervisors. I competed my masters being one of the toppers in the class. 

After my masters, I came back to Mumbai and worked at a CCTV/access control/ building management system company in Mumbai. I was quickly promoted to the post of a products executive to develop integrated solutions using the solutions offered by each of the technologies of CCTV, access control and building management systems.

After that, I joined pharmaceutical technology company as an optics engineer developing optical systems and machine vision illumination based products. This role was more in line with my education background. I was also given the opportunity to work on research and development with new technologies and test the feasibility for the company’s products. I was always keen in doing a PhD after my masters but didn’t find the right opportunity. Hence when I came across the opportunity to do my PhD in the UK, I gladly took it up. This PhD role was fully funded and also offered a stipend. I started my PhD in 2014 in the field of laser process development. My topic of research was the development of a process chain to machine micro-optics on glass materials using ultrafast lasers. I completed my PhD in the year 2019 and was also able to develop a patented process during my PhD.

Can you explain the application of optics and machine vision in Pharma products?

Many industrial production lines are used to produce multiple types of products. Hence it is essential to catch stray products, or defective products before they are packaged. Machine-vision based quality control makes use of cameras and robotics to remove defective or false products from the production line. The system usually consists of an illumination source, a camera, a computer system and an actuator (robotic system that selects/deselects a product). Different types of products require different illumination techniques to highlight their features and to make it easy for the software to distinguish true products from false or defective products. The different types of shapes, sizes, colours and packaging of products make the process of developing an appropriate illumination source a challenging task. For instance, transparent capsules need a different illumination technique as compared to standard white tablets. Hence this role requires a good understanding of the basics of optics, a hands-on experience in making prototype lights and the ability to think outside the box for solutions. 

Can you explain the need for laser micromachining in industry?

Lasers are used extensively in industry as they can provide non-contact, low maintenance and easy to integrate solutions. Laser tool heads do not touch the process material and so do not suffer from tool wear. Laser technology has improved immensely over the last few decades and has made it possible to process a variety of materials with low cost of ownership and easy integration. The laser spot can be focused up to a few microns and so it is possible to process materials on the micro scale (10-6 meters). Many processes these days rely on micron scale processing. These include electronics, sensors, measurement instruments, medical devices etc. Different materials react differently to laser processing. For instance, a metal will usually melt and evaporate, while glass materials are more susceptible to cracking using the same laser. Lasers are available in different wavelengths (colours), pulse widths, spot shapes, pulse repetition rates, average power and pulse energy. A laser process engineer understands the requirements of a process and sets up an experiment to test the appropriate process parameters. This process is then scaled up to the industrial level for production. My work in the UK consisted of developing laser processes for manufacturing related to sensors, solar cells, battery welding, texturing of surfaces, removal of coatings etc. 

How did you manage to get a role and scholarship for a PhD in physics from a UK University?

While I was working, a friend of mine informed me about study opportunities in the west. This sparked my interest in searching appropriate roles for a PHD. I got to know that many PhD roles were available with a scholarship and stipend. I then started to search on various University websites in countries like Germany, France and the UK. I applied to the roles by writing a well worded letter of intent to the superior and sending my educational details to the university. The UK has a website wherein all PhD roles are available, Universities in different countries have different procedures for recruitment, but mostly involve the letter of intent, good academic credentials (at least your BSc and MSc level) and good references (from professors). My application for a PhD role was accepted by a University in the UK and when I applied for a scholarship, my application was successful. The University staff then guide you through the process of applying for a visa after you sign the contract. The university provides you with a certificate of sponsorship which forms the basis of your visa application.  Countries like the UK also need an ATAS certificate for foreign students before the start of the course. 

What were some of the challenges you faced?

Many Indian institutions raise students to learn by rote and be dependent on textbooks rather than research and critical thinking. I had to make a major change in my thinking pattern and approach when I joined my PhD program. I had to learn the art of reading from a variety of journal publications and think critically, extract the needed information and fit it to the requirements of my project.  This was a difficult shift due to the learning experience of my previous courses. 

Research is also very challenging as the outcome of an experiment is not always certain. It is often possible to hit a brick wall during the process of a research which requires a rethink of the procedure and trying a different route. 

Although it’s easier to get a student visa once a University has approved a person, it is not the same for work visas in different Western countries. Many Western countries have immigration rules that make it difficult for companies or institutes to hire International talent. Hence it is essential to have a very specific skill that is highly regarded in the industry to have the right breakthrough. The UK I have changed immigration policies post Brexit to favour international students with better post study work visas. 

Your advice to students?

It is important to understand your strengths and weaknesses while selecting a career path. Look for the areas that you enjoy the most as you will be working on that topic for a long time.

PhD roles usually come with scholarships and stipend. Look at a variety of Universities both in India and abroad before you make a decision. The opportunity to study abroad and be exposed to different cultures and people is priceless and highly valued in the global market. 

A few suggestions :

1. Concentrate on developing skills more than just getting marks in the exam. Skills are what make a person employable while marks may just get a person through the door.

2. Look at the needs of the industry by looking at the job descriptions of the role you want to take up after studying and make a list of the skills, education background and requirements. Take up vocational courses if needed to get the needed skills.

3. Get practical hands on experience and perfect your lab skills, programming skills (learn a variety of programming languages including matlab) through development of mathematical models.

4. Look beyond the textbooks into publications and keep yourself updated about advances in the field. Have the attitude of always learning to understand and increase knowledge instead of focusing just on exams.

5. Don’t compare yourself to others but rather strive towards excellence while being the best version of yourself. Each of us have strengths and weaknesses, instead of comparing yourself to another person, understand your own strengths and weaknesses and use them to your advantage.