Q&A with Michelle Henderson, Optical Coatings Expert | EMF, A Dynasil Company
The Dynasil family of companies delivers an extensive range photonics-driven products and capabilities. But Dynasil itself is a product of its workforce. In this Q&A, we meet Michelle Henderson, Thin Film Coatings Sales Manager at EMF.
Q: Let’s start with you telling us about your role.
Michelle: As the Thin Film Coatings Sales Manager at EMF, I collaborate closely with our customers on a daily basis. Once I fully understand their requirements I work with our engineering team to determine the best optical coating design and substrate materials that will deliver the desired spectral performance.
Q: How did you become a coatings expert?
Michelle: Believe it or not, my background is in computer forensics, not optics. So I came to EMF without any optics knowledge! My degree came in handy because this line of work requires one to be extremely detail-oriented. Early on, I ran one of our coating chambers for a year, so there were days where I was talking to a customer about their optic in the morning, coating it in the afternoon, and shipping it the next day! Running a coating chamber really helped expand my knowledge of the science behind optical coatings, and helped me understand the industry from a technical standpoint.
Q: What is your favorite part of the job?
Michelle: If I could, I would be a ‘career student’ because I love learning new things. There’s always something new in optics as the industry and technology continue to evolve. I absolutely love participating in technical discussions with our engineering team and soaking up as much information as I possibly can.
But my favorite part of the job is when I am able to help a customer take their project across the finish line, especially when we are saving the day for them, which has happened more than a few times. In the world of optics, optical coatings are just about the last step in the process. When an optic arrives at EMF, most of the lead time and costs have already been absorbed by material sourcing, shaping, machining and polishing. So, understandably, customers are anxious as their optics reach the coating stage, especially if they’ve had a bad experience with others. Being able to deliver a pristine quality coating in a short amount of time, and getting that call of thanks from our customer is definitely the highlight of my job.
Q: What are some of the engineering challenges you’ve seen our customers face? How do you (EMF) help overcome those challenges?
Michelle: There are so many, but a recent project with a defense and aerospace company comes to mind where our engineering team came to the rescue. The company was in the final phases of developing prototypes for a large aerospace project. Their systems architect had been told by several optical design engineers that the performance they sought was simply not attainable with a coating. However, our engineering team came up with a design that met all the “wish list” specifications. Of course theoretical design is one thing, but we quickly delivered coated samples as proof of concept. That custom-designed coating solution ended up saving our customers tens of thousands of dollars as well as months on their prototype development.
Q: What advice do you have for customers looking to coat very large format optics?
Michelle: Well, large format optics are typically very expensive optics. There’s a lot of a risk involved, so my advice is to do your due diligence to ensure that the coating company you choose has the equipment and expertise that coating large format optics require — including specialized tooling and handling procedures to safely move your optic in and around their facility, let alone the coating chamber with its much tighter margins. A damaged optic can set a program back months or years, not to mention hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional costs.
Do everything you can to minimize coating risk — ask questions, conduct capability studies, interview leaders and chamber technicians, visit the coating facility — to feel confident that your optic will be handled with the utmost care. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that EMF has more than 80 years of experience handling optics up to 108" in diameter, and we always welcome on-site visits both before and during the coating process.
Q: Can you tell us about a noteworthy project you’ve worked on?
Michelle: Coincidentally, a project that particularly stands out was a coating for a 1 meter diameter mirror for EOS, an Australian defense and space company. And as is often the case, this project was in jeopardy because it was significantly behind schedule. Long story short — EMF came through by delivering a flawless coating in just four days! We’ve got the full EOS success story on our website, and Craig Smith, CEO of EOS Space Systems, was so impressed with the quality and speed of our work, they subsequently asked us coat an even larger 1.8m mirror.
Q: What advice do you have for women wanting to pursue a career in optics/photonics?
Michelle: I don’t know that this advice is specific to women, but there is a lot of excitement within photonics. Photonics drives every aspect of modern technology — credit card payments, laser barcode scanners, anti-reflective coatings for eyeglasses, optical filters for food security, infrared coatings for EST monitoring (aka thermography) and more. The internet itself relies on optical fibers. This field has so much to offer and so many applications. Each one of those applications utilizes optical components and specialized coatings. You can contribute in so many ways — even if you start at ground zero, as I did. Understanding the science clearly offers an advantage, but if you’re self-confident and willing to learn you can accomplish so many things with a career in optics.
About EMF, a Dynasil Company
EMF is an ISO 9001:2015 and ITAR-certified provider of precision optical coatings solutions. Founded in 1936 as the first company in the United States to offer evaporated metal thin film coatings, EMF has since been a pioneer in the optical coating industry offering an innovative portfolio of precision custom and high-volume optical coating solutions for automotive, defense, consumer electronics, dentistry, astronomy, utilities, lighting and entertainment. EMF’s 26 coating chambers offer 40 million square inches of coating capacity, enabling high volume production as well as large format optics up to 2.7 m (108") in diameter. Coatings can be applied to substrates including glass, metals, ceramics, plastics, and IR optics such as germanium, zinc sulfide, zinc selenide, and chalcogenides. Learn more about EMF and our robust coating capabilities.