#FacesofPhotonics: President of Savvy Optics, Dave Aikens

This SPIE Faces of Photonics interview features Dave Aikens, SPIE Fellow, SPIE course instructor, and president of Savvy Optics Corp.
16 September 2019
Dave Aikens doing a scratch and dig inspection.
Aikens doing a scratch and dig inspection: the scratch on the lens is being compared visually to a reference scratch.

Dave Aikens takes immense pride in his business. Savvy Optics was formed from his desire to "provide practical solutions for today's optics problems." Not only is Dave the founder and president of the 12-year-old company, he is a dedicated father and husband in a family where the love of optics runs strong.

"Everyone in the family works for the business as needed," Dave says. If you read the mission statement on Savvy Optics' website—which ends with "We're all in this together"—you wouldn't be surprised to hear this. The Aikens family has even been known to show up at tradeshows such as SPIE Photonics West together!

"My youngest son, Tanner, is involved in the robotics club at his high school," notes Dave. "My oldest son, Nick, is doing his PhD in Optics at the University of Rochester (UR) in Jannick Rolland's group. My daughter, Rocky, is doing her PhD in Computational Biology; she also does sales and marketing for Savvy Optics, as well as our comparison standard certifications. Dana, my wife, has a mechanical engineering degree from MIT, and manages all production of our Savvy Optics products."

The Aikens Family

WE'RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER: The Aikens' family! From L to R: Will (Rocky's boyfriend), Rocky, Dana, Tanner, Kamy (Nick's wife), Nick, and Dave.

In his spare time, Dave is a course instructor at various SPIE events throughout the year. At SPIE Optifab in Rochester this October, he will be teaching a trifecta of courses for optical manufacturers and designers: "Understanding Scratch and Dig Specifications," "Optics Surface Inspection Workshop," and "Introduction to Modern Optical Drawings."

"The most popular class I offer is the scratch and dig course," he says. "It introduces everyone to the long history of the scratch and dig United States Military Standard (MIL), explains its strengths and weaknesses, and compares that notation to the national standard for surface imperfections published by American National Standards Institute (ANSI)."

Enjoy the interview with Dave!

1. How did you become interested in the optics and photonics field? Was there a particular person who inspired you?

Two significant events guided me into the field. The first was Star Wars. I watched the movie when it was released in 1977 and was absolutely astounded at the possibility of humanity's greatest adventure: exploring the stars.

Until then, all science fiction seemed so fake, so unlikely. But Star Wars didn't feel that way. There was dirt on the speeder, the Millennium Falcon didn't run very well, the characters were arguing and, well, just being real. For the first time, I totally bought into the idea and decided I wanted to help humankind get to the stars. Corny, I know! Keep in mind I was 16 at the time, but this is when I got interested in going to college to study physics.

The second event happened after I was accepted into the UR and needed to choose a major. I wanted to pick something the school was good at, so I divided the number of offered classes in each major with the number of graduating students. Optics had the highest ratio, so I picked Optics. I am not sure I even had a clear understanding of what it was at the time.

2. Share the story of your favorite outreach or volunteer experience.

For years I volunteered at our local high school. Nick started at the high school in 2006 when they didn't have a math team, so I offered to help him start one. Since then we have helped form a FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Team and, more recently, a Rocketry Club.

While I was working with the robotics team, I saw some amazing things happen. The team was mostly made up of two groups of kids: the "shop kids" who liked building stuff, and the "high fliers" who just wanted to put their involvement on their college resume. Very quickly we figured out that the high fliers, who were always used to being the best and brightest, were much less useful than the shop kids, who were used to being scorned for having no ambition. The shop kids were running the show.

The shop kids started realizing that not only was building robots cool, fun, and challenging, but they were good at it. This inspired many of them to take STEM seriously and apply to college. And the high fliers? They learned very quickly that they needed to be able to build things to work in engineering. It was just a wonderful, transformative experience that I think made everyone stronger. I highly recommend being involved in something like that.

3. Explain your current research/what you do at your job. How does your work impact society?

I started Savvy Optics in 2007 with the vision of helping to address some of the key issues that were causing problems in the optics industry. One was standardization. I wanted to get involved in standards implementation like helping companies transition to the ISO 10110 drawing format. Another was addressing the problem of scratch and dig inspection. To that end, I started developing classes to teach people about standards, drawings, inspection, and optical tolerances and specifications.  

Then in 2009, Ari Siletz (president of CCDMETRIX) and I worked together to develop the SavvyInspector(R), an objective scratch and dig measurement system to take the guesswork out of grading imperfections on optics. I think Savvy Optics has made a significant impact in solving the scratch and dig problem for our industry, and I am hopeful that we will continue to do so.

Aikens teaching at ASML

DIG IT: Dave teaches the hands-on scratch and dig workshop at customer ASML's site.

4. Can you tell us more about your Introduction to Modern Optical Drawings course offered at SPIE Optifab this year?

This course is an introduction to optics drawings, focused on ISO 10110. Given the changes to the ISO 10110 in this past year, especially adding scratch and dig to part 7 and overhauling the glass tolerances, I see this as the perfect time for American companies to adopt ISO 10110. We don't expect any significant revisions to the standard in the next few years, and the revisions of the past five years have been focused on cleaning up issues and harmonizing the standard with use in American industry.

This "decoder ring" poster, created by Eric Herman of Zygo Corporation with help from myself and Richie Youngworth, explains how to translate American MIL drawings to ISO 10110. I find it will be very useful for companies making this transition.

5. What are you most excited to see in the future development of photonics?

Although most people know me for my work in ISO 10110 and scratch and dig inspection, and, perhaps, for my work in mid-spatial frequency waviness work, I am really a lens designer by trade. I actually spend about 70% of my time doing optical design. In the field of optical design, I am very excited about freeform optics, and the work that the UR is doing in the field of freeform modeling, characterization, and design.

I think we are just seeing the beginning of an industry-wide transformation as surfaces without symmetry become cost-effective for imaging applications. I have been using freeforms in my lighting and non-imaging work for years, and they are stunningly powerful. I expect in the next few years that we will see a "golden age" of optical design for off-axis and reflective systems, just like the one we saw for refractors in the late 19th Century with the invention of the Lanthanum glasses, or as we did with aspheric system design in the 1970s and 80s. An exciting time to be a lens designer!

Dave and Rocky Aikens at SPIE Optifab 2015

DYNAMIC DUO: Dave and Rocky represent Savvy Optics at the SPIE Optifab Exhibition in 2015.

6. What is your advice to others in the STEM community?

We lucky few who entered STEM before it was even called STEM are the ambassadors for the next generation who are still finding their way. We need everyone we can get, and more. So, I say go out there and volunteer! Keep learning. Study science in your spare time. Teach science to the people you meet. And remember: you can always do more. Always.

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