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The development of
practical optical systems
requires careful
optomechanical design.
By Paul Yoder Jr.

ptomechanical design is the sub-discipline of

optical engineering in which optics such as
lenses, mirrors, and prisms are integrated into
mechanical structures (cells, housings, trusses,
etc.) so as to form an optical instrument. The
design for a typical optical instrument results primarily from
the cooperative efforts of a team of lens designers, optical
engineers, and mechanical engineers. They seek and apply
input from experts in fabrication, assembly, alignment, and
testing as well as from specialists on light sources, film,
detectors, focal plane arrays, electronics, signal processing,
and so on that might be used in the instrument.
Instrument design starts with the definition of a need for
a particular device and progresses through conceptual, preliminary, and final design phases with analyses,
experimentation, reviews, and documentation accomplished as appropriate. Along the way, the team must
consider how the operational and survival environments
(such as temperature, humidity, contamination, vibration,

shock, etc.) will affect the design and which materials

would be best for each component.
The engineers also should be aware of the projected cost
of fabricating the device and keeping it operating. The total
life cycle cost of an instrument is driven largely by performance requirements because they usually determine design
complexity, but it can also be affected strongly by choices in
instrument configuration, materials, and dimensional tolerances. In general, it is best to emphasize simplicity of design
and use the most lenient tolerances that allow the instrument to meet performance requirements.
Making the right detailed choices in optomechanical
design demands the logical application of intuitionand
experiencewith unknowns verified through analysis and
testing. Each facet of the design is well known to those
active in their specific area, but not necessarily to those
working in other disciplines. Team members must make
decisions in five basic design categories: materials, structural
design, lens-to-mount interfaces, mountings for prisms and

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rough machining to maximize their dimensional stability;

recommended procedures must be followed. Adhesives and
sealants (elastomers) with low outgassing properties are the
best choices for vacuum applications; usually, sealants are
not used as adhesives. Choose elastomers with minimal
CTE and low shrinkage during curing.

Str uctural Design

Figure 1 Threaded retainers (top) or ring flanges

(bottom) can provide axial preload for lenses that
will suffer extreme acceleration loads.

An optical system functions properly only as long as the

optics remain within allowed tolerances of their nominal
locations and orientations, and structural deflections
caused by gravity and other external forces or by temperature changes do not excessively distort the optical
surfaces. Structural designs must be stable enough to
control these effects throughout the operating temperature range. The structure must constrain the optics in
such a manner that they are not damaged or irreversibly
moved when exposed to extreme environmental conditions. Temporary deflections of optics and mechanical
parts are acceptable during vibration, shock, or temperature changes beyond the operating ranges so long as the
parts survive and come back to their nominal positions
after exposure.
To minimize the effects of temperature changes, designers
can engineer the structure to be passively athermal, i.e.,

mirrors, and assembly and alignment. We offer here some

guidelines that may help workers in or outside of the design
team to achieve better optomechanical designs and understand why certain choices are made. Note that these
guidelines are not absolute rules. The only absolute rule of
engineering is that exceptions apply in special cases.

Material Decisions
The choice of materials is critical to the performance and
cost of a system. Choose the wrong materials and your system wont meet spec. Choose overly exotic materials and
your system may meet spec but it wont matter because it
may be cost prohibitive. In general, designers should
choose optical glasses designated by the manufacturer as
preferred types. These are usually easier (and cheaper) to
process in the optical shop and are most likely to be available for future production.
When a variety of materials with otherwise acceptable
properties is available, the choice may well be made on the
basis of density because that tends to reduce total weight of
the instrument. Insofar as possible, match the coefficients of
thermal expansion (CTEs) of materials used in connected
mechanical and optical parts to minimize differential expansion or contraction in the event of temperature changes.
Low-expansion materials such as ULE (Corning Inc.;
Corning, NY) or Zerodur (Schott Glass; Duryea, PA) may
prove the best choice for mirror substrates. Aluminum is the
most frequently used metal for structures, but in some cases
stainless steels, titanium, or Invar may provide more advantageous CTEs.
Specify the heat treatment of critical metal parts after
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Figure 2 Preferred types of glass-to-metal axial

constraints include conical metal surfaces for convex
lenses (top), convex toroids for concave lenses
(middle), and flat metal surfaces for flat bevels on
lenses (bottom).

insensitive to these changes over the full

operating temperature range. Remember
to consider changes in both optical and
mechanical parts.
To maximize performance without
excessively tight tolerances on dimensions, design a carefully optimized
number of mechanical adjustments into
the instrument. Establish tolerance budgets after analyzing the sensitivities of
aberrations to component positional
errors. Design structures for maximum
possible stiffness within weight and
packaging constraints because that
tends to reduce deflections from external forces such as gravity; in addition,
isolate the supported optical components from mechanical resonance effects
under vibration conditions.

Lens-to-Mount Inter faces

Lens mounting and positioning is critical to the performance of a refractive
optical system. For best results, design
metal reference surfaces to interface
with polished surfaces on lenses rather
than with ground rims or bevels; you
will then use the most accurately made
surfaces for lens positioning. Avoid
glass-to-glass edge contacts between
lenses whenever appreciable acceleration
forces are expected. It is better to use
separate lenses with spacers or shoulders
machined into the mounts.
Lenses should be preloaded axially for
the maximum expected acceleration
loads at extreme anticipated temperatures. The applied force should equal
lens weight times the acceleration factor.
Changes in temperature can significantly
affect preload, so remember to consider
them. Threaded retainers provide one
means to apply preload (see top view of
figure 1). The thread fit should be specified as Class 1 or 2 per ASME
Publication B1.1 so that the ring aligns
itself to the lens surface for maximal
symmetry of force distribution. A good
rule of thumb is that the delivered axial
force equals five times the torque applied
to the ring divided by the pitch diameter
of the thread; remember, this is only an
approximation. Ring-flange-type axial
constraints provide good alternatives to
threaded retainers for constraining lenses
whenever tighter control of axial force is
needed (see bottom view of figure 1).

Lens-to-mount interfaces should be

designed for low axial contact stress.
To do so, use conical metal surfaces to
touch convex lens surfaces tangentially;
use convex toroidal (donut-shaped)
interfaces to touch concave lens surfaces, and use flat metal surfaces to
interface with flat bevels on lenses (see
figure 2). In the case of the toroid-toconcave-lens interface, make the toroid
radius at least half the radius of the
lens surface. Flat bevels should be
accurately perpendicular to the optical
axis to facilitate alignment.
For systems expected to experience
severe radial accelerations, constrain
lens rims radially by specifying a close
fit to the inside diameter of the mount.
Customized spacers can be used to fill
measured gaps, or the mount diameters can be machined at assembly to
closely match the measured diameters
of the lenses.
Elastomeric mountings are frequently
used to support lenses, windows, and
small mirrors. The thickness of the
annular ring of elastomer around the
optic can, in most cases, be chosen to
make the design insensitive to temperature changes.
Analytical techniques can aid in estimating mounting stresses in optics and
mechanical parts. Finite element analysis methods can then be used to confirm
these estimates, if necessary.

Mounting Prisms and

Mir rors
Reflective components such as mirrors, gratings, and some prisms have
their own sets of mounting issues
because they are more sensitive to surface distortions than refracting optics.
Support prisms and small mirrors
semikinematically, if possible. In such
an interface, all six degrees of freedom
(three tilts and three translations) are
uniquely constrained against reference
surfaces by forces delivered through
small areas. If the mount incorporates
more than six constraints or if the
contacts are too large, moments transferred through the interfaces may
distort the optical surfaces.
Most prisms and small mirrors can be
bonded to their thermally compatible
supports using multiple small adhesive

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Mentored to Mentor,
Yoder Keeps the Faith
aul Yoder's remarkable career was nurtured early by his physicist father and other
important mentors. Today he continues the
cycle by sharing his knowledge in many different
settings. Yoders father was head of the physics
department at Juniata College (Huntingdon,
PA). Yoder followed suit, earning a BS in
physics from Juniata in 1947 before going on
to an MS in physics at Penn State University
(University Park, PA).
At Penn State, David Rank, head of the universitys
spectroscopy lab, introduced the young physicist to the
emerging field of military precision optics as then spearheaded at the Frankford Arsenal (Philadelphia, PA),
where Rank had been a consultant. After graduation,
Yoder spent 10 years at Frankford, designing and manufacturing optical instruments.
After Frankford, Yoders career began to be best
expressed as a sum that was greater than its constituent parts. Yoder spent 25 years with Perkin-Elmer
Corp. (Norwalk, CT), rising to assistant to the director of
research for the multinational company. After immersing
himself in military and aerospace applications, Yoder
turned his talents to serving the medical community by
co-founding Taunton Technologies, which pioneered vision
correction by laser corneal recontouring and later
became VISX Corp. (Santa Clara, CA).
Beyond his business success, Yoder has spent much
of his career ensuring that the optical community that
gave him his start would continue to thrive. Yoder is a fellow of both SPIE and OSA, a member of Sigma Xi, and
received the Directors Award from SPIE in 1996, the
Engineering Excellence Award from OSA in 1997, and
the George W. Goddard Award from SPIE in 1999.
Yoder has also completed the cycle of mentored-to-mentor by organizing symposia at SPIE and OSA on optical
engineering and optomechanical design, teaching graduate optics courses at the University of Connecticut
(Storrs, CT), and conducting dozens of short courses and
guest lectures around the world. He has also fostered
the ongoing development of his craft by authoring more
than 60 papers and some of the most prominent texts
used today on optomechanical design. Winn Hardin

areas with the total bond area given by

Abond = w aG fs /J
where w is the weight of the system, aG is maximum acceleration loading, fs is a safety factor (better than four), and J is the
strength of the bond joint. Prisms and small mirrors also can
be clamped in place on their mounts with multiple springs.
Forces from the springs should be normal to the contacted
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surface and oriented such that the force vectors pass directly
through the optic to reference pads on the other sides of the
optic. Flat pads touching flat surfaces on the optic must be
lapped coplanar prior to assembly.
Support larger mirrors at multiple points around their
rims and on their backs to minimize gravitational distortions
at all elevation angles of the line of sight. Typical mount configurations include Hindle-type mounts using multiple levers
and arrays of pneumatic/hydraulic actuators. Multiple-point
supports deliver forces as needed to support the localized portion of the mirrors weight at the support points.

Assembly and Alignment

The best optical system will be useless without accurate
assembly and alignment. Proper engineering means designing for success at this step. The guidelines are not always
intuitive, however, such as minimizing the number of
adjustments for fine alignment. Too many adjustments are
as bad as too few.
In the actual assembly and alignment process, start by cleaning all parts thoroughly. Carry out the actual assembly process
of optical instruments in a clean, dry environment such as a
clean room or under a laminar flow hood. Use only approved
lubricants and apply them carefully to avoid contamination.
For best performance of multiple-lens assemblies, rotate
the lenses differentially around their axes to phase residual
wedges so they counteract each other. Adjustments should
be locked after the optics are aligned; techniques include
mechanical clamping, epoxy pinning, laser welding, and soldering. Seal optical instruments during assembly to protect
optics from moisture and particulates. They can be purged
with dry N2 or He and pressurized as appropriate.
Optomechanical design is key to optical system performance. Good communication between team members and
awareness of the issues touched on above will help ensure
that the optical system actually fielded is practical, robust,
and performs to specification. oe
Paul Yoder Jr. is a consultant in optical
engineering, Norwalk, CT. Contact: 203-8499368;


Further Reading
1. D. OShea, Selected Papers on Optomechanical Design, SPIE
Milestone Series vol. 770, SPIE Press, Bellingham, WA (1988).
2. P. Yoder Jr., Opto-mechanical Systems Design, 2nd Edition, Marcel
Dekker Inc., New York, NY (1992).
3. D. Vukobratovich, Optomechanical System Design, Ch. 3 in The
Infrared & Electro-Optical Systems Handbook, M. Dudzik, ed., ERIM,
Ann Arbor, MI, and SPIE Press, Bellingham, WA (1993).
4. P. Yoder Jr., Mounting Optical Components, Ch. 37 in OSA
Handbook of Optics, 2nd edition, vol. I, M. Bass, ed., McGraw-Hill
Inc., New York, NY (1995).
5. A. Ahmad, ed., Handbook of Optomechanical Engineering, CRC
Press, Boca Raton, FL (1997).
6. P. Yoder Jr., ed., Optomechanical Design, SPIE Selected Papers on
CD-ROM, vol. 5 (1999).
7. P. Yoder Jr., Mounting Optics in Optical Instruments, SPIE Press,
Bellingham, WA (2002).