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Supporting laser science

If the laser in your laboratory is not working, your first port of call (after the instruction manual!) will be someone like Harald Ellmann, whose fascination with practical problem-solving led to a career in technical support.

I first heard the phrase "a physicist can do anything" when I was pondering my options after I finished secondary school. But even after I finally decided to embark on a degree in physics, I could not have imagined how true this would be. In my case, although I started out wanting to be a scientist, physics has instead led me to a career that involves helping scientists solve problems, as the service manager of a medium-sized laser firm, Toptica Photonics.

My undergraduate studies took place at the Ludwig-Maxmilians-UniversitŠt in Munich, Germany, during the early 1990s, but I did my diploma thesis externally at Sweden's Stockholm University. As a member of the new laser-cooling project there, my task was to set up an experiment almost from scratch. One important aspect of this work was to build inexpensive diode lasers and the electronics needed to control them. One year into the project it dawned on me that I had not done any real science yet. By then, my aspiration was to be a scientist, and I therefore decided to take the next step by doing a PhD in the same research group. In the years that followed, however, I discovered that instead of being attracted to problems of fundamental physics, I was more keen on overcoming the technical hurdles that prevented the experiments from working.

After I finished my PhD, I had to decide what to do next. Fortunately, I came across an advertisement from Toptica, which was looking for a physicist to be its service manager. The company was certainly not unknown to me; in fact, by the time my research colleagues and I had finished our first reliable diode-laser systems in the late 1990s, we received flyers from a start-up firm named "TuiLaser" (which eventually became Toptica) advertising almost the same lasers that we had just built. Thus, the job requirements were an almost perfect match with my skills, and after seven years in Sweden I returned to Munich.

Troubleshooting for physicists
When Toptica began trading in the mid-1990s, its core market consisted of government institutes like the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics or the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt that were involved in the rapidly evolving field of experimental quantum optics. Since then, the product portfolio has expanded from diode lasers to fibre lasers and optical-storage testers, which are devices used to check the reproduction quality of Blu-ray discs at mass-production sites. The customer base has broadened too: in addition to institutes and universities, it now also spans a steadily growing range of industrial partners, with applications in materials processing, microscopy and optical-storage technology.

Despite this, the scientific market still represents the core of Toptica's business. One consequence of this is that the firm is following an "open" approach to laser design, meaning that its customers have nearly unrestricted access to the inner workings of their lasers, so that they can adapt their devices to their individual needs. As a result, most of my working time is dedicated to direct technical support: in other words, if someone's laser is not working, then I am one of the people they call. In addition to helping troubleshoot products, in quite a few cases I also act as an application advisor – offering suggestions on, for example, schemes for active frequency stabilization. Here it is certainly helpful to be able to tap into the vast pool of knowledge within Toptica: about 25% of my 85 colleagues have a PhD, predominantly in physics, and more than 50% of all employees have an academic background in either physics or engineering.

The other important side of my job as "service manager" is to establish customer service as a distinct entity within the company. In a nutshell, this means I am working on introducing structure and scalability into the firm's service processes so that we are prepared for the ongoing growth of the company. We have, for example, implemented a monitoring system that allows us to keep track of repairs, so we always know the status and the history of each product. This enables us to analyse our records and detect sys_tematic problems, and thus provide valuable feedback to product management and R&D. The next step will be to implement a ticket system that also keeps track of communications with individual customers. This is something that will become really import_ant as soon as the number of support employees exceeds the current head count of two

This kind of structural, long-term work requires a certain amount of attention and "focus", but my day-to-day work most often involves the exact opposite: namely, I need to react rather than act. There is a constant influx of service requests and at times my colleague and I have to juggle 10 or more of these without dropping a single one. Unlike in science, where one usually concentrates on a certain problem for an extended period of time, in my role things tend to get blurry rather than focused. Finding the time to write this article, for example, required a combination of time management and luck: I happened to encounter a relatively quiet phase when my attention was not being pulled in different – and often diametrically opposite – directions.

Working in a mid-sized hi-tech company is a big challenge for those of us involved in support because the firm's products are diverse and the cycle for innovations is short. In order to stay ahead of the curve commercially, the firm is constantly developing, marketing and selling new products. At Toptica, many of the products are customized, so we need to bring ourselves up to date all the time. This means that very often I am confronted with problems I have not heard of before; in fact, there have even been a few occasions when customers have called asking for help with a product that I did not know even existed!

In addition to these technical challenges, my work requires patience, communication skills and empathy. It is important to remain aware of the fact that behind each technical issue there is also a real person with a problem. Working in support also means that most often one is confronted with weaknesses and flaws in products rather than strengths, and at times it can be hard to shoulder the collective responsibility for, say, a faulty laser. On the other hand, it is immensely rewarding to be able to quickly help a student who has become stuck in the middle of an important experiment. So, ultimately, I do contribute to scientific progress – just in a rather more subtle way than I had originally imagined.

About the author
Harald Ellmann is the service manager for Toptica Photonics in Graefelfing, Germany.

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of Physics World.

last edited: September 11, 2018

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