New Machine Slashes Time, Cost To Make Unique Lenses

Engineers from the University of Rochester and seven corporate partners, working with the U.S. Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), have developed the first system to automate the manufacture of unusually shaped lenses known as aspheres. Officials at the University's Center for Optics Manufacturing (COM) say the machine is capable of producing these aspheric lenses in minutes, not days, at a fraction of the current cost.

Its developers say the savings in time and money should trickle down to products ranging from 35-millimeter cameras and medical endoscopes to military-grade night-vision goggles. High costs -- up to $4,000 for a meticulously formed, doorknob-sized piece of glass -- have limited the use of aspheres, despite their ability to deliver much better optical performance and image quality than traditional spherical lenses. The new asphere machining system greatly streamlines production; engineers believe the machine will push costs down to as little as $25 to $100 per lens.

"There isn't an optical device around that wouldn't benefit from aspheres," says Harvey Pollicove, director of COM, which is now testing the new machine. "Aspheres are used in nearly every application for which they're affordable, and every engineer who designs optical devices wants to use them."

Aspheres are well suited for a wide range of consumer goods, including compact disk players, photocopiers, and projection televisions; top-rated cameras and video camcorders now rely on three or four aspheres to achieve lightweight, compact designs with improved image quality. Beyond the consumer realm, aspheres are also used in virtual reality helmets, professional-quality movie cameras, surgical lasers, bar-code laser scanners, and in endoscopes to see inside the body. The new machine might also provide a cheaper way to produce aspheric elements that are found in the $500,000 lenses now used to make computer chips by tracing out integrat

Contact: Steve Bradt
University of Rochester

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