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Design for light

Optical design software specialist Lambda Research is 20 years old, as Warren Clark discovers

Lambda Research is celebrating its 20-year anniversary this month, having been founded in August 1992 by Edward Freniere and a business partner. Having studied physics and programming at university, Freniere spent the early part of his career working as an optical engineer at various defence contractors. His first job involved stray light analysis using Guerap (General Unwanted Energy Rejection Analysis Program) software, which was in its infancy at the time. Freniere maintained it and indeed developed new features for it, as well as writing other bits of software to help his role as an optical analyst.

Freniere’s first venture into running his own business was Telic Optics, which he founded in 1986 with two partners, where he distributed, among others, Guerap software. After a few years, Freniere decided to concentrate purely on software, and left Telic to start up Lambda Research. ‘I’d spent my whole career involved in stray light analysis for aerospace optics,’ he says. ‘So, the idea with Lambda Research was to develop the next generation of software for stray light analysis, but also for other applications that could use the core functionality of this software, such as illumination and other kinds of optical analysis.’

Initially, the company distributed three software products that Freniere had brought with him from Telic Optics (including Guerap), but the early months were a struggle. The company’s fortunes turned with an application for an SBIR grant (Small Business Innovation Research, a US government scheme that ensures that at least one per cent of the budget from every government agency is set aside for small businesses) from the Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1993. ‘We saw a call for applicants for a stray light analysis software program,’ says Freniere, ‘so it was a good fit for us. The grants are offered in three phases, and you need to be successful at each step to get the full grant.

‘In Phase 1, you get a small grant to undertake a feasibility study, then Phase 2, which is a more significant figure of around $600-800k, is for the development of a prototype. By Phase 3, the company should be in a position to self-fund the product and bring it to market.

‘Our proposals at each step were successful, and as it’s a little easier to bring a software product to market than a hardware product, we were actually able to bring our product out towards the end of Phase 2. That product was TracePro, which remains our flagship product to this day.

‘We built it in such a way that meant it was very general in its utility, making it suitable for all kinds of illumination and optical analysis, and not just for stray light.’

With the grant success and the launch of its first self-developed product, Lambda Research was up and running, but still with a staff of only four people. In 1996, Freniere successfully applied for a further SBIR grant, this time from the Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center, on the topic of end-to-end electro optical system modelling. Although this didn’t result in a separate product launch, the developments did manifest themselves as new features in TracePro.

At launch, TracePro was the first optical program to use a graphical interface and interaction, replacing the previous method of entering figures into a spreadsheet. It is a fully-featured optical simulation and analysis tool that enables users to simulate effects such as scattering, polarisation and other optical effects. Designers can import a mechanical design from a CAD package alongside an optical design from a suitable package (such as Oslo), merge the two, and generate a complete model of an optomechanical system. One can then assign optical properties to optical and non-optical components, enabling the software to predict where light will go.

‘We’re in a small, but very competitive industry,’ says Freniere. ‘There are products out there that do very similar things to TracePro, but ours is very easy to learn and easy to use – and we spend a lot of time making it that way. We want people to be able to use the software and, if they don’t use it for a few months, be able to come back to it and pick it up again quickly, without having to relearn it. Indeed, the best sales tool for us is our demo version – once we show how intuitive the software is, it sells itself.

‘We’ve also worked hard to make every aspect of the software as accurate as we can – there are no approximations. Whenever we’ve had poor performance issues, which was the case in the very early days of development, we’ve addressed them head on – and the product is all the better for it.’

In 2000, the company acquired the Oslo (Optical System Layout and Optimisation) optical design software package from Sinclair Optics ‘to round out’ its product offering. Oslo is aimed at optimising imaging performance within imaging systems.

A further significant enhancement to TracePro arrived later that decade with the introduction of the TracePro Bridge for SolidWorks. ‘This allows our customers to maintain the design in SolidWorks and apply all of the optical properties from within that software,’ says Freniere. ‘It avoids much of the work when exporting from one package and importing into another and so on.’

By 2006, Lambda Research opened an office in Taiwan, where it employs three optical engineers providing support and training for distributors in Asia, as well as feeding back software development to the main HQ.

Alongside the three in Taiwan, Lambda Research currently employs nine people at its headquarters in Littleton, MA, and two in an office in Tucson, AZ. It has a worldwide network of distributors, with a handful of areas, such as Africa and the Middle East, where products are sold direct.

Lambda Research continues to evolve its products, with the latest feature being the ability to optimise illumination systems. The company serves a broad range of markets, from designing desk lamps to space telescopes, and everything in between.

Looking to the future, the company will continue on its path of developing and enhancing its software products, and also building its position as a distributor for related hardware products, such as those that measure surface scattering or light sources.