People at PPO: Danielle Smith, Optics Specialist

Danielle with PPO's patented spectrometer in optics lab

Curious to know more about the team at PPO? “People at PPO” is a blog series that highlights the work our team does every day. In each post, we interview one of our team members to get an inside view of PPO and to learn about their experience working here. Join us as we tell their stories and discover how their work impacts the technology we build.

In this post, we talked to Danielle Smith, Optics Specialist at PPO. We asked her questions about optics and what it’s like to work in the office. Here’s what she had to say:

J: Hi Danielle, thanks for taking the time to chat today!

D: Thank you.

J: First question for you, what do you do at PPO?

D: I’m an Optics Specialist at PPO. There are a few aspects to my role. The first is optics production. I oversee the production and alignment of optical components like the spectrometer, lamps and visible camera. The second is optics R&D. Currently I’m working on improving the optics assembly process. 

I also support systems in the field, both by guiding on-site technicians to address issues with optical components and occasionally traveling on-site for commissioning and maintenance. Working in the field is very interesting. Seeing our system in a customer facility is very different from working on it at PPO. 

J: How has your previous experience prepared you for this role?

D: I did my undergrad in nanotech engineering at Waterloo. It’s a multi-disciplinary program. I learned about different engineering branches. My courses covered a wide array of topics including optics and spectroscopy. The spectroscopy characterization methods I learned through my lab courses were helpful since spectroscopy is an important part of PPO. My workterms also prepared me for this role. In particular, I worked at a smaller startup than PPO. During that experience, I had to independently guide my work, focus on R&D and prepare to scale up. All of those experiences have prepared me for the work environment at PPO. 

Danielle taking a selfie with PPO's Spectrometer

J: What does a typical day look like for you?

D: There are waves of time when I’m focusing more on production compared to R&D. On a day when I’m focusing more on production, I’m building and aligning spectrometers, putting the visible camera on the system frame, and aligning lamps to meet specifications. I pay particular attention to the spectrometer because it’s a key component of the system that captures the data from the product.

When I’m focusing on R&D, I work on process improvement. This includes designing better assembly and integration methods for the optical components of our system.

J: You talked about the waves of production, what’s it like working in the office?

D: Since COVID, I’ve had a mix of working at home and in the office. I really like the flexibility of being able to work from home. Of course, I need to be in the office more often than others on the team – I can’t just take a spectrometer home to build. When we’re in the middle of a production wave, I’m in the office every day. But on days I have a lot of computer-based work or if the weather is really bad, I can work on corrections or data at home. I also have a lot of independent work at the office, which I enjoy. It means that I can listen to my music on speakers when I’m in the optics lab. 

J: I relate to listening to my music on speakers. Most of my role is at home and I can play my music while I work. Moving onto the next question, what are some projects you’re working on?

D: As I mentioned in the previous question, one of the projects I’m working on is improving the spectrometer assembly process. I create new jigs to speed up the process to make it less frustrating. 

I’m also looking at vis data options to improve the data for our vis side of our system.

J: We talk a lot about optics at PPO, I was wondering if you could explain why it’s so important for us?

D: Optics is the heart of our system! The spectrometer and vis system are what allow our Smart Imaging System to see what’s in your food, gather data and apply it to our machine learning models to meet our applications for various customers. If we had a badly aligned spectrometer, we wouldn’t be able to gather quality data. The more we can improve our spectrometers, the more applications we can implement. Our system wouldn’t be the system it is without optics.

Danielle working with

J: We talked about why optics is important at PPO, but I’m curious to know what’s your favourite part about working in optics?

D: I really like how I can work on everything related to optics. I get to work on both the hardware and software side of optics. I build and install optical parts on the physical systems as well as create corrections, manipulate data and document improvements on the computer. I also enjoy being able to contribute to the optics process improvement. There are a lot of different aspects to focus on, which I enjoy. 

J: And what’s your favourite part about working at PPO?

D: I really like the work environment. Everyone is very friendly and wants to pitch in to help solve all the problems. We also continued to have monthly socials even when we went to a hybrid workplace. 

I also like that I don’t need to be in the office all the time. Of course, I need to be at work more often than others on the team (I can’t take a spectrometer home to work on). In the middle of a production wave, I’ll be at the office every day. But during the non-production waves, if there’s a day I have a lot of computer-based work or the weather is really bad, I have the option to work from home, which is nice. 

J: Ok last question, what’s your favourite food?

D: It changes over time, but I think my answer is ramen. It’s very delicious and tasty. After I graduated from my undergrad, I went to Japan. The first meal we had when we landed in Tokyo was this amazing bowl of ramen close to where we were staying. Ramen reminds me of good memories from that trip. I haven’t been able to find ramen like the ramen I had there. I’ve been trying to make my own ramen at home, but it doesn’t come close to the bowl I had in Tokyo. I went to this place in Guelph called Kenzo that had good ramen. 

J: Thanks for the rec! Next time I’m in Guelph, I’ll give it a try. That’s all of the questions I have for you. Thank you for taking the time to chat today!

D: You’re welcome!

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