Dental and ophthalmic laboratory technicians and medical appliance technicians construct, fit, or repair devices that increase function in the lives of patients. These devices include dentures, eyeglasses, and prosthetics.

Duties

Dental and ophthalmic laboratory technicians and medical appliance technicians typically do the following:

  • Follow detailed work orders and prescriptions
  • Decide which materials and tools will be needed
  • Bend, form, and shape fabric or material
  • Use hand or power tools to polish and shape the devices
  • Adjust devices to allow for a more natural look or to improve function
  • Inspect the final product for quality and accuracy
  • Repair appliances that may be cracked or damaged

In small laboratories and offices, technicians may handle every phase of production. In larger ones, technicians may be responsible for only one phase of production, such as polishing, measuring, or testing.

Dental laboratory technicians use impressions, or molds, of a patient’s teeth to create crowns, bridges, dentures, and other dental appliances. They work closely with dentists, but have limited contact with patients.

Dental laboratory technicians work with small hand tools, such as files and polishers. They work with many different materials to make prosthetic appliances, including wax, plastic, and porcelain. In some cases, technicians use computer programs to create appliances or to get impressions sent from a dentist’s office.

Dental laboratory technicians can specialize in one of six areas: orthodontic appliances, crowns and bridges, complete dentures, partial dentures, implants, or ceramics. Technicians may have different job titles, depending on their specialty. For example, technicians who make porcelain and acrylic restorations, such as veneers and bridges, are called dental ceramists.                                  

Ophthalmic laboratory technicians make prescription eyeglasses and contact lenses. They are also commonly known as manufacturing opticians, optical mechanics, or optical goods workers.

Although they make some lenses by hand, ophthalmic laboratory technicians often use automated equipment. Some technicians manufacture lenses for optical instruments, such as telescopes and binoculars. Ophthalmic laboratory technicians should not be confused with dispensing opticians, who work with customers to select eyeware and may prepare work orders for ophthalmic laboratory technicians.

Medical appliance technicians construct, fit, and repair medical supportive devices, including arch supports, facial parts, and foot and leg braces.

Medical appliance technicians use many different types of materials, such as metal, plastic, and leather, to create a variety of medical devices for patients who need them because of a birth defect, an accident, disease, amputation, or the effects of aging. For example, some medical appliance technicians make hearing aids.

Orthotic and prosthetic technicians are medical appliance technicians who create orthoses (braces, supports, and other devices) and prostheses (replacement limbs and facial parts). These technicians work closely with orthotists and prosthetists.

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Work Environment

Dental and ophthalmic laboratory technicians and medical appliance technicians held about 82,900 jobs in 2012.

Dental and ophthalmic laboratory technicians and medical appliance technicians typically work in clean, well-lit, and well-ventilated laboratories. Most laboratories are small and employ only a few workers. Some laboratories, however, have as many as several hundred employees. Other technicians work in health and personal care stores. Technicians usually have limited contact with the public.

Injuries and illness

Technicians may be exposed to health and safety hazards when they handle certain materials, but there is little risk if they follow proper procedures, such as wearing goggles, gloves, or masks. They may spend a great deal of time standing or bending.  

Work Schedules

Most dental and ophthalmic laboratory technicians and medical appliance technicians work full time.

Education and Training

There are no specific educational requirements to become a dental or ophthalmic laboratory technician or medical appliance technician. Most technicians learn their skills on the job.

Education

Although there are no formal educational requirements to become a dental or ophthalmic laboratory technician or medical appliance technician, most technicians have at least a high school diploma. Some community colleges and technical or vocational schools have formal education programs, but such programs are not common. High school students interested in becoming dental or ophthalmic laboratory technicians or medical appliance technicians should take courses in science, mathematics, computer programming, and art.

Training

Most dental and ophthalmic laboratory technicians and medical appliance technicians learn through on-the-job training. They usually begin as helpers in a laboratory and learn more advanced skills as they gain experience. For example, dental laboratory technicians may begin by pouring plaster into an impression to make a model. As they become more experienced, they may progress to more complex tasks, such as making porcelain crowns and bridges. Because all laboratories are different, the length of training varies.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Certification is not required for dental and ophthalmic laboratory technicians or medical appliance technicians. However, several organizations offer certifications for these technicians to indicate they have a certain level of professional skill.

The National Board for Certification in Dental Laboratory Technology (NBC) offers certification as a Certified Dental Technician (CDT). Certification is available in six specialty areas: orthodontic appliances, crowns and bridges, complete dentures, partial dentures, implants, and ceramics.

To qualify for the CDT, technicians must have at least 5 years of on-the-job training or experience in dental technology, or have graduated from an accredited dental laboratory technician program, and pass three exams.

The NBC also provides a modularization program that leads to a Certificate of Competency. Dental technicians can also get a Certificate of Competency in each specific skill through a written and practical exam on that skill.

The American Board for Certification in Orthotics, Prosthetics & Pedorthics (ABC) offers certification for medical appliance technicians. Technicians are eligible for the certification exam after completing an accredited program or if they have 2 years of experience as a technician under the direct supervision of a certified medical appliance technician.

Advancement

In large laboratories, dental and ophthalmic laboratory technicians and medical appliance technicians may work their way up to a supervisory level and may train new technicians. Some may go on to own their own laboratory.

Medical appliance technicians can advance to become orthotists or prosthetists after completing additional formal education. These practitioners work with patients who need braces, prostheses, or related devices.

Personality and Interests

Dental and ophthalmic laboratory technicians and medical appliance technicians typically have an interest in the Building Organizing interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Building interest area indicates a focus on working with tools and machines, and making or fixing practical things. The Organizing interest area indicates a focus on working with information and processes to keep things arranged in orderly systems.

If you are not sure whether you have a Building or Organizing interest which might fit with a career as a dental and ophthalmic laboratory technician and medical appliance technician, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Dental and ophthalmic laboratory technicians and medical appliance technicians should also possess the following specific qualities:

Analytical skills. Because dental and ophthalmic laboratory technicians and medical appliance technicians must construct medical devices with accuracy and precision, they need to have an in-depth knowledge of how different tools and materials work.

Detail oriented. Dental and ophthalmic laboratory technicians and medical appliance technicians must pay attention to detail. They need to be able to recognize and correct any imperfections in the devices.

Dexterity. Dental and ophthalmic laboratory technicians and medical appliance technicians must work well with their hands because they use precise laboratory instruments.

Interpersonal skills. Dental and ophthalmic laboratory technicians and medical appliance technicians need to be able to get along with others because they may be part of a team of technicians working on a single project. In addition, they need good communication to ensure safety when they work with hazardous materials.

Technical skills. Dental and ophthalmic laboratory technicians and medical appliance technicians must understand how to operate complex machinery. Some procedures are automated, so technicians must know how to operate and change the programs that run the machinery.

Pay

The median annual wage for dental and ophthalmic laboratory technicians and medical appliance technicians was $33,070 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned more than $20,160, and the top 10 percent earned more than $55,270.

Median annual wages for dental and ophthalmic laboratory technicians and medical appliance technicians in May 2012 were as follows:

  • $36,090 for dental laboratory technicians
  • $36,100 for medical appliance technicians
  • $28,590 for ophthalmic laboratory technicians

Most dental and ophthalmic laboratory technicians and medical appliance technicians work full time.

Job Outlook

Employment of dental and ophthalmic laboratory technicians and medical appliance technicians is projected to grow 7 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than the average for all occupations.

As cosmetic prosthetics, such as veneers and crowns, become less expensive, there should be an increase in demand for these appliances. Accidents and poor oral health, which can cause damage and loss of teeth, will continue to create a need for dental laboratory technician services. Dental technician services will be in demand, as dentists work to improve the aesthetics and function of patients’ teeth.

On the other hand, baby boomers and their children are more likely to retain their teeth than previous generations. This is due to increased visits to dentists, increased use of fluoride, and more dental health education. These factors will likely lead to a decrease in the number of full and partial dentures and other prosthetics used to replace missing teeth and will temper demand for the technicians that make them.                                  

An aging baby-boomer population will create a need for medical appliance technicians because diabetes and cardiovascular disease, the two leading causes of limb loss, are more likely to occur as people age. The demand for orthotic devices, such as braces and orthopedic footwear, will increase because older people tend to need these supportive devices. In addition, advances in technology may spur demand for prostheses that allow for more natural movement.

Most people need vision correction at some point in their lives. As the population continues to grow, people will need more vision aids, such as glasses and contact lenses, and this will cause demand for ophthalmic laboratory technicians.

As laser vision correction becomes less expensive, there will be an increase in the demand for that service and a decrease in the demand for eyeglasses. However, this decrease will be tempered, as even with laser correction, almost all adults need reading glasses or corrective eyewear later in their lives. This is caused by retinal hardening, which happens naturally as people age, making it harder for the eye to focus.

For More Information

For a list of accredited programs in dental laboratory technology, visit

Commission on Dental Accreditation, American Dental Association

For information on requirements for certification of dental laboratory technicians, visit

National Board for Certification in Dental Laboratory Technology

For information on career opportunities in commercial dental laboratories, visit

National Association of Dental Laboratories

For a list of ophthalmic laboratories, visit

The Vision Council

For a list of accredited programs for medical appliance technicians, visit

American Academy of Orthotists & Prosthetists

National Commission on Orthotic & Prosthetic Education

For information on requirements for certification of medical appliance technicians, visit

American Board for Certification in Orthotics, Prosthetics & Pedorthics

FAQ

Where does this information come from?

The career information above is taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. This excellent resource for occupational data is published by the U.S. Department of Labor every two years. Truity periodically updates our site with information from the BLS database.

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I am not sure if this career is right for me. How can I decide?

There are many excellent tools available that will allow you to measure your interests, profile your personality, and match these traits with appropriate careers. We recommend the Career Personality Profiler assessment ($29), the Holland Code assessment ($19), or the Photo Career Quiz (free).