Medical, Dental, and Ophthalmic Laboratory Technicians
Around 3 out of 5 salaried jobs were in medical equipment
and supply manufacturing laboratories, which usually are small,
privately owned businesses with fewer than 5 employees.
Most medical, dental, and ophthalmic laboratory technicians
learn their craft on the job; however, many employers prefer
to hire those with formal training in a related field.
Slower-than-average employment growth is expected for dental
and ophthalmic laboratory technicians, while average employment
growth is expected for medical appliance technicians.
Job opportunities should be favorable as employers have difficulty
filling trainee positions.
Nature of the Work
When patients require a special appliance to see clearly,
chew and speak well, or walk, their health care providers
send requests to medical, dental, and ophthalmic laboratory
technicians. These technicians produce a wide variety of appliances
to help patients.
Medical appliance technicians construct, fit, maintain,
and repair braces, artificial limbs, joints, arch supports,
and other surgical and medical appliances. They read prescriptions
or detailed information from orthotists, podiatrists, or prosthetists.
Orthotists treat patients who need braces, supports, or corrective
shoes. podiatrists are doctors who treat foot problems and
request the same appliances as orthotists. Prosthetists work
with patients who need a replacement limb, such as an arm,
leg, hand, or foot, due to a birth defect or an accident.
The appliances are called orthoses and prostheses. Medical
appliance technicians are also referred to as orthotic and
For orthoses such as arch supports, technicians first make
a wax or plastic impression of the patient’s foot. Then they
bend and form a material so that it conforms to prescribed
contours required to fabricate structural components. If a
support is mainly required to correct the balance of a patient
with legs of different lengths, a rigid material is used.
If the support is primarily intended to protect those with
arthritic or diabetic feet, a soft material is used. Supports
and braces are polished with grinding and buffing wheels.
Technicians may cover arch supports with felt to make them
For prostheses, technicians construct or receive a plaster
cast of the patient’s limb to use as a pattern. Then, they
lay out parts and use precision measuring instruments to measure
them. Technicians may use wood, plastic, metal, or other material
for the parts of the artificial limb. Next, they carve, cut,
or grind the material using hand or power tools. Then, they
drill holes for rivets and glue, rivet, or weld the parts
together. They are able to do very precise work using common
tools. Next, technicians use grinding and buffing wheels to
smooth and polish artificial limbs. Lastly, they may cover
or pad the limbs with rubber, leather, felt, plastic, or another
material. Also, technicians may mix pigments according to
formulas to match the patient’s skin color and apply the mixture
to the artificial limb.
After fabrication, medical appliance technicians test devices
for proper alignment, movement, and biomechanical stability
using meters and alignment fixtures. They also may fit the
appliance on the patient and adjust them as necessary. Over
time the appliance will wear down, so technicians must repair
and maintain the device. They also may service and repair
the machinery used for the fabrication of orthotic and prosthetic
Dental laboratory technicians fill prescriptions from
dentists for crowns, bridges, dentures, and other dental prosthetics.
First, dentists send a specification of the item to be manufactured,
along with an impression (mold) of the patient’s mouth or
teeth. Then, dental laboratory technicians, also called dental
technicians, create a model of the patient’s mouth by pouring
plaster into the impression and allowing it to set. Next,
they place the model on an apparatus that mimics the bite
and movement of the patient’s jaw. The model serves as the
basis of the prosthetic device. Technicians examine the model,
noting the size and shape of the adjacent teeth, as well as
gaps within the gumline. Based upon these observations and
the dentist’s specifications, technicians build and shape
a wax tooth or teeth model, using small hand instruments called
wax spatulas and wax carvers. They use this wax model to cast
the metal framework for the prosthetic device.
After the wax tooth has been formed, dental technicians pour
the cast and form the metal and, using small hand-held tools,
prepare the surface to allow the metal and porcelain to bond.
They then apply porcelain in layers, to arrive at the precise
shape and color of a tooth. Technicians place the tooth in
a porcelain furnace to bake the porcelain onto the metal framework,
and then adjust the shape and color, with subsequent grinding
and addition of porcelain to achieve a sealed finish. The
final product is a nearly exact replica of the lost tooth
In some laboratories, technicians perform all stages of the
work, whereas, in other labs, each technician does only a
few. Dental laboratory technicians can specialize in 1 of
5 areas: orthodontic appliances, crowns and bridges, complete
dentures, partial dentures, or ceramics. Job titles can reflect
specialization in these areas. For example, technicians who
make porcelain and acrylic restorations are called dental
Ophthalmic laboratory technicians—also known as manufacturing
opticians, optical mechanics, or optical goods workers—make
prescription eyeglass or contact lenses. Prescription lenses
are curved in such a way that light is correctly focused onto
the retina of the patient’s eye, improving his or her vision.
Some ophthalmic laboratory technicians manufacture lenses
for other optical instruments, such as telescopes and binoculars.
Ophthalmic laboratory technicians cut, grind, edge, and finish
lenses according to specifications provided by dispensing
opticians, optometrists, or ophthalmologists and may insert
lenses into frames to produce finished glasses. Although some
lenses still are produced by hand, technicians are increasingly
using automated equipment to make lenses.
Ophthalmic laboratory technicians should not be confused
with workers in other vision care occupations. Ophthalmologists
and optometrists are “eye doctors” who examine eyes, diagnose
and treat vision problems, and prescribe corrective lenses.
Ophthalmologists are physicians who perform eye surgery. Dispensing
opticians, who also may do the work of ophthalmic laboratory
technicians, help patients select frames and lenses, and adjust
finished eyeglasses. (See the statement on physicians and
surgeons, which includes ophthalmologists, as well as the
statements on optometrists and opticians, dispensing, elsewhere
in the Handbook.)
Ophthalmic laboratory technicians read prescription specifications,
select standard glass or plastic lens blanks, and then mark
them to indicate where the curves specified on the prescription
should be ground. They place the lens in the lens grinder,
set the dials for the prescribed curvature, and start the
machine. After a minute or so, the lens is ready to be “finished”
by a machine that rotates it against a fine abrasive, to grind
it and smooth out rough edges. The lens is then placed in
a polishing machine with an even finer abrasive, to polish
it to a smooth, bright finish.
Next, the technician examines the lens through a lensometer,
an instrument similar in shape to a microscope, to make sure
that the degree and placement of the curve are correct. The
technician then cuts the lenses and bevels the edges to fit
the frame, dips each lens into dye if the prescription calls
for tinted or coated lenses, polishes the edges, and assembles
the lenses and frame parts into a finished pair of glasses.
In small laboratories, technicians usually handle every phase
of the operation. In large ones, in which virtually every
phase of the operation is automated, technicians may be responsible
for operating computerized equipment. Technicians also inspect
the final product for quality and accuracy.
Medical, dental, and ophthalmic laboratory technicians generally
work in clean, well-lighted, and well-ventilated laboratories.
They have limited contact with the public. Salaried laboratory
technicians usually work 40 hours a week, but some work part
time. At times, technicians wear goggles to protect their
eyes, gloves to handle hot objects, or masks to avoid inhaling
dust. They may spend a great deal of time standing.
Dental technicians usually have their own workbenches, which
can be equipped with Bunsen burners, grinding and polishing
equipment, and hand instruments, such as wax spatulas and
wax carvers. Some dental technicians have computer-aided milling
equipment to assist them with creating artificial teeth.
Qualifications, and Advancement
Most medical, dental, and ophthalmic laboratory technicians
learn their craft on the job; however, many employers prefer
to hire those with formal training in a related field.
Medical appliance technicians begin as a helper and gradually
learn new skills as they gain experience. Formal training
is also available. There are currently 4 programs actively
accredited by the National Commission on Orthotic and Prosthetic
Education (NCOPE). These programs offer either an associate
degree for orthotics and prosthetic technicians or one-year
certificate for orthotic technicians or prosthetic technicians.
The programs instruct students on human anatomy and physiology,
orthotic and prosthetic equipment and materials, and applied
biomechanical principles to customize orthoses or prostheses.
The programs also include clinical rotations to provide hands-on
Voluntary certification is available through the American
Board for Certification in Orthotics and Prosthetics (ABC).
Applicants are eligible for an exam after completing a program
accredited by NCOPE or obtaining two years of experience as
a technician under the direct supervision of an ABC-certified
practitioner. After successfully passing the appropriate exam,
technicians receive the Registered Orthotic Technician, Registered
Prosthetic Technician, or Registered Prosthetic-Orthotic Technician
High school students interested in becoming medical appliance
technicians should take mathematics, metal and wood shop,
and drafting. With additional formal education, medical appliance
technicians can advance to become orthotists or prosthetists.
Dental laboratory technicians begin with simple tasks, such
as pouring plaster into an impression, and progress to more
complex procedures, such as making porcelain crowns and bridges.
Becoming a fully trained technician requires an average of
3 to 4 years, depending upon the individual’s aptitude and
ambition, but it may take a few years more to become an accomplished
Training in dental laboratory technology also is available
through community and junior colleges, vocational-technical
institutes, and the U.S. Armed Forces. Formal training programs
vary greatly both in length and in the level of skill they
In 2004, 25 programs in dental laboratory technology were
approved (accredited) by the Commission on Dental Accreditation
in conjunction with the American Dental Association (ADA).
These programs provide classroom instruction in dental materials
science, oral anatomy, fabrication procedures, ethics, and
related subjects. In addition, each student is given supervised
practical experience in a school or an associated dental laboratory.
Accredited programs normally take 2 years to complete and
lead to an associate degree. A few programs take about 4 years
to complete and offer a bachelor’s degree in dental technology.
Graduates of 2-year training programs need additional hands-on
experience to become fully qualified. Each dental laboratory
owner operates in a different way, and classroom instruction
does not necessarily expose students to techniques and procedures
favored by individual laboratory owners. Students who have
taken enough courses to learn the basics of the craft usually
are considered good candidates for training, regardless of
whether they have completed a formal program. Many employers
will train someone without any classroom experience.
The National Board for Certification, an independent board
established by the National Association of Dental Laboratories,
offers certification in dental laboratory technology. Certification,
which is voluntary, can be obtained in five specialty areas:
crowns and bridges, ceramics, partial dentures, complete dentures,
and orthodontic appliances.
In large dental laboratories, technicians may become supervisors
or managers. Experienced technicians may teach or may take
jobs with dental suppliers in such areas as product development,
marketing, and sales. Still, for most technicians, opening
one’s own laboratory is the way toward advancement and higher
A high degree of manual dexterity, good vision, and the ability
to recognize very fine color shadings and variations in shape
are necessary. An artistic aptitude for detailed and precise
work also is important. High school students interested in
becoming dental laboratory technicians should take courses
in art, metal and wood shop, drafting, and sciences. Courses
in management and business may help those wishing to operate
their own laboratories.
Ophthalmic laboratory technicians start on simple tasks if
they are trained to produce lenses by hand. They may begin
with marking or blocking lenses for grinding; then, they progress
to grinding, cutting, edging, and beveling lenses; finally,
they are trained in assembling the eyeglasses. Depending on
individual aptitude, it may take up to 6 months to become
proficient in all phases of the work.
Employers filling trainee jobs prefer applicants who are
high school graduates. Courses in science, mathematics, and
computers are valuable; manual dexterity and the ability to
do precision work are essential. Technicians using automated
systems will find computer skills valuable.
A very small number of ophthalmic laboratory technicians
learn their trade in the Armed Forces or in the few programs
in optical technology offered by vocational-technical institutes
or trade schools. These programs have classes in optical theory,
surfacing and lens finishing, and the reading and applying
of prescriptions. Programs vary in length from 6 months to
1 year and award certificates or diplomas.
Ophthalmic laboratory technicians can become supervisors
and managers. Some become dispensing opticians, although further
education or training generally is required in that occupation.
Medical, dental, and ophthalmic laboratory technicians held
about 87,000 jobs in 2004. Around 3 out of 5 salaried jobs
were in medical equipment and supply manufacturing laboratories,
which usually are small, privately owned businesses with fewer
than five employees. However, some laboratories are large;
a few employ more than 1,000 workers.
Employment by detailed occupation is presented in the following
Dental laboratory technicians
Ophthalmic laboratory technicians
Medical appliance technicians
Some medical appliance technicians worked in health and personal
care stores, while others worked in public and private hospitals,
professional and commercial equipment and supplies merchant
wholesalers, offices of physicians, or consumer goods rental
centers. Some were self-employed.
Some dental laboratory technicians work in offices of dentists.
Others work for hospitals providing dental services, including
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals. Some dental
laboratory technicians open their own offices or work in dental
laboratories in their homes.
Around 30 percent of ophthalmic laboratory technicians were
in health and personal care stores, such as optical goods
stores that manufacture and sell prescription glasses and
contact lenses. Some were in offices of optometrists or ophthalmologists.
Others worked at professional and commercial equipment and
supplies merchant wholesalers. A few worked in commercial
and service industry machine manufacturing firms that produce
lenses for other optical instruments, such as telescopes and
Job opportunities for medical, dental, and ophthalmic laboratory
technicians should be favorable, despite expected slower-than-average
growth in overall employment through the year 2014. Employers
have difficulty filling trainee positions, probably because
entry-level salaries are relatively low and because the public
is not familiar with these occupations. Most job openings
will arise from the need to replace technicians who transfer
to other occupations or who leave the labor force.
Medical appliance technicians will grow faster than dental
and ophthalmic laboratory technicians, with employment projected
to increase about as fast as the average for all occupations,
due to the increasing prevalence of the two leading causes
of limb loss—diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Advances
in technology may spur demand for prostheses that allow for
During the last few years, demand has arisen from an aging
public that is growing increasingly interested in cosmetic
prostheses. For example, many dental laboratories are filling
orders for composite fillings that are the same shade of white
as natural teeth to replace older, less attractive fillings.
However, job growth for dental laboratory technicians will
be limited. The overall dental health of the population has
improved because of fluoridation of drinking water, which
has reduced the incidence of dental cavities, and greater
emphasis on preventive dental care since the early 1960s.
As a result, full dentures will be less common, as most people
will need only a bridge or crown.
Demographic trends also make it likely that many more Americans
will need vision care in the years ahead. Not only will the
population grow, but also, the proportion of middle-aged and
older adults is projected to increase rapidly. Middle age
is a time when many people use corrective lenses for the first
time, and elderly persons usually require more vision care
than others. However, the increasing use of automated machinery
will limit job growth for ophthalmic laboratory technicians.
Median hourly earnings of medical appliance technicians were
$13.38 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $10.46
and $18.22 an hour. The lowest 10 percent earned less than
$8.21, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $23.66
an hour. Median hourly earnings of medical appliance technicians
in May 2004 were $13.00 in medical equipment and supplies
Median hourly earnings of dental laboratory technicians were
$14.93 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $11.18
and $19.71 an hour. The lowest 10 percent earned less than
$8.86, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $25.48
an hour. Median hourly earnings of dental laboratory technicians
in May 2004 were $15.95 in offices of dentists and $14.40
in medical equipment and supplies manufacturing.
Dental technicians in large laboratories tend to specialize
in a few procedures and, therefore, tend to be paid a lower
wage than those employed in small laboratories who perform
a variety of tasks.
Median hourly earnings of ophthalmic laboratory technicians
were $11.40 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between
$9.33 and $14.67 an hour. The lowest 10 percent earned less
than $7.89, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $17.61
an hour. Median hourly earnings of ophthalmic laboratory technicians
in May 2004 were $10.88 in health and personal care stores
and $10.79 in medical equipment and supplies manufacturing.
Medical, dental, and ophthalmic laboratory technicians manufacture
a variety of health implements, such as artificial limbs,
corrective lenses, and artificial teeth, following specifications
and instructions provided by health care practitioners. Other
workers who make and repair medical devices or other items
include dispensing opticians, orthotists and prosthetists,
and precision instrument and equipment repairers.
Sources of Additional Information
For information on careers in orthotics and prosthetics,
American Academy of Orthotists and Prosthetists, 526 King
St., Suite 201, Alexandria, VA 22314. Internet: http://www.opcareers.org/
For a list of accredited programs for orthotic and prosthetic
National Commission on Orthotic and Prosthetic Education,
330 John Carlyle St., Suite 200, Alexandria, VA 22314. Internet:
For a list of accredited programs in dental laboratory technology,
Commission on Dental Accreditation, American Dental Association,
211 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL 60611. Internet: http://www.ada.org/
For information on requirements for certification of dental
laboratory technicians, contact:
National Board for Certification in Dental Technology,
325 John Knox Rd., L103, Tallahassee, FL 32303. Internet:
For information on career opportunities in commercial dental
National Association of Dental Laboratories, 325 John
Knox Rd., L103, Tallahassee, FL 32303. Internet: http://www.nadl.org/
For information on an accredited program in ophthalmic laboratory
Commission on Opticianry Accreditation, 8665 Sudley Rd.,
#341, Manassas VA 20110.
General information on grants and scholarships is available
from individual schools. State employment service offices
can provide information about job openings for medical, dental,
and ophthalmic laboratory technicians.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational
Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition