- Employment should increase slowly, as the publics improving dental health requires fewer dentures but more bridges and crowns.
- Dental laboratory technicians need artistic aptitude for detailed and precise work, a high degree of manual dexterity, and good vision.
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 fabricated, along with an impression (mold) of the patients mouth or teeth. Then dental laboratory technicians, also called dental technicians, create a model of the patients 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 patients 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 dentists 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.
Once 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, then adjust the shape and color, with subsequent grinding and addition of porcelain to achieve a sealed finish. The final product is a near exact replica of the lost tooth or teeth.
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 one of five 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 ceramists.
Dental laboratory technicians generally work in clean, well lighted, and well-ventilated areas. 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.
The work is extremely delicate and time consuming. Salaried technicians usually work 40 hours a week, but self-employed technicians frequently work longer hours.
Dental laboratory technicians held about 44,000 jobs in 1998. Most jobs were in commercial dental laboratories, which usually are small, privately owned businesses with fewer than five employees. However, some laboratories are large; a few employ over 50 technicians.
Some dental laboratory technicians worked in dentists offices. Others worked for hospitals providing dental services, including Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals. Some technicians work in dental laboratories in their homes, in addition to their regular job. Approximately 1 technician in 5 is self-employed, a higher proportion than in most other occupations.
Most dental laboratory technicians learn their craft on the job. They 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 individuals aptitude and ambition; but it may take a few years more to become an accomplished technician.
Training in dental laboratory technology is also available through community and junior colleges, vocational-technical institutes, and the Armed Forces. Formal training programs vary greatly both in length and the level of skill they impart.
In 1998, 34 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.
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 are usually 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 offers certification, which is voluntary, 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 take jobs with dental suppliers in such areas as product development, marketing, and sales. Still, for most technicians, opening ones own laboratory is the way toward advancement and higher earnings.
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 is also 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.
Job opportunities for dental laboratory technicians should be favorable, despite very slow growth in the occupation. Employers have difficulty filling trainee positions, probably because of relatively low entry-level salaries and lack of familiarity with the occupation.
Although job opportunities are favorable, little or no change in the employment of dental laboratory technicians is expected through the year 2008, due to changes in dental care. 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. However, during the last few years, demand has arisen from an aging public that is growing increasingly interested in cosmetic prosthesis. For example, many dental laboratories are filling orders for composite fillings that are white and look like a natural tooth to replace older, less attractive fillings.
Median annual earnings of salaried precision dental laboratory technicians were $25,660 in 1998. The middle 50 percent earned between $19,410 and $34,600 a year. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $14,720 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $45,980 a year. Median annual earnings of dental laboratory technicians in 1997 were $24,100 in medical and dental laboratories and $25,500 in offices and clinics of dentists.
In general, earnings of self-employed technicians exceed those of salaried workers. 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 that perform a variety of tasks.
Dental laboratory technicians fabricate artificial teeth, crowns and bridges, and orthodontic appliances, following specifications and instructions provided by dentists. Other workers who make medical devices include arch-support technicians, orthotics technicians (braces and surgical supports), prosthetics technicians (artificial limbs and appliances), opticians, and ophthalmic laboratory technicians.
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For a list of accredited programs in dental laboratory technology, contact:
- Commission on Dental Accreditation, American Dental Association, 211 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL 60611. Internet: http://www.ada.org
General information on grants and scholarships is available from dental technology schools.
For information on requirements for certification, contact:
- National Board for Certification in Dental Technology, 8201 Greensboro Dr., Suite 300, McLean VA 22101.
For information on career opportunities in commercial laboratories, contact:
- National Association of Dental Laboratories, 8201 Greensboro Dr., Suite 300, McLean VA 22101. Internet: http://www.nadl.org