Dental laboratory technology is the art, science and technology of designing and manufacturing corrective devices for and replacements of natural teeth. A dental laboratory technician communicates and collaborates with the dentist to plan, design and fabricate dental prostheses for individual patients.
The dentist is responsible for providing dental laboratory with a prescription detailing final treatment choice and for placement of restoration or corrective device in the patient’s mouth. The dental technician aids the dentist in material choices and case design and is responsible for fabrication of the final prostheses or corrective devices.
By fabricating esthetic dental prostheses that work well and by improving the patient’s smile, the dental laboratory technician influences not only patient’s physical and dental health but also improves his or her confidence and self-esteem.
Two types of dental specialties rely heavily on the skills of a dental laboratory technician:
- Restorative dentistry or prosthodontics is used when the patient loses a part or the entire tooth/teeth due to the decay, disease, illness or accident, and the tooth/teeth must be replaced to maintain normal fit, form and function.
- Orthodontics is provided when the tooth/teeth must be moved or stabilized to optimize function, esthetics or to prevent painful dysfunction.
Dental laboratory technology specialties include:
- Crown and bridge
- Partial dentures
The profession of dental laboratory technology is:
- An art because each restoration is unique to each patient. The restoration must imitate or improve the beauty and the function of the patient’s natural dentition and be in harmony with the rest of the system. The technician’s greatest challenge is to create a restoration that looks and feels completely natural in the patient’s mouth.
- A science that is advancing rapidly. In order to fabricate the fixed or removable dental prostheses, dental technicians must have a keen knowledge and understanding of tooth anatomy, masticatory functions and the materials and processes utilized in the creation of such devices. A variety of high-tech materials, such as zirconia, ceramics (i.e. lithium disilicate, feldspatic porcelains), plastics (i.e. PMMA, acrylics, composite resins) and metal alloys (i.e. metal substructures, implants, attachments, wires) are utilized in dental laboratories.
- Driven by technology today more than ever. In the past decade, technology has taken over dentistry. In fact, the biggest dental advancements came from the field of dental laboratory technology in the form of computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) technologies. Today, CAD/CAM is utilized as an integral part of the laboratory’s everyday practice. With these technological advances and those to come, there is a very high demand for dental designers who can design and assist in manufacturing of CAD/CAM restorations. Because of these advances, aspiring dental lab technicians should take courses in computer skills and programming.
Ideal candidates for this career possess excellent eye-hand coordination, attention to minute details, ability to recognize the differences in color and shape, manual dexterity and interest in material sciences and emerging technologies. Dental laboratory technology is ideal for those who are artistic as well as for those who are business and technology savvy. In fact, this is the only allied dental field that offers practitioners the chance to become entrepreneurs by opening their own dental laboratory business.
The changes that affect modern dental laboratory technology are:
- Advancements in material sciences, technologies and manufacturing systems
- New legislations and regulations
- Health care and education
- Aging populations
- Changing practice models and emerging team-based care systems
- Global economies and market adjustments
Due to a shortage of technicians that is already affecting the field, it is certain that there is and will be a high demand for experienced dental technicians who can handle the needs of an ever-increasing number of dentists and their patients.
The work of dental laboratory technicians is extremely delicate and time-consuming. Salaried technicians usually work 40 hours/week, but self-employed technicians frequently work longer hours. 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 or electric waxers; grinding and polishing equipment; hand instruments, such as spatulas and carvers; or they can work with computer design software, scanners and milling or printing equipment.
Most dental technicians are employed in small boutique or commercial dental laboratories with two to nine or more employees. Other labs are quite large employing more than 100 technicians. In large laboratories, dental laboratory technicians may work their way up to a supervisory level and may train new technicians. Some private dental offices have their own in-house laboratories. The military, hospitals, suppliers and manufacturers also employ a large number of dental technicians.
Experienced technicians may choose to become teachers in dental laboratory technology programs, sales representatives, technical support representatives or instructors for dental manufacturers or suppliers.
Salary Range and Outlook
Employment for dental laboratory technicians is expected to grow 7% between 2012 and 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook. As prosthetics like veneers and crowns become less expensive, it is expected that there will be an increase in demand for them. Hourly wages and salaries vary according to location and other factors.
The average wage for dental laboratory technicians who are just starting out is $12.74 per hour and the average salary is $30,000. Dental technicians with a lot of experience make an average wage of $22.79 per hour and the average salary is $70,310 per year.
Most dental laboratory technicians learn their craft on the job. They begin with simple tasks, such as pouring gypsum material into an impression and progress to more complex procedures, such as making dentures, crowns and bridges or bending wires.
Becoming a fully trained technician requires an average of three to four years of experience on the job, depending upon the individual’s aptitude and ambition, but it may take a few years more to become an accomplished technician.
With technology becoming an ever-increasing part of the dental laboratory technician’s job, it would be useful for aspiring technicians to take courses in computer skills and programming.
Formal training in dental laboratory technology is available through community and junior colleges, vocational-technical institutes and the military. Training programs vary greatly both in length and in the level of training they provide. The most advanced training in dental laboratory technology is offered through two-year accredited associate degree programs followed by continuing education programs offered across the country. The American Dental Association website includes a list of accredited dental lab tech programs.
After receiving training, dental lab technicians may become certified by taking and passing the certified dental technician exam. Technicians can be certified in six specialty areas:
- Crowns and bridges
- Partial dentures
- Complete dentures
- Orthodontic appliances
To qualify for certification, technicians must meet technical prerequisites and pass three separate exams. The prerequisites can be met by obtaining one of the following: having at least five years of on-the-job training or experience in dental technology, or by graduating from an accredited dental laboratory technician program.
Learn More About a Career as a Dental Laboratory Technician
- Watch the video profile about dental laboratory technicians (in the Health Science category).
- Read an interview with a dental laboratory technician on the National Institutes of Health’s LifeWorks website.
- Find out more about becoming a dental laboratory technician on the National Association of Dental Laboratories and the American Dental Association websites.
- Find out more about becoming a certified dental technician.
- American Dental Association
- American Dental Education Association
- National Board for Certification in Dental Laboratory Technology
- Commission On Dental Accreditation
- The Foundation for Dental Laboratory Technology
- National Association of Dental Laboratories
- What's In Your Mouth?" campaign