Ophthalmic laboratory technicians make prescription eyeglass lenses. Also known as manufacturing opticians, optical goods workers, or optical mechanics, they cut, grind, edge, and finish lenses according to instructions provided by dispensing opticians, optometrists, or ophthalmologists. Though some lenses still are produced by hand, technicians increasingly use computerized technology to manufacture lenses. There are approximately 25,000 ophthalmic laboratory technicians currently working in the United States.
Ophthalmic Laboratory Technician Career History
People have been using simple lenses for magnification for more than a thousand years. Eyeglasses have been in use since the 14th century. In Europe, eyeglasses first appeared in Italy and then spread to the various royal courts until eventually there were trained lens grinders in all European countries. By the 17th century, these craftsworkers had banded together into an association called a guild.
The first eyeglass lenses were convex (that is, they were thicker in the middle than at the edges). This is the shape used to correct farsightedness. There is no evidence of concave lenses (thicker at the edges than in the middle) for nearsightedness until the 16th century. Benjamin Franklin developed eyeglasses further by inventing the bifocal lens in the 18th century. In 1801, Thomas Young discovered the eye condition called astigmatism, in which rays from a perceived object fail to meet at one focal point, causing blurred and imperfect vision. Cylindrical and compound lenses were developed to correct astigmatisms approximately 25 years later.
Ophthalmic laboratory technicians often use computerized lens analyzers to measure the preciseness of newly ground contact lenses. In 1887, a Swiss physician, A. E. Fick, made the first contact lens. These first lenses were made of heavy glass, exerted an uncomfortable pressure on the eyeball, and were difficult to fit. In the late 1930s, a light plastic was developed that could be easily molded to shape the eye. In 1950, a lens that floated on the wearer’s tears was introduced; and today, an even smaller lens, covering only the cornea, is in widespread use.
Ophthalmic Laboratory Technician Job Description
Ophthalmic laboratory technicians may specialize in one activity or perform several functions in the laboratory. There are two major aspects of ophthalmic laboratory work: lens grinding and lens finishing. The work of the lens grinder begins with a standard-size lens blank, which is usually mass produced by an optics company and sold to the ophthalmic laboratory. Following the specifications included in a patient’s prescription, lens grinders pick the proper lens blank for the job, measure and mark the lens for grinding and polishing according to the prescription, and set up and operate the machines that grind and polish the lens. They measure the lens with precision instruments, such as lensometers and objective lens analyzers, to make sure that they meet prescribed specifications.
Lens finishers make and cut the lenses and shape, smooth, and bevel (slightly angle) the edges. They then assemble lens and frame parts into finished glasses, using special tools such as lens cutters and glass drills. Finally, they use precision instruments to detect imperfections in the finished product.
Glass cutters lay out and cut glass to specified sizes and weights for molding into lens blanks. They examine the glass stock for defects, trace outlines onto the glass using templates, and grind rough edges from the blank using a grindstone.
Sizers set up the machines that grind and polish the edges and surfaces of lens blanks. They select the specified grinding and polishing tools, adjust the machines according to the size of the lens holders, and set time cycles, which automatically stop the machine after a specified amount of grinding or polishing.
Hand grinders work with the machines that grind the approximate curve onto lens blanks to prepare for the fine grinding. Working from a production order, they choose a lens blank, put the blank in a holder that grips it during grinding, and position the blank and holder on the grinding machine. In order to grind the blank to the specified curvature, they move the control arm of the machine back and forth, or they hold the blank against a grinding wheel.
Precision-lens generators operate and set up the lens-generating machines that grind the ophthalmic blanks. They read work orders to learn the specifications and then pick out specified holders and diamond grinding wheels to do the grinding. They adjust the grinding machine for speed, rate of feed, angle of arc, and depth of cut. After a specified length of time, they stop the machine and measure the curvature and thickness of the glass.
Precision-lens polishers operate the machines that polish the lenses. They mount lenses into holders, apply abrasives, and stop the polishing machine periodically to rinse off the abrasive and to measure the lens to make sure it matches the specifications.
Eyeglass-lens cutters set up and operate bench-mounted cutting machines to cut eyeglass lenses to specified sizes and shapes. They select the metal-cutting pattern according to specifications, mount it in the cutting machine, and press the cutting arm down to cut the lens. They then remove the cut lens, chip away the excess material from the edges, and send the lens on to the workers who do the edging.
Precision-lens centerers and edgers operate grinders to edge and bevel lenses according to work orders. Their work involves a variety of machines, such as truing machines and edge-grinding machines. They must center lenses precisely in these machines using beams of light and other techniques. They start, stop, and adjust the machines and measure the lens edges using micrometers and calipers.
Layout technicians draw reference lines and write specifications onto lens blanks to guide workers who surface or finish lenses. To guide the workers, they locate and mark centers, axis points, and terminal points on lens blanks, using precision instruments such as optical-centering and lens-power-determining instruments that have dials and built-in marking devices. They also examine lens blanks to check for defects and ensure they follow the work order.
Lens mounters place prescription lenses into metal or plastic frames. They inspect lenses for flaws such as pits, chips, and scratches. When possible, they remove the flaws using a grinding wheel and then assemble the eyeglass frame by attaching ornaments, nose pads, and temple pieces.
Multifocal-lens assemblers fit and secure lens parts together for bifocals and trifocals. They clean the surfaces carefully, apply cement, and inspect for any imperfections.
Contact lens blockers and cutters and contact lens lathe operators operate jewelers’ lathes and hand tools to cut inside or outside curvature in contact lenses. This job involves a variety of different instruments and lens materials because of the wide variety of contact lenses made available.
Ophthalmic Laboratory Technician Career Requirements
Ophthalmic laboratory technicians need a high school diploma. While in high school, you should take courses in physics, algebra, geometry, and mechanical drawing. Become comfortable working with computers to prepare you for working with computerized and highly technical machinery in the workplace. Technical or shop classes can also be useful to improve your manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination.
Most technicians receive their training on the job; others learn these skills through formal apprenticeship programs or in vocational or technical school. Technicians who train on the job usually begin by performing simple tasks, such as basic lens-grinding operations. As they gain experience, they progress to more difficult operations, such as lens cutting or eyeglass assembly. It may take up to six months to gain experience in all areas and up to three years to be considered fully skilled.
Formal apprenticeship programs in this field usually take about three to four years to complete; however, some technicians manage to complete the programs sooner. Requirements for entry into these programs vary from program to program, but a high school diploma is almost always required. Apprentices generally train to be either ophthalmic surfacers, who train in lens grinding and related activities, or ophthalmic finishers, who concentrate on eyeglass assembly and frame repair.
Vocational, technical, or community college programs usually last from one to two years; graduates generally receive certificates or associate’s degrees. Upon graduation, these beginning technicians will still require some on-the-job training in addition to their formal instruction.
Certification or Licensing
Licensing requirements for ophthalmic laboratory technicians vary from state to state. In states where licensing is required, technicians must meet certain standards of education and training and pass a written examination. Students who are considering a career in this field should consult with their guidance counselors or contact their state’s licensing board directly to find out about licensing requirements.
Ophthalmic laboratory technicians use precision instruments to measure and mark lenses for grinding. Therefore, you need to have good vision and well-developed hand-eye coordination. In addition, you should have mechanical aptitude, an interest in mathematics and science, and a tolerance for close detail work.
Exploring Ophthalmic Laboratory Technician Career
To find out more about a career in ophthalmic laboratory technology, visit the shops and laboratories where ophthalmic laboratory technicians work. Part-time or summer employment in an ophthalmic laboratory or a retail optical shop in any kind of position (even as a messenger or stock clerk) may provide opportunity to observe firsthand the skills needed in this field.
Approximately 25,000 ophthalmic laboratory technicians are employed in optical retail stores, offices of ophthalmologists and optometrists, medical equipment and supplies manufacturing companies, and ophthalmic laboratories.
Some ophthalmic laboratory technicians enroll in a formal training program to gain marketable technical skills and to meet contacts for job location assistance. Others opt for on-the-job training. High school graduates can apply for such training directly at the personnel offices of ophthalmic laboratories or retail outlets known to hire technicians. State and private employment agencies and classified ads in newspapers can be good sources for job leads.
Ophthalmic laboratory technicians can advance as they gain experience and technical skills. They may become supervisors or managers or assist in the training of newer technicians. With additional training and education, many technicians become dispensing opticians. Dispensing opticians are responsible for measuring and fitting customers with eyeglass frames and contact lenses, reading customers’ prescriptions for lenses, and preparing work orders for the ophthalmic laboratory technicians who will fabricate the lenses.
Some technicians who gain extensive experience in laboratory dispensing and the managerial aspects of ophthalmic laboratory work start businesses of their own.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, median annual earnings for ophthalmic laboratory technicians were $11.89 an hour, or $24,470 a year, in 2005. The lowest paid 10 percent earned less than $8.12 an hour ($16,980 a year), and the highest paid 10 percent earned $18.71 or more an hour ($38,920 a year).
Some ophthalmic workers are members of unions, and their wages and benefits are determined by negotiation. Those who start their own businesses have earnings dependent on the success of their business; generally they make much more than those who are not self-employed.
Ophthalmic laboratory technicians usually work in well-lighted, well-ventilated surroundings. However, they usually work with noisy machinery. In addition, some of the equipment used for coating, dyeing, and some other processes generates noxious fumes. Safety measures, including wearing goggles and using exhaust hoods to lessen fumes, have reduced many of the hazards encountered in ophthalmic laboratories. Despite these higher safety standards, technicians are still at risk for some accidents while using hand tools or operating lathes and grinding machines.
Most ophthalmic laboratory technicians work five-day, 40-hour weeks and spend most of their days standing. In retail outlets where lenses are guaranteed in an hour, ophthalmic laboratory technicians may be required to work under time restraints. Their work involves superior dexterity and hand-eye coordination and can become extremely tedious or frustrating to someone who lacks the interest in or the ability to do this kind of work.
Ophthalmic Laboratory Technician Career Outlook
Employment for ophthalmic laboratory technicians is expected to grow more slowly than the average through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Job opportunities will arise mainly to replace technicians who transfer to other occupations or retire. However, because the occupation is small, only a limited number of job openings will be created each year.
Rising demand for corrective lenses and faster service in delivering finished eyeglasses will help employment prospects. In addition, overall population growth and especially the growth in the elderly segment (who generally require the most vision care) will also increase the demand for qualified technicians.
These factors will be partially offset by the technological innovations that are being introduced into ophthalmic laboratories, especially the larger laboratories. Machines used to grind and polish lenses are becoming increasingly sophisticated and often are computer-aided. Though these technical developments are increasing technicians’ productivity, the machinery is also eliminating some tasks previously done manually.
Most of the new job opportunities will be in retail stores that make prescription glasses on their own premises rather than at large outside ophthalmic laboratories.