How to become an optical lab technician (with skills)

Updated 30 May 2023

If you have strong attention to detail and like working with people, becoming an optical laboratory technician may be right for you. Optical lab technicians produce spectacles using advanced equipment and optometry software. Learning about how to pursue this career can help you decide if the role is suitable for you. In this article, we explain how to become an optical lab technician, explore some of the role's daily duties and share skills that help technicians succeed.

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What is an optical lab technician?

An optical laboratory technician produces spectacles and contact lenses. They glaze lenses and follow individual prescriptions that may require tinting the lenses or applying a scratch-resistant coating. Technicians may also repair spectacle frames or replace broken lenses. Technicians working in-house for eyewear shops may work with customers, helping them choose the right lenses and frames. Optical technicians may also be responsible for administrative duties, such as checking stock and preparing purchase orders to make sure the laboratory has access to high-quality materials and resources. Optical technicians usually work under the supervision of optometrists and opticians.

Related: How to become a lab technician

How to become an optical lab technician

Learning how to become an optical lab technician informs you about the role's educational and qualification requirements. Below are the steps to becoming an optical technician.

1. Complete relevant training

There are no formal educational requirements for optical technicians. Employers expect candidates to have good numeracy and literacy skills, which you can demonstrate via your GCSE or A-levels. If you don't have any optical lab experience, an apprenticeship is a great way to expand your education while working part-time in order to become an optical lab technician. As an apprentice, you may start by supporting an experienced technician or optometrist, performing simple duties such as reading prescriptions and recording lens information. As you gain experience and knowledge, your employer may allow you to start operating optical machinery and learn how to produce spectacles and contact lenses.

You can also consider completing a level 3 optical assistant apprenticeship. On average, it takes between 15 and 18 months to complete this course. This apprenticeship also prepares you for working in a customer-facing role, and it may help you advance your optometry career. You could also consider undertaking a level 4 diploma for optical technicians, which takes two years to complete. Here are some modules that you may study as part of this qualification:

  • theory of lens surfacing

  • maths for optical manufacturing

  • properties of ophthalmic lenses

  • spectacle lens materials

  • standards in the spectacle industry

Related: The pros and cons of apprenticeships to guide your career

2. Gain work experience

This step may be easier if you choose to complete a relevant apprenticeship, as the programme requires course providers to give you an opportunity to test your skills during on-the-job training. If you want to enter the profession by applying directly, you can increase your chances of becoming an optical technician by finding a job that requires you to operate machines and follow production procedures. It's also beneficial to have experience working in a role that requires attention to detail and expert precision.

Related: Detail-oriented skills: definition, tips and examples

3. Learn about industry regulations and standards

The body that sets standards for optometrists, dispensing opticians, optical students and optical shops is the General Optical Council (GOC). The GOC ensures consistency in the quality of products and care that optical specialists provide to patients and customers. Familiarising yourself with these regulations is especially useful if you plan to work in a customer-facing role, for example, helping customers choose the right frames or lenses. If you want to focus on spectacle and contact lens production, thorough knowledge of the standards is mandatory for making sure the products you give customers are high quality and safe for them to wear daily.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

Related: Legal and ethical standards: what's the difference?

4. Maintain a good level of fitness

Optical lab technicians rarely lift heavy objects, but the role requires them to be physically fit and execute manual labour tasks. For example, you may spend your workdays packing lenses and spectacles, assembling products or cleaning work areas and machinery. Maintaining a good level of fitness helps you spend longer periods of time standing or walking.

5. Complete on-the-job training

Once you secure a job, your employer is likely to provide you with onboarding resources, which help you learn about your new working environment. Even if you've worked as an optical technician before, use this opportunity to learn about specific products that your employer manufactures or carries, such as different types of lens additions. Developing an expert understanding of what's in stock can help you make better recommendations and improve the accuracy of your work.

Related: What is a new employee welcome pack? (Benefits and ideas)

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Optical lab technician skills

Optical lab technicians use soft skills, such as communication, attention to detail and organisation. In addition to these interpersonal abilities, successful technicians regularly improve their qualifications by strengthening their practical skills. Below are some useful hard skills for this role.

Computer-controlled machinery and optical software experience

Optical technicians use a range of machinery to create contact lenses and spectacles. For example, you may use computer-controlled polishing systems to automate lens polishing. Thanks to the complex optical systems, you can control the pressure with which machines remove tool marks and level the lens surface without putting in physical labour. This also helps you produce more spectacles during each shift, as the machines make the process more efficient. Software that the optical industry uses ranges from database and customer management to medical billing and practice management tools.

Read more: 8 essential laboratory technician skills

Prescription processing experience

As part of their daily duties, optical technicians process and analyse optical prescriptions. It's necessary to be familiar with the acronyms that optometrists and opticians use to describe a customer's optical needs. Here are examples of elements that you can find on a typical prescription:

  • SPH: SPH means sphere. It represents the strength of lenses, which opticians measure in dioptre units.

  • CYL: CYL stands for cylinder. It represents the lens power that a customer may require to correct their astigmatism.

  • Axis: Axis is the lens meridian, which opticians express as a number between 1 and 180. The number indicates the direction of the lens's cylindrical power.

  • PD: PD stands for pupillary distance. It's a number that measures the distance between the centres of a customer's pupils.

  • Add: This is the spectacles' magnifying power, which opticians may include on a prescription for customers who require additional lens correction. Usually, this instructs technicians to create spectacles that allow customers to see objects at close distances.

Related: How to become an ophthalmic technician (with key skills)

Basic eye care and treatment competency

Optical technicians don't treat patients, but those who work with customers may educate them on proper eye care methods. For example, you may share advice that customers can use to prevent their eyes from drying out when wearing contact lenses. To make sure you know what advice to provide, it's mandatory to stay up to date with the latest eye care recommendations and regulations.

Related: What is an optometrist? (Common duties and work environment)

Familiarity with eyewear trends

For some people, spectacles are not only medical devices but also fashion items that complement their style. If you work in a customer-facing role and regularly explore eyewear styles, knowledge of current trends can make it easier to build relationships and trust. In addition to learning about fashionable frame shapes and materials, it may be useful to gain knowledge about concepts like beauty types and colour theory. This way, you can help customers select frames and lenses that complement their natural features or allow them to achieve a desired look.

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