Technicians who think CAD/CAM technology means they'll be replaced by machines can rest easy. Automation has not changed the size of the average laboratory's workforce, but instead is shifting responsibilities between departments and allowing managers to better utilize experienced technicians for more specialized tasks. The majority of respondents to LMT's 2008 Wage survey--78%--say technicians who operate their CAD/CAM systems also still work at the bench.
"Except for the obvious change of using a new tool (computer) to work in a virtual world, rather than traditional tools (wax pen and carving instruments) to work in the real world, it's been a fairly even trade," says Steve Killian, Killian Dental Ceramics, Irvine, California. "Because we've converted many PFM cases to zirconia cases, we trained two of our lost wax/metal technicians to be CAD/CAM technicians." In fact, waxers have become the logical choice for CAD/CAM operators in many laboratories since the technology has lightened their workload.
As CAD/CAM workloads grow, what some CAD/CAM technicians may need to worry about is whether they'll be replaced by unskilled operators. In fact, this is a big point of contention among respondents: whether or not it takes dental technology training to effectively use a CAD/CAM system. In some labs, scanning duties have been assigned to front office personnel, college students and even delivery drivers. One respondent even says, "I've fired the high-paid technicians and use trainees to work the CAD/CAM."
The other side of the argument is that the technology is only as effective as the operator. And although they agree computer literacy will become more and more important in their hiring decisions, these lab owners say there's no substitute for a skilled technician. "Maybe you can train someone to scan a simple zirconia coping that doesn't require a double scan," says Stephen Salmon, owner, Rembrandt Dental Studio, Endicott, New York. "However, to make the decision whether double scanning is needed or whether the coping needs to be modified requires a trained technician."