A big thank you Kyla Lau for answering our questions
1. What is it that you do? I’m the Supervisor of the Custom Silicone Lab, with a background in prosthetics as a Registered Technician. I work with ateam of 8 technicians and 2 clinical specialists and together we create prosthetic and orthotic devices. Here at Ottobock, we’re a manufacturer and our department specializes in silicone products. Facilities all over North America will have clients that want silicone restorations such as partial hands or feet, which are high end restorations and our job is to create those devices based on casts, measurements and photographs that are sent to us. We also fabricated custom liners and sockets, combining the benefits of silicone with standard materials such as resins. My job involves communicating with Practitioners and together, we develop a design that would provide the best solution for the clients. I am also involved in creating quotes, cast modifications and overseeing the work flow in the lab. I am a resource for technicians when unique jobs come in and we need to come up with a specific design. My supervisory role includes managing staff, annual performance reviews and maintaining a high functioning lab.
2. What do your technicians do? The techs in the lab take the jobs when they come in and communicate with the Prosthetists to find out any sort of extra details related to the actual fabrication of the job. For example, for a custom locking liner, technicians need to confirm where they want the distal connector, alignment of the distal pin, any softer gel pads required or fabric covering. Once they get all that information and the quote has been approved, they would be working on cast preparations and fabricating the device by colour mixing the silicone to the chosen colour, rolling out the silicone to desired thicknesses and then applying it onto the cast. Once the fabrication of the device is complete, they would finish up the device, get it all packaged up, and ship it out the customer. In regards to custom hands and feet, a major component to the fabrication involves sculpting the silicone to produce the prosthesis. They would apply thin layers of coloured silicone that they have mixed, and manipulate the silicone to the desired shape and measurements. While referring to a sound side cast, they would mimic textures, veins and even hair patterns if desired!
3. What attracted you most to silicone? It's creative work! It certainly has its challenges but in general working with Prosthetics involves being hands-on, making devices within the medical field and doing it with silicone is a unique method to achieve a realistic look. The opportunity came up to work with Silicone and I took it. It’s a creative avenue in this profession that fits well with my interests.
4. What additional education or specialized training did you get to be a silicone tech, and where did you receive it? Basically, hands on at Ottobock. I completed the Technical O&P Program at GBC after getting my B.Sc. at University of Waterloo. This educational background provided me with a good foundation from which I could build upon, and from there it was all hands on. I have also received training in Germany at our Ottobock headquarters and continue to work with the Silicone fabrication team there. I had great mentors when I first started and still do! Working with such a talented and creative team within Ottobock has helped me improve constantly. I attend P&O conferences and from there I see how we can incorporate relevant information to our work here.
5. What kind of challenges do you face daily, both as a supervisor, and as a technician? Since we don’t see most of our customers, keeping up with communication in a timely manner can get me bogged down in emails and phone calls throughout the day. There can be a lot of administrative work involved which can sometimes get time consuming. Managing the expectations of our customers is imperative. Being a supervisor and managing a team can have its challenges. I’m really fortunate that the team I work with gets along really well. I do need to consider interpersonal relationships and developing goals for individuals to help them perform at their best. I also need to look at the business aspect of my role and review costs and material consumptions and ensuring the team has the equipment and tools required to keep the lab running smoothly. It is challenging fabricating high end cosmetic work, especially in terms of the colour matching. The desired colour of a device is so individual and can be perceived differently. When you are trying to match the skin tone, it is important to understand skin tone changes from minute to minute, so colour matching can be very challenging. It is important for us to go over expectations and explain the nature of silicone to our clients. Also, not having complete involvement with the end users presents challenges since we are a third party provider.
6. Do you feel as though Prosthetists understand the scope of what you can do as a silicone tech? It is part of our job to educate those that are not aware of the scope of what we do in the Silicone department. We usually get complex jobs; really unique projects that involve a lot of brainstorming, to which there are no textbooks to provide complete solutions. So, daily, we're problem solving and brainstorming new ideas, and new ways to fabricate. We try to share this information and have written articles in the Alignment magazine or presented at the conferences.
7. Could you give a quick example of a time where your team needed to brainstorm? We had a client with a congenital limb deficiency and wanted to do weightlifting. They had part of their palm and the length was not the same as the sound side. They required a custom socket that would be able to accommodate their hand as well as weightlifting bars in different positions. Coming up with a design that would fit their lifestyle, provide the function that they wanted, making it safe and light, and combining all of that and making sure that it fits well was a challenge. The design process is exciting but it is important to keep in mind that we will need to be able to execute the design. We needed to consider materials and how to blend them all together. We do have trials, just like a check socket, to check alignment of adaptors, and proper fit for the client. We can tweak the design and create another trial before fabricating the final design. This process can involve multiple members of the team. An individual could come up with an idea and we like to bounce it off each other, and in the end we usually end up with a functional and pretty cool device.
8. Do you feel as though there is more area for growth in the field, within silicone, and if so, what is the next step? To add onto that, you mentioned one of the challenges you face is colour matching in silicone, do you feel as though there will be technology for that in the future? I definitely I think there’s room for growth. If you’re in a field where there’s no growth, it’s not really exciting. In this industry, there’s always space for improvement, and when that happens, what's important is to be part of it, and learn from the people that are making these leaps forward. Within the Ottobock branches, there are R&D groups and we learn from them. In our lab we often are testing out techniques and/or materials seeing if this or that will work.
In terms of colour determination, there are instruments that exist that help determine colour. For example there’s an instrument that you can scan a product and it will tell you what pantone colour it is, but that doesn’t help me mix the silicone; I still need to determine how many drops of red, blue and/or yellow pigment is necessary to achieve that colour when mixed with silicone.
9. Are you comfortable talking about wages? I’ll keep this pretty general. A ballpark salary for an entry-level technician could be around $40,000 per year.
10. Do you feel as though registering as a technician, promotions along the way and experience will increase the salary? Absolutely. Salaries can change if a technician becomes registered and with experience and tenure. This will vary from facility to facility so these are great questions to ask during an interview!
11. What is the work life balance like? How many hours a week would you be working? In addition to my job here at Ottobock, I also work at GBC as a part-time faculty member. On a regular basis, it's usually a 40-hour work week plus any additional time required for marking projects and tests!
12. Finally, is there anything else you’d like to share to students graduating, or those looking to come into the field should know? Keep an open mind about where you start your career. Opportunities are out there and goals can change over time. Find a place where you enjoy what you do, and also the people that you work with. You're going to spend a lot of time with them, so for me, the people and the environment are just as important as the job.
If you would like more information on the type of silicone products we do at Ottobock, check out this site.