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    How to create a digital lab

    A healthy, fully-digital dental lab isn't impossible—see how one owner did it.

    On the shore of Lough Corrib in Ireland stands Ashford Castle, a medieval castle from the 13th century. The five-star hotel has attracted a long list of notable guests, from princes to queens, actors and US presidents. Its unique personality, charm, and friendly customer service inspired Sean Thompson to name his orthodontic laboratory after Ashford with the aim to profess the same qualities for the orthodontic industry.

    Having worked for several years in the Orthodontic and Maxillofacial Department at Sunderland Royal Hospital, Sean identified the growing demand for orthodontics, but the distinct shortage of high-quality laboratories capable of offering specialized orthodontic technical services. 

    He founded Ashford Orthodontics in his garage in 2001, and as the clientele quickly started to expand, Craig Stevens and Graeme Winyard joined the board. Today, the three specialised orthodontic technicians manage the largest orthodontic laboratory in the United Kingdom with a 12,000 square foot facility and over 50 employees.

    Sean has always strived to keep the lab at the forefront of the industry, which today is more important than ever, as orthodontics is in the midst of undergoing its most significant technological evolution to date, from traditional workflows to digital technologies.

    Read on to learn to how Ashford created a digital department from scratch that now produces 1,200 clear aligners and retainers a month running a fleet of 12 3D printers, and achieves a cost advantage that empowers the lab to grow and attract new customers.

    Starting and scaling a digital department

    Ashford Orthodontics first started experimenting with digital orthodontics five years ago. 

    “Digital orthodontics was something we knew we had to get into. We couldn't afford not to do it if we really wanted to be a leading player within orthodontics,” Sean said. “We wanted to be an early implementer. Any business has to plan four or five years ahead, and you don't want to be left behind when others are moving on.”

    At first, the lab purchased two Stratasys Objet30 3D printers; industrial machines that were marketed specifically for orthodontics. They gained experience with the digital workflow and started accommodating digital jobs from clinicians, but because of the high cost and complexity of operating these large-scale 3D printers, the lab struggled to make a viable case for digital in their business. 

    “You had to invest a lot in software upgrades and keeping [the machines] serviced and calibrated every year, to the point that once you factor in the actual resin costs, you couldn't really produce a model for the price that we wanted to produce it, and certainly not in the volume we wanted,” Sean said.

    Form 2 printers in the lab12 Form 2 printers“Plus with any printer, if you build your business around it, you can't just have one, you need to have two, and you need to run both of them at 50 percent. In case one goes down, you can always upscale the other to 100 percent. With the Stratasys machines, it was very expensive to grow a bank of those printers, so we decided that we would want a smaller printer, which could work harder for us, but then we could keep adding them. That's why we decided to go with Formlabs, and we've never regretted it,” Sean said. 

    The lab started off with one printer, then quickly scaled up to two, four, and at present, they’re running 12 Form 2 printers. At the same time, the number of personnel in the digital department has grown from one technician to a team of eight digital technologists who are a blend of qualified technicians and computer experts.

    “The Form 2 is very reliable; we call it a workhorse. We know when we go home at night that when we come in in the morning, everything will be printed. There's not going to be a failure; everything will be there. Because of that, we can build our business around them,” Sean said. 

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