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Did you ever hear the axiom “you can’t be a little bit pregnant?” In other words, someone either is or is not expecting. There is no in between.The same is true for most dental disease.

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Tech Census 2011

How plugged in is the industry? Do labs need to go high-tech to stay competitive? Which technologies are working for labs, and which are not? What considerations are most important when evaluating new technology? Is the Internet and mobile computing changing the way we work? The inaugural DLP Tech Census looks to answer these and other questions about the impact technology has made on American dental labs.
Dental Lab Products
2011-07
Thu, 2011-06-30 11:08 | Noah Levine

40%

of labs said competing with offshore labs is not at all important when considering new technology investments.
Source: June 2011 DLP Tech Census


63%

of lab owners or technicians who own smartphones or tablet computers use them for lab business.
Source: June 2011 DLP Tech Census.


What makes a system stand out

Click here for details on the factors Ziemek Aesthetic Dental Lab looks at when evaluating new technologies.


Technology away from the bench

Not all technology that can benefit a dental lab is specific to this industry. Click here to read about consumer and chairside technologies that can be beneficial.

The potential for new design and production technologies to reshape the dental laboratory industry is certainly real. When combined with developments in materials, new technologies can be leveraged to increase capacity, achieve efficiencies and even increase the accuracy of the restorations fabricated by American dental laboratories.

But just because things can be done in new ways with new tools, doesn’t mean people want or need to make those changes. With the 2011 Tech Census, Dental Lab Products took a look beyond what technologies are available for dental labs today to ask lab owners and technicians about which technologies they’re actually using and what they see as the most helpful to their business.

The results show an industry interested in the benefits technology can bring, but one moving slowly along the path toward greater automation and computer-driven production. The reasons for this are many, but the experts who shared their thoughts for this story all agreed that labs of all sizes get the most out of technology when they take a deliberate approach to integrating it into their workflows and business models. The high-tech dental lab that’s often talked and written about is still hanging out on the horizon, but based on the survey results, for most of the industry, it remains some distance away.

“Right now it’s like the wild west. It’s a shoot out with everyone throwing time money and energy at these new ideas,” said Dave Lesh, CDT, founder of Dale Dental. “But when you look at the proliferation, what’s actually making its way to the street and how people are using it, I think the reality falls short of what the expectations are.”

Are we high-tech yet?

That same sentiment is shared by Lee Culp, CDT, Chief Technology Officer for DTI. He said the industry is “not even in the ballpark” of having shifted to technology-based manufacturing, and the slow pace of adoption was part of what led him to move from developing CAD/CAM systems for companies such as D4D Technologies to his current role implementing and managing technologies for a network of labs. 

While working for D4D he heard from one lab owner who was happy with his new system, but just using a fraction of its capacity and capabilities. When asked why he wasn’t using it more, Culp said the lab owner replied, “if I did any more my waxers wouldn’t have anything to do.” This showed him that while people want new technologies the commitment to them isn’t always there, and developing technologies that weren’t being used was less fun than putting those systems to work himself.

In his current position, Culp is able to help CAD/CAM and digital production technologies become more than just a department for DTI labs, but an integral part of how the labs work. He said for technology in the industry to ever take off in a big way labs must not only dip a toe into digital systems, but must actually make it a key part of everything they do.

“Are they using it? Have they fully integrated it into their laboratory? Is it a major part of what they do every day? Not even close,” he said.

The Tech Census bears this out. While CAD/CAM systems have made gains in the industry, they are far from being the norm. Just 39% of the survey respondents have invested in a 3D scanner and 28% have a mill for in-lab fabrication of the digital designs, (see “Technology in use”). Even more telling are the statistics showing 20% of labs have no interest in purchasing a scanner and more than a third of respondents said they don’t plan to purchase a mill.

Does it work?

For labs that have not only purchased these systems but successfully integrated them into their business, the investments have been worthwhile. As Lab Manager at Ziemek Aesthetic Dental Lab, which has handled more than 10,000 digital impression files from dentists using 3M ESPE’s Lava C.O.S., and other digital scanners on the market, Jamie Stover, CDT, said adopting and integrating the Lava system along with technologies from 3Shape, Sirona, Dental Wings, and other companies has been very good for his lab.

“Digital impression technology definitely works, and we utilize it in our lab every day. I feel we’ve only scratched the surface of that technology. It’s just going to get more accurate, more affordable, and faster,” he said.

This is a point on which Culp agrees. The technology currently available has the potential to change the industry because of the efficiencies it can bring. Both in his work at technology companies and in his work at DTI, Culp said he has seen a range of economic measurements that always show the benefits of CAD/CAM.

“There’s no question that going digital is a better business model for profitability, efficiency in production, turnaround time and everything you could possibly put a stick to and measure,” he said.

Still labs aren’t yet racing to snatch up systems, Lesh said. While the technology provides a better way to accomplish many tasks labs do every day, it doesn’t provide a better outcome in every single task. Labs evaluating new technologies must be careful to assess where, how and why the investment will benefit the bottom line, and figuring out not just what type of technology will provide the biggest benefit, but what exact system is the best fit for a particular lab. That can be a confusing and time consuming process.

Slow rate of adoption

Labs evaluating scanners and mills aren’t all that different than a consumer looking to buy a new smartphone or an iPad. The rate at which new and improved systems appear can make it difficult to feel good about making an investment, and once a lab does sign the check it has to be ready to stay on top of the system upgrades that will arrive sooner or later.

Lesh said it can be especially difficult for smaller labs to make sure the rewards of the technology will be greater than the financial risks of the purchase. With improvements happening so fast, a lab investing significant capital in something ideal for their business today, might soon find themselves behind the technology curve.

“You’re always chasing the flavor of the month. Now it just becomes a question of how much money you’re going to spend to chase it,” Lesh said. “I think it’s always going to be a problem.”

Waiting for the technology to reach a level where it will be a good fit for the lab is very important, Stover said. While Ziemek is a high-tech operation, the lab hasn’t yet invested in a wax printer or an in-lab model production solution because the available technologies in those areas cannot produce higher quality work, faster and at a lower cost than the technicians on his staff. Until he sees a system that can accomplish that, he’s happy with the way his lab operates today.

For it to be a successful investment, adding a new technology needs to involve more than just finding something that adds efficiencies, plugging it in and powering it up. It needs to be a commitment from the whole lab to doing things in a new way, and that involves business planning, training and a commitment to the transformation.

The new attitude required to succeed with technology needs to be in place before a new system, Culp said. At this point he doesn’t see the shift in mindset happening throughout the industry, and is thus not surprised that technological adoption hasn’t happened at a faster pace.

“We know the technology works, but the biggest changes are not technological. What it really takes is the cultural change and the people change and the philosophical change of moving the manufacturing platform and a full and total commitment of putting every model through that scanner,” he said. “As an industry, we have not made that cultural change.”