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Robert Elsenpeter is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Dental Products Report and Digital Esthetics. He is also the author of 18 technology books, including the award-winning Green IT: Reduce Your Information System's Environmental Impact While Adding to the Bottom Line. As such, he’s particularly interested in the technological side of dentistry.
On the 1980s TV show “MacGyver,” the eponymous protagonist was a secret agent who used cunning, skill and whatever was lying around to get out of impossible situations and achieve the mission.
And while most dental lab cases won’t be resolved by using a Swiss Army Knife, Silly Putty and a roll of duct tape, there are some inspirational lessons of resourcefulness that can be learned from Angus MacGyver.
There are many places within your lab that you can repurpose existing materials-along with staff or processes-to save money and improve lab efficiency.
1. If it’s broke, fix it
Lab equipment is expensive enough that it shouldn’t be considered disposable.
Bringing maintenance and repairs in-house can save your lab a lot of money.
“Just think of anything that you send out, and add 30 to 40 percent minimum on what you could do it for yourself. It adds up,” Keating observes. “Sure, you pay someone in-house to do this stuff, but it’ll come back to you tenfold with the savings that you can get.”
2. An ounce of prevention
Like changing the oil in your car or replacing your furnace filter, a little preventative maintenance can save you a lot of repair expense and headache.
“Perform equipment maintenance as regularly as the manufacturer prescribes,” says Shane Palm of Palm Dental Solutions in Colorado Springs, Colo. “Not doing this could lead to costly repairs and shorten the life of the equipment.”
The work tends not to be too difficult.
“A lot of it is stuff that the labs can do themselves,” Palm says. “It’ll tell you right in the instruction manual. It’ll tell you what you need to do, like calibrate the ovens every six months. If you don’t, it can lead to problems in your work and force you to fix something you wouldn’t have had to.”
3. Find your own handyman
If repair and maintenance tasks are outside of your staff’s skill set, finding an in-house maintenance staffer might be a challenge, but it is worth the time and effort to locate.
“If you can find someone who’s retired or some sort of handyman; if you can get the spec sheets for your vacuums, for your porcelain ovens, there are people out there who can be an asset to a dental lab on fixing stuff, even if it’s on a part-time basis,” Keating advises.
4. Multitask your machinery and materials
When possible, use your materials and machinery for more than one application. For instance, if a mill can handle both wax and zirconia, you can save time and money.
“We multipurpose all the materials in our milling machines,” Keating says. “For wax, we have Lava. We have Zirconia. We have PMMA. We also have the Lava Ultimate. So we’re using multiple products in our machines. We used to use one per machine, but we can save some time and some money by multipurposing our milling machines.”
But multipurposing isn’t limited to mills. Discover which other pieces of equipment can be mutitaskers.
5. Share equipment
Labs can save on capital expenses by sharing machinery, when feasible.
“We can get one scanner to be used on four design stations,” Keating says. “3Shape came up with a design that enabled you to do that.”
Once it was possible to share scanners, it opened the door for more productivity in Keating’s lab.
“I had eight design stations and six different 3Shapes and a couple of Dental Wings,” Keating notes. “It used to be nice to be able to have one per tech, but now we have capacity to get another 20 or 30 people on these same machines. It’s great that they were able to open the scanner up to be used by four different design stations.”
6. Monitor your tools
While the big machines are costly to repair or replace when damaged, productivity can be improved and costs reduced when even small tools are properly maintained.
“We get optimal tool usage for our Zirconia milling by keeping track on the hours,” Keating says. “We’ve got about 150 hours minimum for our burs, and then we’ve really got to watch closely for that time on it, because you get less sharpness on your contours and some of your milling, so we do an hourly look just to make sure we’re getting the full usage out of it.”
7. Work within your tools’ tolerance
How you use a tool is as important as what kind of tool that you buy. If you are pushing it too hard, it stands to reason it will wear out sooner, requiring you to buy a replacement earlier than you normally would have to.
“How hard are you working that tool into the material and how fast are you running it into the material matters?” wonders Ryan Faufau, Director of CAD/CAM Resources at Custom Milling Center in Arvada, Colo. “All of these mathematical formulas add up at the end of the day which, in turn, can save you money and time.”
8. Your lab’s junk might just be treasure
Like an episode of “American Pickers,” you might have hidden treasures in your storage cabinets that you don’t even know about. But while most may not be gems, there could be serviceable equipment hidden away.
Remembering his first management job, Palm took inventory of a storage closet that had 25 years of stuff in it.
“I found enough equipment that I could have started another, entire lab,” Palm recalls. “Over the years, all this stuff just got piled up.”
And when you do venture into the storage area, examine it in a methodical way. “Keep like items together and create a re-order sheet,” Palm advises. “This will keep you from ordering stuff you don’t need, and keep your cash in the bank. Any equipment you know you won’t use again, try to sell it.”
9. Lo barato sale caro (the cheap comes out expensive)
Buying low-cost equipment saves money up front, but can cost more in the long run.
Palm remembers one lab tech who spent more money buying the same, inexpensive piece of equipment over and over.
“He’d buy these $300 handpieces because they were cheap, but they’d only last him about a year or two,” Palm remembers. “At the time I was using a Brasseler Upower. I used that thing for six and a half years, and never had a problem with it -and I don’t even know how many years before that it was being used.”
Important equipment knows to break down at the most inopportune times. “When your handpiece breaks down, it’s going to happen on a rush case,” Palm observes. “You’re not going to have the time to deal with a broken handpiece.”
10. Beware trade show impulse buys
Avoid trade show impulse buying, advises Palm. It tends to look better in the show than it does back at the lab.
“If you’re going to buy at a trade show, make sure it’s something you were already looking at purchasing, if the trade show discount is greater than what your local rep can offer,” Palm advises. “The salespeople have a way of hyping their products up, because that’s what they get paid to do, and they do it very well. They explain things so that you think that you can do it in your lab, and then when you get to your lab, you think, ‘This isn’t how I imagined it.’”
11. Manage with supply levels
A seemingly mundane office task is important-simply being aware of supply levels and their usage can mean money.
“We get the maximum use of our supplies,” Keating notes. “We closely monitor the usage of supplies and we monitor the techs for their usage. For the burs and the waxes and the zirconia, we’ve got a usage amount, and we try to keep it in line. If one tech’s using five burs in a week, and we know that the average is two to three, we’ve got a good barometer of what we should be using.”
12. Resourceful recycling
Given the costs associated with the precious metals used in dental labs, it makes sense to try and recover every bit of metal that goes unused. The more you recover, the more you save.
“We recycle our gold,” Keating says. “We have extra vacuums at every desk for the people who are grinding on alloys, and we scrape the floors each night. We put rugs under all our metal finishers, and we have certain rugs that we get from different refiners. Then we roll those up every three months and we send them off, and they recycle them. We get our gold alloy scrap out of there.”
“It’s a good thing to do,” adds Keating. “Otherwise, it’s a loss.”
13. Conserve material
There can be a tendency to overbuild restorations and then grind them down to the necessary size. However, building the cases as close to the size as possible saves on waste.
“Even when we’re building up our crowns, we’re building up the crowns correctly, so there isn’t a lot of waste,” Keating says. “A lot of labs will build up extra big, and kind of grind in. We try to build to contour. It saves so much at the end of the day. With 40 different ceramists, and a couple grams extra on each crown, that adds up. We really try to make sure the crowns are built correctly so porcelain isn’t wasted.”
14. Promote professional plastering
Plasterers can optimize their technique by strictly following the recipe for plaster, and some specialized equipment can help.
“For the plasterers, using Smartboxes is so important,” Keating says. “They assure the correct liquid to powder ratios, so it really helps ensure no waste, but it also ensures we have better fits when the right liquids are used and the right amount of powder is used. It’s kind of like a cake mix. You can’t put two cups of milk in when they’re asking for one cup of milk. Everything is really measured and calculated perfectly.”
15. Practice proper porcelain procedures
When your lab moves from one type of porcelain to another, be sure to use up whatever is left in stock.
“Labs never finish using all of the old porcelain, and then it just gets stuck in the supply closet for years,” Palm says. “This could add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars wasted. If you’re thinking of switching systems, buy the smaller bottles of porcelain, as needed, especially the shades that are not used a lot. Also, have some restraint and wait on using the new system until almost all of the old material is used and/or start using new porcelain for just the shades that run out. This pretty much goes for when purchasing any new materials to replace old materials like stone, waxes, burs, etc.”
16. Cut more pieces of the pie
By optimally nesting your crowns within zirconia pucks, you save material, and, therefore, money.
“In the early days, we wouldn’t nest everything properly,” Keating remembers. “Where we should have gotten 30 restorations on a puck, we may have gotten 23 or 24. Now we’ve really got it calculated to where we can get every single part of that puck used, every single time, so we’re using optimal nesting for our zirconia crowns, and we’re always getting the maximum usage out of our pucks.”
17. Use every part of the animal
Once a zirconia puck looks like a piece of Swiss cheese, there is still more for which it can be used.
“Even the pucks with 30 holes in it from all the restorations, we can send that in and have it recycled,” Keating says. “For every 20 blanks that we use, we might be able to get one whole puck out of it.”
“We have a manufacturer who wants to purchase our zirconia and recycle it,” Faufau adds. “They want to pay us to do that. We can gain some profit back from something that we thought was garbage.”
18. Do your research
Investigate your materials and find those that work with new products.
“When we started doing full contour with Zirconia, I went into the Henry Schein design catalog and I bought every diamond from each manufacturer,” Faufau says. “I tried every one and I found the one that would last the longest with the zirconia material that we were milling at the time. If I can find a tool that can last 80 percent longer, how much money are you saving there?”
19. Step out of your material comfort zone
Labs can get into a rut of using the same material, simply because they’re comfortable using it. “Your supplier can probably help you find something that’s less expensive, and yet still maintains most of the physical properties,” says James Ellison, Technical and Educational Services Manager at Sterngold Dental in Attleboro, Mass. “There are ways of stepping down one category without losing those characteristics. I know lab technicians hate to change alloys. If you’re using a lot of alloy, a small savings can make a difference in a year.”
20. Reuse what you can
Even the seemingly minor things you use in the lab can save a little bit here and there, equating to meaningful savings over months or years.
“Re-use the jewel cases that crown and bridge work are sent to the doctors in,” Palm says. “These little cases may be inexpensive individually, but over time they can add up to a significant amount. You can also use the older or worn ones as bur holders in your desk, or for holding other small parts, such as implant screws and parts.”
21. Milk isn’t the only thing that expires
Take a look through your supply cabinets and closets, and make sure things with expiration dates haven’t reached the end of their lives.
“I know a lot of lab materials and supplies have long shelf lives, but you will want to check the dates and use up the materials with the closest expiration date,” Palm advises. “It’s another good reason to organize your supply closet. Avoid buying bulk quantities of materials with a short shelf life, if you know you can’t use it by the expiration date.”
22. In case you don’t just have $150,000 lying around
An expensive milling machine might be financially out of reach for your lab, but that doesn’t mean complex restorations are completely beyond your capability, and they needn’t be as difficult as they have historically been. “If I’m a small lab, I really can’t afford a $150,000 milling machine,” Ellison observes. “So what can I do without that? Everyone knows the old way. We can keep a plastic pattern, use a Hader Bar, you’d sprue it, and invest it, and cast it, but there are now prefabricated modular bars like the SFI-Bar, which gives you all or more advantages than the milled bar, but you don’t have to go buy a milling machine or send it out to somebody who has one.”
Keep reading to learn about ways to make your workflow digital.
23. Do it all digitally
The all-digital workflow is the panacea of laboratory workflows, and for good reason-it saves time and money. If your lab is capable of performing work based on intraoral scans, taking advantage of that will help your lab. And virtually anything can be made based on an intraoral scan.
“We can create basically anything you could, historically,” Faufau says. “You’re not limited by any type of restoration from that chairside scan, unless you’re talking about a full-arch case.”
24. Do it the right way
While it can be tempting to take short cuts, that usually creates more work than doing it the proper way.
“One of the important things I’ve learned over the past 49 years is not to cut corners,” Ellison says. “When I was young and foolish, I would do something and get away with it. And then you think that you can do it all the time, and, of course, it doesn’t happen. So you end up wasting as much time and money as you ever got. So I learned to become more conservative over the years in my approach.”
25. Spend time and money to save time and money
In some cases, spending the extra time to perform a seemingly superfluous step can save more time than it consumes.
“One of the things you’ll find, is that people don’t want to take the time to make a duplicate model, so they’ll build the restoration on the master model,” Ellison notes. “Usually, when we process denture-on-top-of-a-model, we destroy the model, because we have to break the stone out of the denture, and so we have no model left on which to deliver the case to the doctor. If you don’t have a model, you can’t prove you did your job right. I always go the extra step of making a duplicate model. We end up destroying that model, but you still have that original master model when you deliver the case.”
Adds Ellison, “If I invest 15 or 20 minutes, it usually saves me two or three hours of wasted time and gnashing of teeth.”
26. “When all else fails, read the instructions.”
“I had a sign in my laboratory, but we considered it a joke, that said, ‘When all else fails, read the instructions,’ ” Ellison says. “Unfortunately, I find that too many people do live that way. You’d say, ‘Oh, I know how to do that.’ So you’d just jump in and go forward. If you haven’t done something ever or if you haven’t done it for a while, I find that reading the instructions helps. It sounds kind of dumb and basic, but spending a few more minutes there can save you hours of wasted time.”
Continue reading to see how you can use webinars to market your lab.
27. Use webinars to market your lab
You can promote your lab without having to walk out the front door or expend a lot of money. A webinar is easy to produce using only your computer and a camera-and any computer made in the last five years likely has a camera built into it.
Ellison suggests using webinars to market your laboratory to dentists. They are useful for promotion both locally and around the world.
“I don’t think you have to get in your car and go and knock on somebody’s door,” Ellison says. “For 85 percent of the population, the greatest fear they have is public speaking, but it’s a little easier when it’s just your computer. There’s just that little green light there. You don’t see any of the faces out there, so it’s not quite as intimidating.”
28. Use webinars for CE credits
Webinars are useful for selling your business, but also for adding value for the doctors who already use your services. Ellison suggests using webinars to help doctors earn continuing education (CE) credits.
“Doctors like to get CE credits, and we don’t see a lot of great attendance at dental meetings,” Ellison says. “Yet they often need CE credits for their continued licensure.”
Still not sold on doing a webinar? You can pay someone else to do them for you.
“Even if you don’t want to do them, you can hire someone to do them, and your lab can serve as the sponsor,” observes Ellison.
29. Repurposing people
As technology changes the face of dental labs, there might be some positions that are no longer needed. In such cases, retraining to a new role helps both the technician and the lab.
“How do we utilize their knowledge and ability as a technician with the ever-changing technological world that we’re approaching?” Faufau asks. “If I take someone who could wax, and now they’re designing; and I take somebody who was doing model work, and now they’re scanning model work, or importing digital scans, they have the knowledge of dental terminology and the business from what it’s come from, and they’re able to step up to that position and perform.”
30. Use your people and facilities strategically
Sometimes deploying your workers like chess pieces is advantageous. By understanding how work flows through your lab, you can utilize employees and their skills most efficiently.
“Re-organize the lab,” Palm adds. “Move equipment and areas around to find the perfect flow. Think of a river or an assembly line. It flows in one continuous direction but doesn’t zigzag back and forth over itself. A case should come in the front door and move through the lab in one direction until it heads back out the door. Extra movement builds in wasted time and reduces efficiency.”
Sometimes, the keys to saving money are within view and you might not even realize it! By wisely utilizing what you have, your lab can reap the benefits.
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Dental Lab Products. For articles on other great lab tips, products and techniques, click here to subscribe to DLP’s newsletter bit.ly/dentallabenews.