Does being a “local” lab still have any value when it comes to business and clinician relationships?
Technically, the internet traces its roots back to the 1960s as a way for government computers to share information with each other. But, its official birthday is widely recognized as January 1, 1983, when an official protocol made it possible for any computer to communicate with another. It wouldn’t be for another decade until the internet, as we know it, exists. And, since the mid-’90s, the internet has changed every facet of our lives – especially business and the way we work.
Dental labs, however, have a somewhat inverse development. There used to be a time where dentists were served by local laboratories. After taking an impression, the case would be submitted to a local laboratory where it would be completed and returned to the dentist. But times are changing. The number of dental labs in the United States continues to decrease. Depending on one’s point of view, the internet can be seen as a villain or a savior—or maybe correlation simply does not imply causation. Thanks to intraoral scanning and digital dentistry, dental labs don’t have to be down the street. The case can be submitted to a lab across the street or 3,000 miles away.
It begs the question: Does a lab’s location still matter?
Location, Location, Location
It’s no secret that the lab industry is changing. Consolidation has had a drastic impact on the business of dental laboratories. Another fundamental change is labs’ ability to service clients from next door or across the country. Labs can, obviously, do both, but where they put their energies is dependent on their focus.
“I believe it all depends on the business model,” David Turpin, owner of Spartan Dental Lab, observes. “Location matters if you want to your message to be ‘you’re the local lab experts’. Then I believe location matters. However, I think that you can portray this message and also attract business from elsewhere. Because of digital, we are able to do things that we weren’t able to do before.”
Jack Marrano, CDT, Absolute Dental Services Director of Signature Prosthetics, says that labs can be just as effective whether they are in the same town or thousands of miles away, but it depends on the service that they provide.
“I would have to say no, but with conditions,” he says. “I have always worked on a national basis. The key to success, when working as a non-local laboratory, is being able to provide the same level of service, or better, and the same quality, or better. For me, I have always been able to succeed in both of these areas by providing a level of service and quality that a clinician may not be able to find locally. It is tricky. A lot of clinicians still ‘feel’ that they get better service utilizing a local lab. I feel that group has been minimized as it has become easier to work with a non-local partner utilizing technology. Social media has been able to expand our reach dramatically.”
Conrad Rensburg, Owner & Head of Dental Implants, Absolute Dental Services, echoes that sentiment.
“I think there’s still some value in face-to-face relationships, playing golf with somebody,” Rensburg says. “What I see in business today is that, no, I don’t think a local lab has as big an advantage. High quality trumps being local. High quality will still beat a local lab. I don’t think a dentist would send to a local lab because they’re local, if they’re not as good as national lab whose work is consistently better.”
Rune Fisker, Senior Vice President of Product Strategy at 3Shape, says that the type of case has an impact on where it gets sent.
“It’s very case-dependent,” Fisker says. “It matters, but it matters much less than it used to,” he says. “It doesn’t matter when you do an intraoral scan that has been performed and have it sent to a lab. I believe that can be served equally well at a distant lab.”
Technology has provided new opportunities to help service clients. With doctors having their own scanners and manufacturing equipment, it doesn’t mean that labs are cut out altogether. Those labs can provide consultation and design services.
“Designing restorations and sending the file back to them—so they can mill or print in their office—has become more popular,” Turpin says. “This has helped us speed up turnaround time for our clients that are not local. That’s one specific thing I think is a huge value that technology’s brought. We’re able to provide new services.”
And, thanks to digital dentistry, cases can be initiated at the dentist office and then sent anywhere for completion.
“The main part is digital dentistry,” Fisker says. “In the old days, labs were driving down to the dentist or had a pick-up man picking up impressions. Of course, when it comes to scanning and cases being sent, there are no limits anymore. The case can be anywhere in the world with just the single click.”
Maybe the best part—no matter the lab’s location—is that communication is improved. Even for those client doctors that may be next-door, the ability to communicate, virtually, allows for greater efficiency.
“Communication is easier now,” Fisker says. “It’s much easier to communicate, digitally. For instance, now at 3Shape, we have an app where you can just write—with the dentist—around the case, and the dentist can preview the case. He can add photos into the case. So, it’s become so easy to digitally interact. Also, COVID has made us much more digital. It has pushed us forward, in terms of digital communication, digital interaction.”
Those digital designs are valuable when communicating a case. The virtual nature not only makes communication easier, but more efficient and effective—not to mention fast.
“The biggest advancement in our industry is digital design, digital diagnostics, and the ability to communicate with a clinician over the internet,” Rensburg says. “What we do is when we get a big case, we’ll do a diagnostic wax-up, and then we’ll call the clinician, say, ‘Let’s do a TeamView. Let’s show you what we have.’ Believe it or not, it is more valuable than actually sitting next to a clinician and showing him or her a wax-up on an articulator, because we can make changes in real time. We can go back to the patient, add pictures, and we can show them how that influences the final proposal. So, in that case, I think technology has made it much more efficient to work over the internet, versus actually buying a sandwich and running over to the doctor next door and sitting down and discussing the case with him.”
“Technology absolutely has played a huge role in the ability to work with clinicians outside of a laboratory’s local area,” Marrano adds. “With IOS scanner adoption being higher than it ever has—and various forms of digital communication—it has become easier than ever before. The ability to send and receive information and data instantly between laboratory and clinician has greatly improved the lab’s ability to operate outside of its local area.”
Technology has already given labs the opportunity to service clients from a distance. Like anybody else who wound up working from home, the pandemic just gave a nudge to distance working.
“Oh no, it was not a nudge,” Fisker says. “What COVID did was it accelerated the digitalization by 3 to 5 years. That had a massive impact on digitalization. We saw growth. We have seen growth numbers from intraoral scanning to of the main digital indications being designed growing very, very rapidly, almost doubling just after COVID.”
Whether the lab was local or not, having those tools already in place was key for labs when the pandemic hit, providing the mechanisms to keep working.
“I think just having the tools to do digital diagnostic designs and being able to discuss a case by actively changing things while you are talking to each other,” Rensburg says. “‘What happens if we make the cusp a bit shorter? How does that influence the function?’ The pandemic has taught us how to not always default to face-to-face communication, but sometimes it is quicker just to have a Zoom meeting, or sometimes it’s just quicker to get everybody together than wait for the yearly meeting, where you see everybody. So, yeah, I think the pandemic has probably helped us get used to the medium a little bit better or easier or quicker, but I don’t think the pandemic has actually pushed us out of dental offices. I don’t think that’s really the case.”
And it wasn’t just labs that were able to do more with less physical contact. Clinicians also realized the benefits and opportunities of digital dentistry.
“Since the pandemic, I’ve experienced more doctors who have shown more interest in scanners,” Turpin says. “Many have asked for guidance on which scanner works the best for the applications they need it for. They have pulled the trigger on purchasing scanners.”
Communication, again, was enhanced because of the not-so-gentle prod provided by the pandemic.
“It makes for easier communication,” Turpin adds. “With the ability to see files instantly, we are able to get the right information we need without having to ask the patient to come back. This especially helps with distant clients. With the scan, maybe some photos, and other files we may need to complete the case, communication has improved. I think, because of the pandemic, we have found new ways to communicate, better.”
And for some doctors, the pandemic has forced them to seek non-local labs.
“I think, in a way, it has played a role,” Marrano says. “As some laboratories shut their doors, clinicians in some instances, may have been forced to look outside their local area.”
Pandemic or not, digital dentistry was already helping labs provide services to client doctors, no matter where they practice.
“Before the pandemic, I noticed dentists in my area gravitating towards technology, but it was an extremely slow shift,” Turpin says. “We’ve always tried to be ahead of the game and be able to provide for those clients who take on the technology before it became the norm. That way, one day, if everybody just decided to start scanning, we were ready.”
While digital dentistry has opened the doors of opportunity for labs to service far-away clients, there is still value in serving local clients. Chief among them, Rensburg says, is fostering relationships.
“I think the value in having a local customer or being a local lab is that your customer service guys, when they deliver cases, they build relationships with the front desk,” Rensburg says. “They go in and they talk about new products, and they build relationships. When you are local, it still allows you the ability to build those relationships between your customer service guy and the front desk. There’s a definite value there. I don’t think that value will necessarily secure the account as good as high-quality work will, but I think it’s much harder to lose an account where you have face-to-face interaction. I don’t think it’s the ultimate guarantee that you’ll keep their work, but it definitely is harder to stop using a local lab than it is to stop using a national lab.”
Building and fostering that network can certainly be accomplished, digitally, but Fisker observes that it’s better when done in person. There’s also the advantage of being able to deliver cases faster.
“There’s the network effect,” he says. “You can better understand and meet with your dentist. For some cases, the patient actually might want to go to the lab. And of course, there’s also turnaround and rush cases. If you are in China, for instance, it’ll take a couple of days to get something to the US, whereas if you’re down around the corner, you can, of course, do things much faster.
“I think the ability to network with your clients, and being part of the community matters,” he continues. “If you are local, then you would be much more part of a community. I always talk about the lab around the corner: he knows exactly the dentist’s preference. He knows how he preps, he knows how he likes his contacts, and so on. Of course, you could also do that remotely, but the thing is, if your lab has very big scale, then it’s very hard to get down to individual service, and knowing exactly the preferences of each dentist.”
That proximity, says Turpin, allows more personal interaction with the client and cements the lab’s professionalism.
“I think there’s value to it,” Turpin adds. “With local doctors, it’s easier to get to their office. It’s easier to be more personable with them. It’s easier to help them out if they have complex cases. I think there’s value to being their local lab. We have our own delivery service and the drivers have built a rapport with each office when they make their runs, which I think a huge, huge benefit.”
Additionally, like so many other workers during the pandemic, technicians now have the ability to work from home.
“I think there’s also a lot about a technician’s ability to work remotely,” Fisker says. “For instance, if you have a designer—and especially with the general shortage of CAD/CAM designers—you can send the design to their home. You can send the design to their summer house or summer cottage, or you can send the design to the other side of the country. That doesn’t matter so much anymore.”
In the dental laboratory’s story, the internet can be viewed as a villain or the hero. But, it could just as likely be perceived as a random character walking down the street. In any case, dental labs can use the internet as a tool to welcome in customers from anywhere in the world, or, it can help serve those existing clients right down the street.