How to manage a soft CAD/CAM launch with a design station

March 5, 2013

Adding a design station is probably the lowest-impact way to bring some in-house CAD/CAM to your lab.

Adding a design station is probably the lowest-impact way to bring some in-house CAD/CAM to your lab.

These days, it’s almost impossible to picture a business operating without a computer. So, while digital production may not be finding its way into every dental lab in the United States, computerization of some part of the business has probably already occurred.

That standalone computer may be handling records and-via an Internet connection-providing a means of communicating with dentists about prescriptions and case details. It also could provide a relatively low-impact jumping-off point for labs looking to take a step into CAD/CAM production, or an easy way for labs to add capacity to their digital design capabilities.

From full systems with in-house production capabilities to both closed- and open-architecture scanner-based systems that rely on outsourcing the production end of the process, all dental laboratory CAD/CAM systems have one common feature: the computer-fabricated restorations are designed via software in a virtual environment. Adding digital capabilities can really be as simple as installing one of those software applications to a computer already present in the lab.

Well, maybe not the computer being used just for record keeping and communications because dental lab CAD software requires a computer with a bit more power than the average PC. It takes a higher-specification PC to get the best performance from Delcam’s DentCAD application, said Sheila Cullers, Delcam’s North American Dental Business Development Manager.

WHAT SOFTWARE ALONE CAN DO

While many of the digital dental design programs are sold as a package with a scanner, DentCAD and 3Shape’s DentalDesigner™ are available as software alone, which can be a starting point for labs beginning to transition into a more digital workflow.

Cullers said DentCAD is designed to bring efficiencies to labs with any level of digital design experience.

“It allows you to increase productivity and flexibility, whether you already use a 3D dental CAD program or are looking to migrate from the manual process of creating dental restorations into a 3D CAD design environment,” she said. “The intuitive user interface guides the user through the entire process to create dental restorations. No prior CAD/CAM experience is required.”

These software applications are designed for use in a broad range of indications such as straightforward full-contour crowns to be produced on a mill, anatomical copings designed to provide optimal support for veneering ceramics, and the design of implant bars and customized abutments for the most complex implant-supported restorations. A digital design station is a true multi-disciplinary addition to a lab.

Learning to use this software effectively is critical for the investment in digital technology to provide a return, and Cullers said Delcam prefers to do software training via face-to- face formats for all new users, with remote training via the Internet or over the phone reserved for support questions from experienced users.

Working in a virtual 3D environment still requires attention to the same details technicians handle when waxing up a case traditionally, but the software is designed to automate some steps and keep track of variables that come with individual clinical situations.

FROM VIRTUAL TO PHYSICAL

Of course, taking a digital design from a computer screen and turning it into something that can be placed in a patient’s mouth requires more than just software, and this is where partnerships are important.

Both DentCAD and DentalDesigner are “open” applications designed to work with standard file formats that can be output for a wide range of production workflows and materials.

Knowing how the final restoration will be produced from the digital design is a critical first step to the design process. Cullers said the material choice will impact the design, and the software can help ensure appropriate thicknesses are being built into the restoration design to provide the desired strength and esthetics.

For labs without in-house production capabilities, the manufacturing step will need to be handled by a trusted outsource partner. Who that is will likely depend on a range of factors, but with open design software applications, dental labs can link up with a wide range of milling and production facilities.

INPUT NEEDED

All this talk of production is missing the first part of the digital dental laboratory workflow. Without a digital intraoral capture or a digitized physical impression, there is no data from which to start the designing within the software.

Cullers said this is why today most labs making their way into the CAD/CAM production side of the industry choose to add a scanner along with their software. Still open software applications such as DentCAD and DentalDesigner are designed to accept data from more than just the scanners from Delcam or 3Shape.

This means a lab that already has a scanner can probably add a DentCAD design station while continuing to use that scanner, or could try to take on overflow cases from another lab with a scanner. These connections open a new business model for an all-digital lab, taking in cases from dentists using digital impressions and outsourcing the production after designing the restoration virtually.

But while that may be a low-impact entry into dental lab CAD/CAM, the relatively small number of dentists scanning at chairside means for now it makes much more sense to add a scanner as a part of a lab’s digital transition.