Never Slow Down: Ideal Side Hustles for When Dental Lab Business Is Slow

Your career is something you’re always cultivating, and your lab should be constantly growing, too, so that it never slows down.

Summertime is full of vacations, activities, and getting out of the office. All these are undeniably wonderful, but summertime is also the time for one thing dental labs dread: a slow season. Although business always ebbs and flows, there are certain times when labs can expect business to peter off, but it doesn’t have to mean a huge economic hit.

“There are always fluctuations,” says David Turpin, CDT, owner of Spartan Dental Lab in Lansing, Michigan. “Everyone’s trying to take vacations and do things, [especially in the summertime]. You know it’s going to come, so there’s no avoiding it. It’s just about preparing for it.”

Understanding these fluctuations and knowing how to prepare financially is critical, but it’s also beneficial to think about how to reduce the effects of when business is slow. Many lab owners are getting creative with ways to fill the time so they don’t find themselves at a loss for multiple months. Although there are plenty of opportunities outside of the lab to make some extra income (eg, real estate, clever investing, or creative endeavors), there are also options for lab owners who want to keep their side hustles dialed into the industry. So, what’s the best way to resist slowing down during the slow season?

Educate
One way to stay tapped into the industry when business is slow is to be a voice of the industry. Working the lecture circuit, writing for publications, and establishing yourself as a key opinion leader in the field opens doors for paid consulting opportunities or speaking gigs. By becoming an educator, lab owners can set themselves up for industry notoriety, which can in turn attract new clients to their labs.

“Providing education is definitely valuable,” Turpin says. “Everybody’s learning. Everybody’s looking to learn. We are going to start doing events here at our lab and offering more education, because it’s a valuable way to expand.”

Tom Zaleske, CDT, owner of Matrix Dental Laboratory and Consulting in Crown Point, Indiana, has been a dental technician and consultant for over 35 years. In addition to being a talented technician, Zaleske writes for multiple publications, participates in speaking engagements, tests products, and provides consulting services.

“My side hustles are things like writing articles, interviewing, speaking, or anything that has to do with my specialty area,” Zaleske says. “I do solicit for consulting work, and the consulting work fills in the gaps for that, as well. It keeps me in the mix and helps boost overall revenue.”

For technicians who perhaps haven’t been in the industry long enough to gain a real footing as a thought leader, Zaleske recommends laying the groundwork for future education opportunities. By bolstering professional relationships with both clients and colleagues, labs can position themselves to be go-to educators in the future. And there are options for those who don’t have the time or interest in joining the lecture circuit or providing out-of-lab consulting services.

“If you aren’t comfortable getting in front of people outside of the lab or you don’t have the bandwidth, magazines are always looking for articles, and some magazines pay for those,” Zaleske says. “Through COVID-19 times, Zoom meetings and presentations have become a very big thing. So, if you want to put some more money in your pocket, put together a Zoom course or lecture, present [it], and charge for it. Or [you can] do it for your doctors to teach them something new. [You can also] promote something different that you haven’t offered before.”

Zoom sessions and articles are a good way to get a foothold with colleagues, but technicians shouldn’t limit themselves to solely industry networks. Social media also provides a good platform for education.

“LinkedIn is a great tool,” Zaleske says. “I’m very prolific on LinkedIn. It’s very valuable to use it for professional encouragement or professional maturation. It’s a place where if you are working on a [really cool] case and you want to share it with other like-minded individuals, you can do that. And it gets your name out there and helps establish you.”

LinkedIn has the added benefit of getting you in front of people outside of the industry, such as potential patients. “I do it quite a bit [on LinkedIn] because not only does it build me professionally, but I [also] get calls from patients who go online and want to research what they are going to be getting,” Zaleske says. “Patients are looking for more education and want to know what is going in their mouth or figure out why something isn’t working for them. I can make recommendations, then the patient asks the dentist to use me as their laboratory. Part of my solicitation strategy is: Let the patients do it for you.”

Branch Out
With summer—and its associated lull in caseload—right around the corner, now is a great time for labs to explore these and other opportunities to expand their business. In addition to consulting and publishing opportunities, labs can take advantage of the downtime to increase their offerings or venture into entirely new fields. Turpin sees the slow season as a great chance for exploration to see what development opportunities new technology can provide.

“Slow times are good times to do research and make decisions about adding new technologies or expanding offerings,” Turpin says. “It’s good to take the time to weigh the pros and cons of those decisions. It’s also a good time to work on workflow issues or optimize your workflow. We are always trying to think ahead and trying to do something new or innovative.”

Staying ahead of the curve and continually expanding a lab’s service menu through the addition of workflow-simplifying technology helps increase business and positions the lab to be able to accept a wider variety of case types in the future. This can be an attractive proposition to dentists who want to provide their patients with high-quality results while building a solid relationship with a trusted lab. However, Zaleske cautions that it’s important not to overreach. The quickest way to lose a client is to overpromise and underdeliver because a lab doesn’t know how to correctly utilize its new technology.

“I try to bring in 2 different types of offerings a year,” Zaleske says. “I stick to that, because you have to implement them, then they have to become standard. The problem is if you bring in too much, then you’re overwhelmed. I always say, ‘Don’t try to change your life in 1 fell swoop.’ Take 1, 2, or 3 things and implement them until they become what I call a standard extra.”

One thing more and more labs are implementing is 3D printing. By moving away from analog, labs can up productivity and increase revenue, even when fewer units are being produced. Combine a shortage of lab technicians with the expected seasonal slowdowns, and it comes as no surprise that many labs are looking to adopt the digital method.

Jamie Stover, CDT, senior manager of dental lab applications for Carbon in Redwood City, California, has seen this significant uptick in adoption in action. “We continue to see 3D-printing adoption increase in our industry overall,” Stover says. “Labs are [rapidly] moving denture and splint production from analog fabrication at the bench to 3D printers. From 2021 to 2022, we saw Lucitone Digital Print Denture resin (Dentsply Sirona) usage increase 175% across the Carbon customer base. Heading into the second quarter of 2022, we continue to see an increase in the usage of resins that are used [to produce] removable prostheses.”

In addition to producing an increased number of high-quality dentures and splints (which certainly keeps labs busy, as there were 40.99 million Americans wearing dentures in 20201), some labs are looking further afield for opportunities to put their printers to good use. One route some labs are taking is dipping their toes into other industries and tapping into previously unaffiliated markets.

“I’m always looking to see how we can get into different markets, not just dental, so it’s something we can always use to keep revenue going,” Turpin says. “With 3D printing, you can go into different things [such as] printing prototypes for startups in other industries. There’s a big startup push in our area, so looking outside the industry for 3D printing opportunities is something we do.”

At Spartan Dental Lab, Turpin has used his Carbon M2 3D printer to collaborate with local electronics companies to print prototypes. In addition to expanding his client base, it means extra work during the slow season. As a result, he’s found it to be a great side gig with a lot of room for growth.

“With some of the resins out there, we can even start production on low-count batches for companies,” Turpin says. “You could start manufacturing for them. You just have to make the leap.”

Another lab that made the leap outside the dental industry is Castable Ceramics in Anchorage, Alaska. Part of the Apex Dental Laboratory Group, Castable Ceramics recently found itself partnered with an unlikely client: the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The lab produced a 3D-printed part that is used in a state-of-the-art fish hatchery in Anchorage. Prior to the lab’s involvement, the hatchery had run into issues with metal components that were reacting in the tank and contaminating the water.

“Castable Ceramics is a [great] example of a dental lab using our printers to produce innovative parts for another industry,” Stover says. “This component they are fabricating [must] withstand [approximately] 700 gal of ice-cold water flowing around it per minute, facilitating the purifying of the water with UV light while also not being reactive with the water in the tank and contaminating it. The 3D-printed part doesn’t react with the water, like some of the metals they tried [had done], so they’re able to keep the water pure.”

Stover has been incredibly impressed with the lab’s ingenuity and the use of its Carbon printer. “We love to hear about labs using our 3D printers in innovative ways,” Stover says. “Part of our mission statement is that ‘we enable creators everywhere to make what the world needs now.’

One of the most impressive things to me is that Castable Ceramics is using the same printers they use to fabricate dental parts, [such as] models, splints, and dentures, to produce the parts I just described for a completely different industry. It underscores the value of additive manufacturing for disruptive innovation.”

Although labs like Spartan Dental and Castable Ceramics have taken the plunge into other industries, Stover isn’t certain it’s a trend that will take off. Labs will need to have the bandwidth and staffing to support out-of-industry customers while also balancing the needs of their dental clients. With a shortage of lab technicians and an increasing need for removables, labs may not have to look far to increase their workloads.

“Current trends in our industry are continued consolidation of dental labs and a serious shortage of experienced removable technicians combined with overall staffing shortages. Conversely, there is no shortage of restorative work flowing into [most] of the labs I work with, meaning most labs don’t have the bandwidth or the need to create products for other industries,” Stover says. “[However], it’s very exciting that some are using additive technology to expand their product offerings and that the door is open for others if they decide to.”

However, the labs that are diversifying are setting themselves apart as innovators and outside-the-box thinkers in a way that is certain to keep business booming. Being an innovator also leads to more opportunities for education and establishing a lab as a leader in the field. “It’s always good to be different,” Turpin says. “It’s important to be on the leading edge of things. You should be always expanding [and] always thinking forward.”

Hustle for Future Growth
Sometimes the most valuable side hustle is investing time into future prosperity for your primary hustle—also known as a successful lab. “It doesn’t make me money directly,” Zaleske says. “But the other part of that is people that own businesses [must] look at future ways to make an income or increase their income. My thing has always been using downtime for boning up on what we’re doing or offering something different [such as] learning a new technique.”

In addition to positioning himself for self-growth and education, Zaleske also uses the time to engage with his clients to promote education and networking. “Particularly before I had any type of notoriety, I would use downtime to promote an event, [such as] a lunch and learn or an evening venue, for education for my accounts,” Zaleske says. “In other words, I keep myself in front of my clients so that they’re always thinking about me. Maybe I’ll test a product for someone or little things like that to keep me in the mix. I’ll send them articles about things we’ve encountered or might want to change or explore that they can peruse at their convenience if they’re slow.”

Stover agrees that engaging with dentists is key. Carbon supports labs in this through education opportunities for dentists and labs alike. “An example of how we strategically partner with our customers to help them grow their businesses is providing educational webinars for our labs’ dental clients,” Stover says. “When moving products from analog to digital processes, it requires a lot of education from the lab and communication with their clinical team. Labs often lack the bandwidth to efficiently provide this information and end up needing to have the same conversation over and over to educate all their clients. I provide information on the materials, workflow, and processes for an average of 50 to 100 dentists per live webinar. The labs record the webinar and share it with all the clients that couldn’t attend live, and [they] use it in perpetuity as an informational and training tool.”

By providing training tools and information to dentists, labs position themselves as invaluable to their clients. Zaleske thinks staying relevant and proving to his clients that his lab is a key opinion leader is a critical component of marketing and business growth. By taking the time to engage with his clients, he builds stronger relationships that benefit his lab in the future—relationships that can help labs never slow down, even through the traditionally slower months.

“Staying in the mix is the difference between a job and a career,” Zaleske says. “A job is [where] you go to work, you’re done at 5, and that’s it. A career is something you’re always cultivating, and it’s always maturing. It’s a constant growth process. Your lab should be constantly growing, too, so that it never slows down.”

Reference
1. U.S. population: do you use dentures?Statista. Accessed April 27. 2022. https://www.statista.com/statistics/275484/us-households-usage-of-dentures/