Smooth Running: Keeping Your Lab Technology Investments Working So They Can Run Nonstop

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You bought it, and now, to get the ROI you want, you should maintain it. We talk to dental lab industry experts on why you should keep your technology investment up-to-date and running non-stop.

Smooth Running: Keeping Your Lab Technology Investments Working So They Can Run Nonstop

THODONAL / STOCK.ADOBE.COM

Making investments in technology is an essential part of dental lab operations today. These investments require attention to the return on investment (ROI) they generate to ensure they are worth the money you spent on them. So, how do you keep your technology investments working so they can run nonstop? We spoke to lab industry professionals to find out.

In the ever-advancing world of dental technology, Greg Martin, CDT, TE, Business Development Manager for Renfert USA says dental labs have become even more dependent upon their equipment and technology to produce final restorations. The key to the smooth running of your technology investments without suffering costly down times isn’t complicated; it’s maintenance.

“When there is any hiccup in the process, i.e., a piece of equipment goes down, it can bottleneck production and create a world of chaos for the lab. Regular maintenance helps to both keep this to a minimum or at worst identify pending problems that can be addressed before the situation becomes critical or risks shutting down production altogether,” Martin explains.

Gary Morgan, CDT, CQA/ASQ, Vice President and Senior Advisor at SafeLink Consulting, agrees, adding that after investing so much in the equipment and technology, especially milling, printing, and software systems, a lab wants to get as high a return on investment as possible. Therefore, maintenance and preventative maintenance to extend the life of their equipment and technology is essential. Not only is the maintenance essential, but for some workflows, regular and documented maintenance is mandated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations. It’s also in the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards to maintain your assets.

“Because if something goes wrong with them, it can definitely have an impact on the quality of the product,” Morgan says.

“Subtle errors cause cascading nonconformities that increase the likelihood there will be a misfit leading to costly remakes,” Tim Torbenson, President evo820, LLC, agrees.

Torbenson adds that it is also essential to prioritize necessary maintenance on technology investment because they increase a lab’s accuracy. When manufacturing restorations and appliances to specs tenths of millimeters, Torbenson says it is essential to operate any piece of equipment at the manufacturer’s proper specifications and follow the User Guide to assure consistent accuracy and quality.

When it comes to regular and preventive maintenance, Morgan says it is essential to remember to include the needs of all the associative components, like the sintering and porcelain ovens and burn out furnaces. All of these systems need to work properly and, if possible, have redundancies if one of them goes out.

Another essential concern is regarding software updates for software with digital workflows cleared by the FDA. It is critical to have the most current software version for these workflows.

“Those need to be revised or updated continuously,” Morgan says. “There’s always new products on the market and those have to be implemented into those workflows. So, labs definitely have to stay on top of that.”

Elona Palushaj, associate manager, Zahn Dental, says maintaining technology investments, whether software or hardware, ensures that labs are ready for the changing needs. She also says it is important to consider maintaining the technology procedures.

“Technology is constantly changing, and not being ready for the change could potentially mean downtime, which is more expensive than any investment needed to stay current,” Palushaj says. “In a complete workflow, there are several things to consider, such as design software and equipment, manufacturing software and equipment, and IT/Networking software and equipment.”

“Software is especially important as new features are frequently introduced,” Palushaj continues. “If a lab is running a 4–, 5-year-old software and the PC may need replacing, the old software might not be compatible with the new PC/Windows. Similarly, old PCs may not have the hardware to run newer software efficiently. For example, some Windows applications are no longer supported, making the PC obsolete and putting the lab at a disadvantage when trying to improve productivity.”

Palushaj says it is essential to maintain hardware, too. However, it requires a different approach than software updates. Hardware also has systematic firmware updates but needs periodic maintenance to run at its best. She says preventive maintenance is one of the most important ways to avoid service interruption.

“A hardware repair could be more than triple the cost of maintenance for a business when the cost of downtime is considered, even if there is no repair cost in the event the equipment is under warranty,” Palushaj says.

Maintenance Considerations Start Before the Purchase
Conrad Rensburg, ND, NHD in Tech, owner of Absolute Dental Services, says that part of your technology investment discussion is the maintenance involved, starting with how long you are going to run the equipment.

For example, 3D printers are an area of investment for many labs today. If a lab is going to run the 3D printer a couple of hours a day , it doesn’t need the same equipment a lab will that is going to run it 24 hours a day. If the lab buys an insufficient machine for the job they need doing, the maintenance can be a significant expense.

For almost 5 years, Absolute Dental Services runs Carbon printers all day in their operations. Rensburg jokes that he doesn’t know if they ever had downtime. Rensburg invested in these more expensive Carbon printers because the technology could handle the workload his dental lab demands with very little maintenance.However, a more economical platform makes sense for smaller labs that don’t ask as much of their printers, he says.

“So, the first thing I would say is to determine what you need the printer to do for you and how heavily you are going to run it. Is it going to run an hour and a half a day? Then, buy the cheapest one you can find,” Rensburg says. “But if you use it as a production printer, running for hours a day the expensive printer will actually be less expensive than the cheap one.”

The next consideration Rensburg says labs should not overlook is the moving parts involved with the equipment. For example, some 3D printer technology has fewer moving parts than others. The more moving parts there are, he says, the more potential for maintenance and repairs. Therefore, finding equipment that is easy to fix when something goes wrong is essential.

Also, the technology you use should have an efficient path to versatility. Rensburg learned over time that a way to save on maintenance costs in additive printing is never to flush the system in a printer that uses PolyJet Technology, which is the type of printing that builds by “jetting” the material droplets onto a build platform. With this technology, you can print using different materials.

Rensburg says if you are using a printer with this capability, use the cartridge in the machine until it’s gone. Every time you switch materials in a machine, you waste a lot of material when you flush the lines, as much as $250 a flush, which drives up materials costs. Rensburg says instead of switching between materials on 1 printer, buy 2 printers that continuously print 1 type of material.

“Or I would buy a system like a DLP system where you can put the material tray out, set it aside, and then reuse it later,” Rensburg says. “You have to figure out why you are buying this printer. If you buy it only for printing models, it doesn’t matter. But if you need a multifunction printer, then you have to make sure you buy the right type of printer to handle that efficiently.”

Systemizing Systems Maintenance
Martin says that labs should create a systematic and documented process for monitoring regular maintenance on equipment. Renfert USA also offers maintenance service as part of their after-sales support packages. The process helps alleviate the stress surrounding the issue.

“We can depend on the process helping to identify any issues that might arise,” Martin says. “This is much better than the alternative.”

Torbenson agrees, adding that the documentation that is easy to create and store is key. Torbenson’s company, evo820, which specializes in providing dental lab managers better visibility to their lab’s operations and getting them FDA compliant for specific workflows, has an online Quality Management System, the eQMS, that has a place for this log that stores in the cloud for easy access. Making it easy to keep track of what has been done is crucial to ensure it gets done regularly, he explains. Plus, it is there if the FDA decides to audit the lab.

“Documentation, it is truly that simple,” Torbenson says. “Keeping an accurate maintenance log on all activities keeping the piece of equipment operating to the manufacturer settings and proper calibration is critical to have the finished device equate to the data input specifications. Manufacturing Process Validation is the best way to assure your entire workflow is operating properly and each piece of equipment is in sync with all other components in your workflow.”

Rensburg adds that having regularly scheduled maintenance is crucial, to reduce your maintenance cost on the machines. At Absolute, they have a preset system based on the manufacturer’s requirements.

First, the team at Absolute reviews the requirements or suggested maintenance of the manufacturer and schedules it. Then, they have appointed a person responsible to check that it is done, who then signs off on it. Rensburg says this step is essential because the moving parts in these machines experience wear.

“Obviously, when the machine breaks, it’s expensive,” Rensburg says. “If you lose a printing head, it’s thousands of dollars. If you print incorrectly and you lose a plate, it’s $500 to $600.”

Morgan recommends finding a good software system that helps labs track and schedule it. Like Martin, he thinks having built-in reminders to prompt maintenance is key. Some machines, like scanners will prompt if they need to calibrate, but others might require manually knowing how often you need to change a bur or when to clean it out. Therefore, having a software to help remember the details is key.

“Most labs don’t have the luxury of having a dedicated maintenance person, somebody that oversees and does it all,” Morgan says. “So, having an automated system that will prompt you would be really helpful.”

Everyday maintenance and cleaning has to be done on site, but there are tools that can help with some areas of this effort. For example, SafeLink Consulting also has a cloud-based electronic Quality Management System, UQ System, that stores the maintenance and cleaning log for consistent records with easy access for users. Also, Morgan says the dental lab’s software management system often has built-in capabilities for systemizing equipment maintenance and control of inventory, but the labs don’t use it. In his quality management consulting role, he advises labs to use these features, as well as any built-in remote support available from suppliers.

“It’s valuable to look at any asset that you can to make it easier,” Morgan says.

Systemizing maintenance can be overwhelming considering all the factors involved, Palushaj says, adding that working closely with all support teams is essential. Labs should ensure their IT support performs periodic checks, maintenance, and upgrades on computers. She explains that many application and hardware updates are constantly improving to maximize performance. In addition, IT teams should ensure PCs and network devices are supported and ready for the next technological advancement.

“An IT team is best to determine the frequency of the periodical maintenance,” Palushaj says. “Work with a CAD/CAM support team to ensure the latest and most stable software is running. When major IT/Network changes are suggested, such as the most recent Windows 11 release, labs should consult their CAD/CAM support team to ensure the design and manufacturing software and equipment are compatible with the Windows upgrades.”

Palushaj agrees that dental labs should keep a maintenance schedule next to the equipment, which is especially important if multiple technicians are operating or maintaining the equipment. Start with the scheduled preventative maintenance recommended by the manufacturer, but add required periodic maintenance items that are not considered preventive.

“This will ensure maintenance is not missed or done more than necessary—and yes, over maintenance can be harmful to equipment as well—and will give you a view of your equipment health as you see trends of issues coming up,” Palushaj says. “Re-occurring issues can indicate deteriorating equipment parts that may need replacing. Many of these can be user replaceable, and having the part at hand could mean a downtime of 2 hours instead of 2 days.”

What Doesn’t Lead to Smooth Running
For technology to work at its best, it needs to be compatible with all linked products, Palushaj says. When upgrading or installing new hardware or software, she says it is essential to know that all other existing software and hardware will be compatible with the upgraded product. This compatibility check includes CAD/CAM software and equipment and IT/Networking equipment, which will help ensure the rest of production is not affected when introducing a new product to the workflow.

“Consult the CAD/CAM support team to see what small investments can be made to avoid production downtime,” Palushaj says. “This may include software/hardware maintenance or purchase of inexpensive hardware to use as a backup in case of a breakdown.”

Martin cautions labs not to procrastinate maintenance. Moreover, he encourages dental labs to position maintenance as a team effort. Making it a priority benefits everyone in the lab.

“Don’t put it off,” Martin says. “Address it now and make it a part of your weekly, monthly, quarterly reviews. Emphasize to all employees that helping to communicate any pending issues will help to keep production running smoothly and, in the end, make their work days more efficient.”

“Allowing equipment to operate out of the manufacturer’s settings causes more nonconformities impactful on your devices,” Torbenson agrees. “The longer this exists the more it becomes a difficult chase to identify the cause of the manufacturing problems. Neglecting the maintenance on different devices causes a mystery of where the actual issue originates. To solve it, one must start at the beginning of the process and test each component involved of the manufacturing process, which is time consuming.”

One mistake that Morgan sees labs making is not tracking repairs on equipment. Without these records, Morgan says labs might not realize they are spending more to keep an old machine up and running than it would be to buy something new.

“To me, that’s one of the biggest mistakes, holding onto those assets for so long that they have worn out, but the lab keeps trying to repair them,” Morgan says. “Also, it’s important to have people that understand what the manufacturer’s instructions say for maintenance and cleaning. Not to take it on yourself, but actually read what the manufacturer says. They can tell you some things you may overlook in doing proper maintenance on your equipment.”

Another facet of Morgan’s role as a consultant is the area of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) compliance. Maintenance to keep machinery working properly is essential to prevent dangerous conditions for the operator. Moreover, it is essential to understand how to control the hazardous energy in a piece of equipment when the lab is maintaining it.

“There’s a whole lockout, tagout requirement from OSHA that more labs don’t follow it than do,” Morgan says. “To me, that is one of the bigger concerns because you don’t want to have someone think they’re doing the proper thing, but they haven’t turn it off, locked it out, and all of a suddenly they get a shock or, worse, the machine starts up and harms them.”

Morgan says these areas are where Safelink Consulting works with their clients a lot. Labs should understand the return on investment they can enjoy for just doing the maintenance.

“You’ve spent the money on the machine. Now, spend the money on the upkeep of it to make sure that you extend the life of it as much as possible,” Morgan says. “That way you’re going to get a bigger ROI on it than you would have if you don’t do anything to it.”

Rensburg thinks one of the biggest mistakes that labs make is looking at the price of the hardware without considering the long-term maintenance and materials costs, also. He admits he has made that mistake himself. He once bought 5 printers for less than $2,000 each, excited to have saved so much on a printing technology platform. However, after using them and experiencing the maintenance involved, he threw them in the trash.

“Another thing you want is to make sure that you purchase from a company that’s going to give you decent technical support,” Rensburg says. “Make sure before you purchase to call technical support to see how easy it is to get in touch with them.”

Not having technical support is a huge frustration, Rensburg says. Premium systems often come with premium price tags, he says, but they usually back it up with good customer service, quality machines, and low materials costs.

“The more you pay on the front end,” Rensburg says, “the less frustration you have on the back end.”

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