Technology away from the bench

March 21, 2012

While a range of new technologies are making it possible for dental labs to produce restorations with greater efficiency, not every innovation having an impact on the industry comes in the form of a system designed specifically for dental labs.

While a range of new technologies are making it possible for dental labs to produce restorations with greater efficiency, not every innovation having an impact on the industry comes in the form of a system designed specifically for dental labs.

Developments in communications and business technologies, along with technologies being used by dentists chairside are having just as big of an effect on the way dental labs operate. Still, judging by the results of the DLP 2011 Tech Census, labs have a long way to go before they fully leverage the capabilities of technologies such as smartphones, digital communications technologies and online social networking.

The vast majority of dental labs still rely on written prescriptions and phone calls as their primary means of communicating with dentists (see Communication Technologies). While 57% of respondents said they use e-mail as well, Dale Dental founder Dave Lesh, CDT, said he was surprised that this number wasn’t higher.

His business does most of its client communication via e-mail and other electronic technologies. These communications can all be tracked, with the data used to improve operational efficiencies and customer service.

“Phone and written management of the business doesn’t bring scale and efficiency,” he said. “Our online communication tools with our customers give us information and data and the ability to report and do statistical analysis on that data in real time. I think it can give them a huge advantage.”

Online communications tools might be good for business, but Lesh still believes that connecting with customers is critical to business success. Phone calls are a part of that, but there are ways technology can help make these connections with social media websites such as Facebook leading to new ways to interact with people in both personal and public ways.

While 60% of Tech Census respondents said they use Facebook, YouTube or Twitter in their personal lives, just 33% said they use those same services for marketing their business. Lesh said he was surprised to see those numbers because if those technologies are useful for connecting to people in a personal way, why are they not being used to connect to customers as well.

“If I appeal to a person as a person there’s a benefit. Social media is a part of everything. Labs have to be versed in that form of communication,” he said.
One area where labs seem to be making good use of technology is smartphones and to a lesser extent tablet computers. Of the labs that use those technologies, 63% use them for business purposes.

Lee Culp, CDT, chief technology office for DTI said he’s a big fan of computerized communication tools. While he hopes to soon be sharing CAD/CAM designs with dentists in real time to collaborate on case design regardless of the distance between the practice and the lab, for now he’s happy to be able to snap a quick photo of any type of case on a smartphone and instantly e-mail it off to the dentist. But he too believes the phone call will continue to be the best way to stay in touch with dentists.

“It’s still a relationship business,” he said. “There’s always going to be the phone call.”

For Jamie Stover, CDT, manager of Ziemek Aesthetic Dental Lab, the biggest development in communication is actually the advent of chairside digital impression systems. These systems provide a digital starting point for the lab’s workflow that eliminate problems that can occur when a physical impression doesn’t come out perfectly.

Digital impression systems give labs numerous workflow options for most cases and help lab technicians and dentists communicate effectively because they can look at the exact same data at the same time. While he doesn’t believe it makes business sense for every lab to buy the systems and lease them to dentists, he strongly believes in the potential of this technology to reduce remakes and decrease the time a case is at the lab.

“Without a doubt this is how we will receive our cases in the future,” he said. “As the speed and efficiency of that data transfer between the dentist and the lab gets better it will allow us to get the restorations done faster.”