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Ryan Hamm is the Editorial Director for Dental Products Report and Digital Esthetics.
Over the past 12 months, the dental lab world has gone through many changes-some good, others much harder. 2014 was a year of accelerated technological growth, providing labs with opportunities that didn’t exist only a few years ago, while also presenting them with competition and challenges that were similarly unthinkable relatively recently.
As editor of Dental Lab Products, I’m given the unique opportunity each year to take a “bird’s eye” view of the industry as I see it, and give you a snapshot of the trends I’m noticing throughout the lab industry. I think there are some places labs will need to innovate and shift their mindsets. But mostly, I’m excited that there are real opportunities to succeed and thrive in a rapidly changing marketplace. Here’s what I’ve seen in the last year, and how I think it will affect labs heading into 2015:
1. The gap between practice and lab grew even smaller
In 2014, the line between lab and dental practice continued to grow fuzzier and fuzzier. Dentists are increasingly adopting an in-office model for simple crowns, or in some cases, even hiring an on-site lab technician to help them operate the chairside systems they’re investing in. Meanwhile, dental technicians are increasingly working directly with clinicians to provide patient-specific and high-quality restorations. That kind of cooperative brain share can seem scary to technicians who worry about being replaced by machines-but in fact, it provides an opportunity to increase your expertise by coming alongside a dentist to make suggestions (using your esthetic and material knowledge), to bring your talents to more artistic cases and to create amazing results for every patient.
2. Labs of every size realized they could handle more case types than they thought
From one-person labs to 50-person behemoths, in 2014 it became more and more apparent that the possibilities are nearly endless for any type of lab. No more does one lab have to be content with a specific specialty if they feel it would help to expand their offerings. Affordable CAD/CAM systems have put digital dentistry in the grasp of many smaller labs, and even those who can’t justify an entire system purchase can still outsource portions of the work as needed. Additionally, we see some of the giants of the industry, like 3Shape, Dental Wings, Straumann, 3M ESPE and Roland DGA (just to name a few), working together like never before, making the expensive hardware these companies sell actually “talk” to each other, so one investment can open a door to multiple capabilities. Finally, we see the material science progressing to such an extent that solutions of many types are within reach.
3. 3D printing continued to march forward
This year, 3D printing continued its march toward revolutionizing the dental lab world. From printers the size of a lunchbox that can produce wax-ups in minutes, to printing materials that are shaded in A2 to act as temporaries, to 3D printers that can produce entire wax frameworks, 3D printing took a leap forward this year, and seems primed to continue to improve efficiency and abilities for labs of every size.
4. All-digital started to be more than a marketing slogan
Over the last 12 months, we’ve seen the idea of model-less crowns go from a strange exception to something that seems not very out of the ordinary, and we’ve watched as dental practices have finally started to catch up with dental labs in adoption of digital tools as they’ve increased their intraoral scanner adoption. With trends like these, the idea of “all-digital” has gone from a distant dream talked about at trade shows to something that impacts the benchtop each and every day.
5. Creativity still mattered
While digital dentistry may be the thing on everyone’s mind, 2014 also proved that computers can’t do the job on their own. They require the skilled mind and creative hands of a dental technician to produce restorations to the highest potential. A milled crown is only as good as the tech who designed it, and the esthetics of a zirconia bridge are dependent on the staining skills of the dental technician. In short, this year proved that creativity and skill are qualities that will never go out of style.
Photo: Hocus Focus Studio / Getty Images