At Your Fingertips

April 30, 2012
Noah Levine
Issue 5

High tech for a dental lab doesn’t have to mean CAD/CAM, and more importantly it doesn’t have to come with a wallet-draining pricetag. Plenty of the cutting edge technologies ready to help you manage the business and make work at the bench more efficient can be accessed for free.

High tech for a dental lab doesn’t have to mean CAD/CAM, and more importantly it doesn’t have to come with a wallet-draining pricetag. Plenty of the cutting edge technologies ready to help you manage the business and make work at the bench more efficient can be accessed for free.

These technologies-cloud computing, video communication, tablets, smartphones and digital photography-can be useful tools for the lab that has the same basic workflow it’s had for decades, the same way they can be integrated into the operations of the digital labs that have gone all in on CAD/CAM.

It’s all about finding the best ways to increase efficiency and make you and your lab more connected and accessible to your dentists and anyone else you partner with. The tools to do this are right there for the taking.

Compared to the price tag on many of the tools used in the lab, $500 for a tablet computer or the one-fifth of that cost it takes to acquire a 15-mega-pixel point-and-shoot camera is a rather small sum. And those are among the more expensive consumer technologies ready to help your lab grow and thrive. Putting tools like that to use managing the lab and at the bench can provide serious payback, but when you consider the array of free cloud computing and video communication services, it’s almost impossible to measure the benefits.

It doesn’t take much time, training or effort to get started and once you do, you’ll soon find one of these technologies often seamlessly leads you to the next one. Before you know it, your lab is employing the full power available through the technologies being developed for the mainstream consumer marketplace.

Dental Lab Products Benchtop Editor Tom Zaleske doesn’t have a lab that would be considered cutting edge by many, but by embracing both digital photography and cloud file sharing, he’s found simple ways to use these gadgets and programs to enhance his business and make himself more valuable to his dentists. The biggest thing he’s learned about approaching new technologies is to understand what you want them to do and to learn to use them correctly to accomplish those tasks. Then other ways to employ these gadgets will become evident as you use them more and more.

“It’s not really the tools that are the weak link, it’s what you do with them,” he said. “Like all technology, the weakest link is always the human being.”

Connected by clouds

Bringing people together and helping organize and share information is one of the tasks low cost and free consumer technologies do best. Cloud computing puts data, and the software used to manage that data, online, meaning the information can be accessed and edited from anywhere with access to the Web and easily shared with anyone else who can get online.

There are several lab management software options that operate from the cloud including SoundBite Technology’sSoundTrack and Evident Labs’ Evident, but taking aspects of running your lab to the cloud doesn’t necessarily mean switching management systems. It can be as simple as employing cloud-based business software for managing and creating documents, backing up data and exchanging files.

The free Google Docs suite provides word processing, spreadsheets, presentations and other functions via secured online portals. Cloud-based data backup is available from a variety of sources including Sugarsync and Mozy, and file storage and sharing can be accomplished via a range of services such as Dropbox, Box Google Drive and Apple’s iCloud.

It was actually the abundance of these resources and the ease of putting the cloud to use that inspired SoundBite CEO Jeff  Noles to create SoundTrack as a lab management option. Noles had previously worked at eBay, and had run his own lab. Using services such as Google Docs, online meeting software such as WebEx and other virtual tools was second nature to him, and he applied that approach to creating an online lab management system.

“It just made sense,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you network everyone in, and give everyone access to all of their information and let them manage their own stuff.”

His software product exists online for his customers, and his business also is run via the cloud. Noles said virtual services such as Google Docs mean he and his development team can work on the same files and update the same spreadsheets making it easier for everyone to stay in the loop on rapidly changing priorities. With the ability to share what he’s doing on his computer screen with potential customers via WebEx, he’s able to present a product demo from anywhere to a customer located anywhere else, and just about every aspect of his business that can be is handled from the cloud, putting him and his team in constant touch with all of their data, documents and clients.

“We use cloud apps for just about everything. For me that’s just the smartest, easiest, cheapest way to use software,” he said. “We don’t even have a fax machine, but using MyFax.com we can send faxes from our computers and receive them as PDF files.”

Rob Laizure Jr., who with his three brothers runs Full Contour, a digital restoration design service created by their father, Rob Laizure Sr., is another big believer in the potential of cloud services for running a dental lab business. Full Contour’s website where clients can upload their scanned impressions or models and then download the completed designs runs on the SoundTrack platform, and Laizure Jr.  and his family all use other cloud applications such as the Google Voice phone service to stay connected to their customers.

“Our landline system is forwarded to our phones. Every single one of us has a smartphone and we can’t live without them to do business,” he said. “We’re a Web-based company, we’re virtual. If I leave the office to run an errand, I receive phone calls like I’m sitting at my desk. We really stress that we offer the highest level of customer service in the form of we have a phone number that any of our customers can call at any time and somebody will pick up.”

Offering a similar degree of customer service and accessibility to your dentist clients is pretty much as simple as creating and setting up an account with Google. If doctors who call the lab can reach you even when you’re not there and you have client and case information accessible via the cloud, you can be ready to provide instant answers when you feel it’s a call you need to take.

Many of these services are available free of charge, and when they do have fees their relatively low. Laizure Jr.  said he likes that most cloud software services have a pay per use fee structure, so not only do you only pay for the amount of access and data you’re using, but you can easily and quickly scale up to more robust use when your business volume is ready to require and support the increased use.

Cloud talking

The cloud can be a valuable tool not just for storing and managing your lab’s information, but it also can provide powerful new tools to help you connect with your dentists. And while it’s critical to have an idea for how you want to employ a new technology before integrating it into your business, once you start using these tools new ways to put them to work quickly become apparent.

Zaleske began using Dropbox as a quick, simple way of sharing case photos with his accounts. The shared folder service allowed him to create online folders for each of his accounts where images can be accessed by both him and the specific client connected to that folder. The drag and drop simplicity of sharing an image, regardless of file size, made this an ideal solution, and that helped Zaleske get client buy-in. Now he even uses Dropbox as a promotional too. He can easily add promo flyers and updates about his lab to every one of his client’s Dropbox folders and doesn’t have to worry about email lists, attachment sizes or spam filters.

“You’ve got to find a way to get the tool in their hands at a leisurely pace. The easier you can make it the more people will implement it,” he said. “With things like Dropbox you’re literally able to drag your file into the folder and then walk away to do something else.”

Developed value

Finding new ways to benefit from the consumer technologies he uses has actually followed Zaleske throughout his career, going all the way back to when he was in a practice-based lab and started taking pictures of his work with a camera and film.

He saw photography as a great way to track his progress as a technician, but after documenting every case, he soon found he had a wealth of images that could be used to promote his business as well. In those days he’d shoot an entire roll of film to come away with just a handful of usable shots, but with the rise of low cost, high quality digital cameras, photography is another simple tool every lab can easily put into action.

For Zaleske pictures began as an internal quality control tool, progressed to become a promotional tool and eventually he realized the potential digital images had as a tool for communicating with his doctors. A majority of people are visual learners, and Zaleske said it quickly became apparent to him that it was far easier to show a dentist a problem with an impression, restoration design or other aspect of a case than it was to try to explain the issue over the phone.

With photo documentation and the ability to send digital copies of the images, he could head off problems before they started. This gives the doctors a chance to either correct the issue or sign off on the case going forward with the noted problem. Either way, Zaleske said digital photo communication allows him to justify a full fee for a remake if the case indeed encounters the problem he documented with his pictures. With digital cameras being so affordable he doesn’t see why every lab wouldn’t be documenting everything and communicating with images.

“I realized this could be an unbelievable tool to stop shouldering clinical liability,” he said. “For much less than the cost of a high-end articulator, you can really change the dynamics of your laboratory. You make your money back on the first thing you don’t have to remake for free.

Benchtop assistants

Bringing digital photography into a lab as a communication tool doesn’t have to interrupt the way you work. While photography once took time for film to be developed, prints to be made and then sent in the mail, digital images are immediately ready to use, and when they’re captured on a smartphone or other connected device, those images can be shared instantly.

While Zaleske has put together a photography set-up with a DSLR camera and lighting designed for taking high quality images to document and showcase his work, other technicians are less worried about high quality images and more concerned about being able to instantly send an image to get a question answered right away.

Brett Hansen, CDT, keeps his iPhone at-the-ready while at the bench. He handles the implant cases for Hunter Dental Lab in Carmel, Ind., and often snaps a quick image to show doctors a problem with a stock abutment’s emergence profile or other issues that might lead them to choose a custom abutment instead.

The smartphone becomes an instant pipeline to the doctor because Hansen often sends the image as an attachment to a text message that the dentist can look at and reply to in minutes. While he knows the images captured by a smartphone aren’t ideal for displaying fine details or calibrated for communicating shade, the time savings of this instant communication can keep cases on schedule, and with his smartphone allowing him to be contacted via phone, text or email while he’s working, Hansen is accessible through whatever communication method each doctor prefers to use.

“The picture quality isn’t great, but we’re not trying to show esthetics, it’s about being able to see what I’m looking at,” he said. “Those things come across really well. I can get it right to them, and they can get right back to me at my bench.”

Adding a smartphone or tablet computer to your benchtop arsenal can actually put a wider range of tools at your disposal because the devices are capable of handling many computer tasks. Having instant access to email can be a nice benefit for a small lab using the DWX-50 mill from Roland DGA because the mill can send job completion notifications via email. A technician can start the mill, work at the bench and know exactly when something is ready to come out of the mill for finishing.

A tablet or smartphone at the bench can be used to check in on more than just email. There are a number of dental and lab specific apps available to provide product videos, and the ordering of supplies. But the real power of these pint sized computers comes from apps that aim for a wider audience, whether it’s taking and managing images, running the business or serving as the remote control for the tunes you enjoy while working at the bench.

Another advantage gained from these pint size computers is the ability to view videos from the bench. Training videos, webinars and other information that can be useful while working can all be accessed from the workspace. However, with this sort of use, the larger screen size of a tablet really becomes valuable. While he has yet to add an iPad to his bench, Hansen said he is considering it because the larger screen would be nice for viewing photos submitted by a dentist along with a case.

Laizure Jr. said he thinks smartphones and tablets will grow more useful over time, but for now it is important to know what each device is truly capable of. That means understanding not just how powerful it is as a computer, but what uses are best suited to its screen size.

A smartphone with its relatively small screen can be useful when checking on a case status and other details, but it’s not big enough to provide an effective interface for creating or majorly altering data and images. A tablet provides more screen space and can be a better way for interfacing with content, the devices don’t have the computing power to replace scan and design PCs. Laizure Jr., said he thinks tablets have the most potential value for labs to use when away from the bench because they can help with presentations to new dentists and for staying on top of the lab operations when outside the office.

Virtual facetime

One thing you can do on many tablets that some people are starting to find very handy is video chat with dental clients. With services such as the Microsoft-owned Skype, Apple’s FaceTime and Google’s GChat easy to use and free, the only real obstacle to speaking face-to-face when discussing a case is getting doctors to buy into the benefits of video calls.

“One of the things I think we’re missing in this industry is communication between the doctor and the lab and the patient,” Hansen said. “To get everyone in the room is rarely possible. With something like Skype that would make things so much easier. Everybody involved in making that restoration can be in the same room virtually, and they can eliminate a lot of problems.”

Noles makes extensive use of Skype while running SoundBite, and he believes dental labs also can benefit from face-to-face communication it makes possible. For him the technology is useful when presenting his software to labs around the globe. Business relationships require a foundation of trust, and looking someone in the eyes while talking to them can help build that trust.

“I am a huge proponent of video partly because you can communicate so much more when you’re looking at somebody’s face. It is qualitatively better than just talking on the phone,” Noles said. “Anything that helps improve the communication and trust is going to be helpful. It’s a lot easier to resolve something when you’re looking at somebody’s face than when you’re looking at your office wall. Skype has been a great tool to use, it’s been the foundation of our business in many ways communication-wise along with email.”

Where technology takes us

The potential to turn off the shelf products and free online services into vital tools for running your lab is enormous. While not designed specifically for a dental lab, these technologies can fit perfectly into the work a lab does.

Cloud services to make every bit of information you need accessible from wherever you happen to be. Digital photos provide clear evidence when communicating questions or problems. Having a smartphone or a tablet computer at your bench can put the world at your fingertips without having to leave your seat. Adding video calling to your arsenal can bring you face to face with your accounts to build trust and solidify your partnership.

The learning curve for many of these products is small for anyone familiar with computers, and they grow easier to use all the time. New apps, cloud services and other ways to use these technologies are released every day and both Hansen and Zaleske said they find that as they use these tools they constantly discover new ways to make them work in their respective labs.

“Once you get a piece of technology like that, a few months down the road, you’ll find yourself asking, ‘where was I before this?’” Hansen said. “The cost of this type of equipment is really not that much. And it’s not just for work. It can really change how you handle everything in your life.”