In this exclusive interview with LMT, Jim Glidewell, owner of Glidewell Laboratories, Newport Beach, California, and five other labs in the U.S., Costa Rica and Mexico, shares why he got involved in research and development, the challenges it presents, and what he and his staff have in the works.
LMT: You've been working on R&D in some capacity since 1988. Why did you initially decide to get involved?
Glidewell: The average lab has between one to five people and, therefore, most equipment and materials are developed for that size market. Very large labs are not an efficient target market--for instance, most labs don't need a conveyor burnout furnace that can process hundreds of rings a day--so very little research goes to the expensive production of products that may receive a resounding "no sale."
When we first got involved in R&D, we had two objectives: to research the potential of biocompatible titanium castings and create a burnout oven that made production more efficient for our high-volume laboratory. We also wanted to perform our own maintenance on our burnout ovens--once we got to be a certain size it didn't make sense to keep sending them out--and, if we manufactured the ovens, this would be easier.
For many years, we had three R&D staff members and always had some projects in the works--like handpiece controllers, wax pots and wax patterns. Then, in 1999, we decided to put more resources into this area. We formally created the department, hired additional staff, added more space and purchased more testing equipment for metals, ceramics, gypsum and investment. Today, our R&D department occupies about 2,500 square feet in three separate areas of our laboratory, and has a staff of 14; we plan to continue to expand as we incorporate CAD/CAM technology into our fabrication process and do more testing and R&D in this area. Wolfgang Freibauer, a German master dental technician, is the director of the department and also serves as our director of education. He started as a ceramist and has been with me for over 10 years.
LMT: I know that developing that burnout furnace had a big impact on your production. Can you walk us through the different stages of how a product like this is developed--from the initial idea to the final product?
Glidewell: Yes, the development of our conveyor burnout furnace has resulted in a big labor savings to us. You simply wait for the burned-out ring at the end of the conveyor and start the casting process--over 300 rings a day come flying at you! One of our conveyor systems replaced 14 standard furnaces and consumes far less power.
Here's the product development process we went through:
As with all of the products we develop, we looked at our current method and asked ourselves, "Can this be done better?" After watching the process in the casting rooms, I just knew the answer was, "Yes." There had to be a way for a lab of our size to improve the system.
Next, we began envisioning the features of the finished product. For instance, I wanted an oven that was easy to service and muffles that were easy to rewind as soon as they cooled.
Rather than reinvent the wheel, we worked with an outside engineering firm that had experience in conveyor oven applications. I explained what we wanted and the firm sent an engineer to get a better picture of our industry and complete the engineering drawings. We then worked with the firm during the design phase on features like conveyor speed, three-zone heating, placement of controls, etc.
We made a working prototype and asked for everyone's feedback (but we had to be careful here: There's an old saying that "a camel is a horse that was designed by a committee"). We didn't worry about making the prototype pretty, we just made sure it did the job we wanted it to do; we knew we could put lipstick on it later. You must filter through the ideas and use the really feasible ones.
Once we began using the unit, we realized there were still a few tweaks needed--such as building doors on each end to contain heat and adding hoods to remove smoke. We incorporated all of these updates into the final design and had two units built. This was a huge project: each oven cost $35,000 to make! The muffles alone are $10,000 each.
LMT: How many other products has the department come up with? Do you have a quota for how many new products need to be developed each year?
Glidewell: We've come up with between 15 to 20 products. One of our most successful devices that we use in-house is our spin mixers. For us, using small-batch investment mixing devices created a bottleneck for production because we need to mix up to 600 grams of investment at one time. So we decided to make a larger-capacity unit and developed one that could completely mix 600 grams of investment in 24 seconds. Instead of a vacuum pump, it relies on centrifugal forces to mix and drive out air bubbles. One employee can accurately mix investment and pour up to 500 rings a day with the setting and thermal expansion spot on.
Three of the products--our burnout furnace, spin mixers and powder metal coping unit--are just used in house; the others are also sold to other labs through Glidewell Direct, which we set up in 1998 to help offset some of our R&D costs.
As far as a quota, we don't have one because I don't like to put pressure on the R&D staff. If you pressure them, you get a product that is rushed to market and, in dentistry, that's like betting the company. However, I think you can create better throughput by hiring more engineers and researchers. Most technicians can dream up ideas faster than an R&D department can develop them.
The frustrating part of R&D is the time it takes to perform some of the tests. I often think that R&D should run 24/7, although my staff doesn't necessarily agree! Most of the time you can clearly visualize the product or technique and just know in your gut that it's going to take two or three years to grind away at the details.
Ideas are only about 5% of the finished product. The rest is hard drudgery. Ideas are fun and produce a lot of excitement, but they usually leave you with a big headache. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems. For instance, it took me three years to incorporate a simple, inexpensive magnetic retention system into my metal articulator. And, to be honest, the completion of many of our research projects comes the evening before a trade show begins.
LMT: For all of the ideas that come to fruition, there must be others that hit the cutting room floor.
Glidewell: I've had some great ideas for using non-precious metals, but sometimes you can spend a lot of time and money on a project, then realize there might never be a market for that product. In other cases, some ideas just run out of enthusiastic push; you have a few disappointing tests and everyone loses interest. That's why you need to have a product champion assigned to each project, someone whose sole job is to keep nurturing the idea.
LMT: Do you hold patents for the products you develop?
Glidewell: I have one patent for making PFMs and all-ceramic crowns and bridges by back-casting prefabricated porcelain veneers and shells, and have applied for several others. The patent process is a mystical maze deciphered by high-priced attorneys. I have a problem with having patents that are technology blockers. We are in dentistry, and too much emphasis is put on the patent and royalties, and not on the good we're trying to do for patients. We're not in the pharmaceutical industry where the costs of bringing a new drug to market are very large and patent protection is necessary for the continued flow of research dollars. Dental technology inventions are best served by taking an idea and being the first to bring it to market and price it competitively. Be the best low-cost producer and you can and will build a good business.
LMT: How do you recruit for this department? Do the staff members start out as technicians and then move into R&D?
Glidewell: Most of our research team started out as dental technicians who have shown an interest in changing certain procedures that would make their jobs easier. They question everything and draw attention to themselves for their inventiveness. We also have four dental materials scientists with varied backgrounds--including digital manufacturing technology, dental ceramic engineering, and materials science with special knowledge in zirconia and alumina--and one metallurgist who specializes in dental alloys.
LMT: Can you share some of the things the department is currently working on? How do you keep your products in development under wraps?
Glidewell: We're working on machining for zirconia and are deeply involved in powder metal research in which you sinter powder directly on a refractory die; I think there's great promise in this area. Pressable ceramics also keep our attention, and we're focusing on many different applications.
It's pretty easy to keep things a secret around here unless you talk to me: I'll spill all. I just have too much fun with all these ideas! You can try to keep people out of the R&D areas, but it's very hard to keep real secrets. Basically, I rely on my employees' honesty and integrity.