DTI has 20 laboratories around the U.S., with the flagship laboratory—and centralized milling center for all its labs—located in Dublin, CA. During the past two years, the Dublin facility has transitioned to 80% digital, downsized and increased the productivity of the remaining technicians by 89%.
And now, DTI has taken its commitment to digital dentistry one step further: Under the direction of DTI Chief Technology Officer Lee Culp, MicroDental North Carolina opened in March with the goal of being a completely digital laboratory. In addition to establishing a DTI presence in the southeast, the new 5,000-sq-ft facility will entirely rely on the efficiency of technology and Culp aims to have each technician designing or finishing, staining and glazing 50 or more full contour units per day.
"In Dublin, we've seen the efficiency levels that can be gained by switching to digital technology," says Culp. "MicroDental North Carolina is our testing ground to see if we can create a 100% digital laboratory with even greater productivity."
By starting from scratch and thinking about how a digital lab should be built from the ground up, Culp believes he'll have an advantage in terms of creating the proper workflow, proper IT and proper mindset. For instance, he's not transitioning waxers into scanning technicians and having to deal with the changing mindset that so often causes problems when a laboratory transitions to digital fabrication.
In addition to servicing its own accounts, including nearby University of North Carolina, MicroDental North Carolina is providing milling services for DTI labs on the east coast.
"We're fabricating a lot of full contour zirconia and milled IPS e.max which are extremely efficient restorations from a production point of view; this enables technicians to do a lot more work. Everything is being designed on a 3Shape scanner and then either milled on our Zenotec mini milling systems or printed," says Culp.
DTI compared larger mills to the Zenotec but because of the price point of the Zenotec and the fact that the output is the same as a larger mill, DTI can buy many more compact machines and get greater productivity. "The beauty of the Zenotec mill is that it can be a stand-alone machine or networked with other Zenotec minis to match your growth needs. And if something does go wrong with a mill, you have the option to use Wieland Precision Technology's services as a backup," says Culp.
In keeping with MicroDental North Carolina's digital philosophy and increasing efficiency, another goal is to be a paperless laboratory. The lab has a bar coding system and a powerful WiFi network and, by the end of the summer, each technician will have a tablet at his station. The technician can log in and see the Rx, relevant notes on the tablet and email photos or messages to the dentist. The lab is encouraging its dentist-clients to use a digital Rx, a feature of TransLab software from Transcend, but even if they send a paper Rx, it's scanned into the system.
Because the full contour results from the mills and printers are so accurate, the responsibilities of zirconia frame finishers and metal frame finishers are minimized or even eliminated. Culp has designated three levels of technicians in the lab: level one technicians are responsible for pouring models, investing/devesting and taking units in or out of mill; level two handle scanning and designing; and level three are finishers and ceramists.
Currently, Culp has five other staff members and is in the process of hiring more employees, with the ultimate goal of achieving a production level that's 200% higher than the average North American lab. Another advantage of digital technology is that training new employees to design a restoration on a computer is easier than teaching them conventional methods. "Since tooth libraries are programmed into the software and it's no longer necessary to learn how to manipulate wax, a new technician only needs to understand morphology and how to use a scanner," says Culp. "In the past, it took about 10 years to develop a good technician; now, digital cuts down the training process by at least 50%."
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