"I knew I would soon get a call from a dentist-client saying, 'Hi Al, we just bought a new intraoral scanner, can I send you files?' and I most definitely didn't want to be in the position where I had to say no," said Al Fillastre, CDT, addressing more than 30 laboratory owners and managers at Whip Mix's second annual Survive or Thrive Digital Forum in October.
Fillastre, who was an attendee at Whip Mix's Digital Forum last year, came back as a speaker this year. He shared how, inspired by the program, he purchased a 3Shape 700 scanner and Roland DWX-50 mill and took his six-person laboratory from analog to digital within one month. "It can all seem so overwhelming, and there is a lot of fear surrounding the decision and commitment. But for me, all of my apprehensions never materialized," said Fillastre, Owner, Ceram-O-Arts, Lakeland, FL.
The early adopter view was offered by Mark Jackson, Owner of Precision Ceramics, Montclair, CA. With 13 milling units, eight scanners, one 3D printer and even two cone beam CT machines, Jackson's passion for the technology was palpable. "I walk through my lab and listen for the sound of handpieces," he said. "If I hear it, then I go find it and figure out how we can get rid of it," he said.
Attendees—from laboratories with varying degrees of involvement in digital dentistry—got heaps of common-sense advice and encouragement from all the speakers, as well as a look at the best reasons to go digital:
1. Improved accuracy. Despite his initial hesitancy about digital technology, Fillastre raved about the improved accuracy of his work. "Designing a digital restoration gives you such precise control over framework design and thickness; it's just a piece of cake to see exactly what's going on," he said.
Jackson agreed, saying that fabricating crowns without a physical model was nerve-wracking at first. But he's discovered that, in his lab, those units actually result in fewer remakes and adjustments than crowns fabricated with a traditional model.
2. Increased capacity. "The number of dentists is expected to grow 21% in the next 10 years and little or no growth is expected among dental technicians," Boston University's Dr. Russell Giordano told the group. "That means less competition so clearly there's opportunity for growth. But you'll have to increase your efficiency to handle this additional capacity, and digital technology can help you do that."
Fillastre is a prime example of that—he now produces in three-and-a-half days what used to take five. However, rather than filling the extra capacity, he uses the additional time to pursue his love of lecturing, material testing and other projects.
3. Advantage over offshore competition. "Historically, up to 50% of the cost of producing a crown has been labor, and labor-intensive products are ripe for offshore predators," said Jackson. He pointed out that not only does CAD/CAM reduce your labor costs so you can compete with offshore pricing, but it allows you to shorten your turnaround to as little as one day—something an offshore laboratory can't do.
4. Ability to offer new and unique services. Fillastre has been working on a value-added service to help dentist-clients sell cosmetic cases: he mills diagnostic mockups out of a hard, plastic wax for patients to put onto their teeth to see how their new smiles would look. "It only works on additive cases and has its challenges, but when the patients can 'try on' their new smile instead of just looking at a study model, it's a whole new world. Mockups have helped us and our clients sell a number of large cases," says Fillastre, who is also gearing up to offer shell temporaries for anterior cases.
With his extensive selection of technologies, Jackson has also found ways to expand outside of the usual laboratory services. "If you start looking at your lab as a manufacturer, then you find more things you can sell," he said. For example, since orthodontists have to store study casts for years, he offers a service that will scan and store digital versions of the models for about $30 each. He is also aggressively marketing his cone beam CT scan service to oral surgeons and general practitioners; he charges about $250 for a 40-second scan.
5. Opportunity to work with technology-minded dentists. Although you might think a chairside mill purchase means you've lost a dentist-client, think again. "When CEREC first came out, everyone thought it meant the end of dental laboratories; clearly that's not the case," said Dr. Giordano. "You can work with dentists who have these machines and find ways to generate other types of business for your laboratories."
For example, Jackson shared how he offers remote design services to some of his clients; his technicians do the design and then send the file back to the doctor for milling on his chairside mill.
6. Morale boost. Fillastre echoed the sentiments of many long-time laboratory owners who have gone digital. "Once you start down the path, you'll never look back," he said. "My ceramists are thrilled and love the new processes and overall quality of their work. As for me, I've been doing this a long time, but I'm completely reenergized and having more fun than ever."
No Substitute for Service
Speakers and participants alike agreed that—in an era when restorations are increasingly becoming a commodity—personal service remains key to a laboratory's success. "Now more than ever you shouldn't discount the value of the personal relationship. It has always been a huge part of this industry and that won't change," said Chuck Yenkner, President of Business Development Associates. "Stay in touch with your clients; be a resource for them."
For example, Kent Kohli, a former laboratory owner and Whip Mix's new Manager of Dental Technology Solutions, recommended asking your dentist-clients, "What would the ideal day look like in your office and what prevents that from happening?" The answers give you an insight into their unique obstacles and how you can help your clients overcome them.
That theme of personal relationships dovetailed perfectly with Whip Mix's commitment to helping its laboratory customers make informed decisions about digital technology. A 3Shape scanner and Roland mill re-seller, the company also offers initial training as part of the purchase or lease, as well as more advanced training and ongoing technical support that was applauded by participants during the two-day program.
"We're not blind to the fact that the world is changing," said Bernie Jaroslow, Whip Mix's Laboratory Products Manager. "Because of that, we've made a commitment to give our customers the right path into the future."