The dental lab expert – are automation and artificial intelligence a good thing?

the lab expertAshley Byrne explains why automation and artificial intelligence are helping to improve dental labs, not taking away jobs.

Automation is defined as the: ‘Use or introduction of automatic equipment in a manufacturing or other process or facility’. And artificial intelligence (AI) is: ‘The theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence. Such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages’.

They work together very well. But for this article, let’s tackle them separately.

Automation already exists in a lot of labs. These days I don’t think people fear it like they used to. 3D printers and milling machines are automation and they help us to run our labs incredibly well.  In fact, I don’t think I could run my lab without it. And I hope we can continue to increase our automation capabilities in Byrnes.

During one of my lectures (pre-Covid, up on an actual stage!), someone shouted at me: ‘Automation takes away jobs, shame on you’.

I did my best to argue the point by asking how many hours they worked. To which they claimed: ’12-15 hours a day, six days a week’. And to which I then replied: ‘Then you need automation’.

It fell on deaf ears and even now, as I walk out of my lab at 5.30 every day leaving my milling machines to run through the night and my beloved Monty and Marmaduke Carbon M2 printers to smash out 20 occlusal splints, I do still stand by automation.

Automation doesn’t remove jobs; automation allows us as a team to work more efficiently and do the jobs we enjoy.

I am, like every lab in the world, struggling to find technicians. So, if we can automate some of the stages, that is going to make running a lab easier. With less hours and more profit.

It’s as simple as that.

Automation

Over the next few years, our plan at Byrne’s is to automate more of the mundane tasks. Like flasking and packing of dentures. As well as increasing efficiencies like automated 3D printing, cleaning and loading.

By automating these tasks, we can spend more time on the finishing and designing. It creates a better end-product, but less working hours producing it.

I’m sure we will see robots in the lab at some point. And through communicating and talking about these ideas, my team know that our plans are to improve what we do. Not reduce the work force.

In fact, as we have become more and more automated, our employee numbers have grown.

Artificial intelligence

Now let’s talk about AI. This is a different kettle of fish and a long way behind the dental lab automation we already know.

It is also most frequently portrayed as the impending end of the world if we embrace it.

Films as far back as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951); A Space Odessey (1968) (with the chilling yet softly spoken super-computer HAL apologising ‘I’m sorry Dave’ after killing his entire crew); to The Terminator (1984) and The Matrix (1999), all portray the end of the world/humankind due to AI running robots.

It doesn’t make AI look good in anyone’s eyes… But AI is good, it’s really good. And it could revolutionise our industry for the better.

I’ve been following AI in industrial manufacturing for years and its development has been incredible and somewhat mind blowing. 3shape has recently launched its new AI software and we will see other follows soon.

We even alpha tested some AI for chrome design. I was remarkably impressed that within seconds of choosing the path of insertion, the partial framework was designed for me. It knew where the primary and secondary parts needed to go. And ensured that the chrome would be retentive by using millions of calculations rather than a technician.

Is this the death of the chrome technician? No, it is the re-birth. Because these designs still need checking, producing, finishing and setting up. But no wax, no mess, no casting, or investments.

Print 3D designs in resins and try in to check fit and function before we switch them to metal.

The future of dental labs

Single crowns are also now available through AI creation. Once again, you could argue that this removes the need for the technician. But from my experience it doesn’t.

Rather it allows us to spend more time creating and finishing a beautiful tooth. With none of the boring or time-consuming aspects.

With AI design, automated milling and sintering, the technician can then spend the time on stain and glaze. And, I’m going to throw this out there – working a normal working week for a commensurate salary these highly-skilled technicians deserve.

We already have a staffing crisis in our industry across the UK, Europe and most of the world. So unless we change our working practices, our capacity to tackle the opportunities and challenges ahead will be non-existent.

We should embrace automation and be excited for the potential in AI. These are just another step in taking our industry from the messy, dirty and dusty trade of our past, to a state-of-the-art, high-tech medical device manufacturing industry we need to be.

Working normal hours in a clean and airy working environment for the salaries we should earn.

And not a T1000 Terminator trying to kill you in sight.

 

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