The Dental Lab Expert – looking outside the box when running a lab

the lab expertAshley Byrne explains what dental labs can take from other areas of manufacturing to help solve dental lab challenges.

I’ve spoken in this column before about the challenges our industry is facing. A lack of dental labs, scarcity of dental technicians, and a surge of dental lab work – and this is a global problem.

With whom and how are we going to get this technical dental lab work done?

The challenges we face are huge. And the lack of labs and technicians is not going to be fixed overnight. So where do we look for solutions?

Looking outside the dental lab

What we do on a day-to-day basis many consider as unique. It’s a tough part of manufacturing that involves a mix of art, science, and hard graft. How can anyone else understand our totally unique industry?

It is for this reason that about five years ago, I started looking outside dental technology for inspiration to this problem.

What I immediately found is that we are not unique. In fact, I have to say that we are not even close to being unique!

We are simply manufacturing medical devices. And I found that every type of manufacturing has exactly the same issues we do as a dental lab.

As an industry, if we accept that we are manufacturing (which we are), then suddenly it opens our eyes and minds to see how other manufacturers are dealing with their own crises.

I started going to manufacturing conferences, networking at manufacturing meetings, attending company seminars for the manufacturing industry.

I remember explaining the issues I have to one of the senior managers at BAE missile systems. It turns out making missiles has the same issues as false teeth (but on a much bigger scale). Who knew?

Modernising manufacturing

What surprised me in my pursuit of looking outside the box that is ‘dental technology’ is that we are actually doing pretty well.

The message from nearly every manufacturer was digitisation and automation were the only solutions.

We mill crowns, 3D-print models, use CAD software for design, and we do it well. A lot of others in the manufacturing sector are behind us.

But that doesn’t help us to solve our issues. It just helps us to feel good about ourselves.

The companies that really interested me were vastly more digital than us. They used automation to reduce or even eliminate the ‘boring’ and ‘messy’ parts of manufacture. Then humans could focus on the enjoyable aspects of what we do day-to-day.

I learnt we mustn’t fear automation and digitisation. In fact, I learnt that if we don’t rapidly embrace this, our industry is going to suffer and possibly not even survive.

Finding time to digitise the dental lab

We need to push away from gypsum, we need to digitise dentures. We need to use artificial intelligence, and we need to find ways to remove those mundane tasks so that we can focus on finishing crowns, making dentures look like real teeth, and do all the things we enjoy doing as dental technicians.

Innovation and development from our suppliers limits us. But the more we join the early bell curve of innovation, the more we push those suppliers to work on the needs of a modern dental lab.

We need to push our clients as well. We as an industry can push forward the drive for intraoral scanning.

I know it’s easy to get bogged down in the lab with a shelf full of work and a model room full of impressions. How on earth can we find time to look outside the box?

Yet, if we don’t find that time, we’ll still be sitting there for the next 10 years, up to our eyes in plaster and working to the silly dark hours of night for not enough pay.

We need now, more than ever, to look outside the box. Take dental technology into the modern high-tech manufacturing industry it deserves.

Catch up with previous The Lab Expert columns:

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