Should we look outside our industry to run better labs?

With labs at the cutting edge of dentistry and undergoing enormous changes, Ashley Byrne discusses the value of outside influence and looking beyond the lab industry.

We all focus strongly on making false teeth and making the best false teeth we can. We look at other labs, we look at social media of other techs and we make informed decisions to enhance our skills or businesses from this new ‘teeth’ knowledge.

Our conferences are teeth-based, our training is teeth-based, and our supplier social events are usually teeth-based or, at best, filled with teeth people.

We make teeth so that makes perfect sense. Or does it?

The industry is transforming

Our industry has been, and still is, undergoing the biggest change in its history. Digitisation, new materials and processes, consolidation of our clients and our own businesses, legislation changes, and a declining workforce to name but a few.

The days of running a lab on a wax knife and a Bunsen burner are as good as gone. Suddenly we find ourselves moving from archaic manufacturing to a high-tech industry.

We can sometimes forget how far we have come or the changes we have gone through. It was highlighted to me recently when one of my team returned from maternity leave and she was astounded at the changes to just about everything.

Labs, in my opinion, are at the cutting edge of dentistry. We have new materials appearing for 3D printers almost weekly, methods and processes are changing, and the actual size of labs is on the increase.

Our industry is unrecognisable for many of us. So, is looking solely at teeth the best way to educate ourselves on taking the industry forwards?

Dental technology is not unique

Our industry isn’t unique, despite what everyone and anyone tells me.

We are manufacturing. We make each medical device at a high-tech level and they are manufactured in our labs. And we don’t make the same thing twice (or rarely). But even so, most of what we do – be that crowns, dentures, or splints for example – are roughly the same item with some form of modification.

Could you compare us to the Mini factory in Oxford? Yes, 100%. Did you know that not a single Mini comes off that production line without some form of modification bespoke to the order from the client? They even use carbon 3D printers for bespoke name panels that go on your Mini, so it’s utterly unique to you.

If you have not been to the Mini factory and had the tour, I would highly recommend it. It was truly inspiring hearing how the industry digitised from clay modelling in design to CAD, and how metal workers went to CNC milling. And don’t forget the crisis of a lack of trained engineers… which pushed forward a new way to manufacture cars.

That sounds remarkably like our own industry, doesn’t it?

Looking to outside influences

Factory tours, industry visits, and conferences that contain nothing to do with teeth have always been of great interest to me. They have really helped me to steer my company in a direction away from solely making teeth.

I went to see a space satellite manufacturer a while back, and he started the tour with: ‘One thing unique about our industry is we rarely make the same thing twice,’ and everyone looked at me as I laughed.

Manufacturing teeth isn’t unique, but we have a lot to learn and looking outside our industry is where the education needed for changing our industry lies.

We have a mountain of legislation to get over in the next few years. We need lab management software to deal with stock controls, lot numbers and expiry dates. If a patient enquires about a crown made five years ago, soon we will need to instantly provide every material, down to the tiny spec of glaze called ‘banana’ that you used on the contact point.

My good friend runs a food technology business, and the traceability of his factories blew my mind – as did the cleanliness and hygiene.  He can trace the farm of an animal from a single packet of ham from three years ago, and yet most of us of couldn’t tell exactly the ceramic used on a crown from last week.

It’s not law now, but it will be. So, do we battle through how to do this ourselves or do we start to look at traceability from outside sources?

We have a lot to learn

Looking at other businesses isn’t solely about improving our manufacturing businesses. Your team is your biggest asset and we can learn a great deal from outside our industry.

As a new generation of dental technicians comes through, values are changing. Generation Z is motivated very differently to the generations of technicians we are used to. Work life balance, career mapping, regular feedback, and interpersonal relationships with the team are new standards that employers have to offer to retain the new generation.

Large organisations have been shown to adapt better to this new generation. We’ve traditionally viewed flexitime and hybrid or remote working as impossible for many labs. And yet, through digital solutions, we are seeing major shifts in CAD for industries like airlines and automotive providing cloud-based design stations for their teams.

Why can’t we do that for dental labs too?

Outside influence and learning to improve our industry is an area I have delved into extensively over the years. Not everything we’ve tried has been successful, but I can only talk highly of the ideas and new ways of working that this open approach has given us at my lab.

We all have a lot to learn about pushing our industry – and maybe looking outside the tooth world is exactly what we need.

Catch up with previous columns from the Dental Lab Expert:

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