Inside Dental Technology
Jul/Aug 2012
Volume 3, Issue 7

The New Digital Economy

A Leap into the future.

By Pam Johnson

Ping Fu is the founder and chief executive officer of Geomagic, a 3D imaging company committed to transforming manufacturing for the 21st century. From her headquarters just outside of Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, she and her team of researchers build 3D imaging software solutions that innovate how industries manufacture products. Ping Fu’s vision is to provide the world with 3D solutions that benefit humanity by bringing the real world into the digital world—whether it involves supplying NASA with the digital software needed to digitize the exact dimensions of each tile on the space shuttles for rapid reproduction if there is a need for repair or replacement, to creating digital records of historical landmarks and archeological artifacts to ensure reconstruction if they are destroyed. For manufacturers of products and services, it is a radical new way of rethinking how goods are manufactured and how finished products are delivered, but it opens the door to innovation through digitization and is changing the structure of the world economy.

Today, industries across the globe find themselves in the very early stages of a seismic economic shift, one whose core is fundamentally different from its predecessor. The developed world is changing from an industrial economy based on the physical to a new digital economy based on computers, silicon chips, and networks. It was not long ago that attending a company meeting necessitated physically moving into a conference room, depositing a check required driving to the bank and handing the check to a teller, and reading a book meant a trip to the bookstore or library. In the new digital economy, each of these common activities can be accomplished with a computer or handheld device, hard or wireless internet connection, and a mere click of a mouse or button. The impact of digitization and the dramatic effects it is having on our personal and business lives is everywhere. It is changing how we do things, who is doing those things, and what we do.

“A report I read recently stated that in 3 to 5 years, the digital economy will be greater than the physical economy,” says Ping Fu. What this means, she explains, is that the amount of money companies invest in developing digital services such as an electronic check-in at the airports or electronic banking will be greater than the money spent on physical services. She is quick to point to Amazon.com as one of the first to adopt this new economic strategy. “The amount of money they are spending on their digital services such as their website, inventory control, and their call service far outweighs the money they are spending on the physical services provided by their fulfillment warehouse.” In a digital economy, she points out, the costs normally associated with maintaining a physical location such as the mortgage, utilities, and large numbers of employees have shifted to more efficient uses of capital and resources by developing more efficient digital infrastructures that require fewer employees and a smaller-footprint facility.

As the tectonic plates of a digital economy continue to shift, manufacturing companies across a broad range of industries have seen their business models upended as they react to contend with the dual forces of technology and globalization. The Internet, cloud computing, business intelligence, and social media have combined to reshape businesses across the globe, revolutionizing not only how things are made but also who makes them. The global manufacturing economy has contracted, becoming inextricably intertwined and interdependent; products are virtually designed in one location, digitally transmitted and manufactured in several other remote facilities, only to be shipped to their origin for assembly into the final product.

However, it is the ability to create and rapidly manufacture individualized custom products on a mass-manufacturing basis that excites Ping Fu. It may someday be possible to affordably produce clothing, shoes, and eyewear once available only to the privileged for the masses, as well as 3D milling and printing technologies for dentistry, she
observes, claiming that dentistry in many ways is the leader in this arena because it is already invested in and adopting the mass customization concept of manufacturing.

Not all processes in dentistry can be digitized though. When Ping Fu imagines how technology will continue to change dentistry, her vision of the physical start and end point, with the dentist first examining the patient and ultimately placing the restoration remains unchanged. It is the remainder of the process that she believes will transform. “CAD/CAM and digital technologies will become the standard method for the process of creating products that repair or replace the human tooth,” she maintains. From digital capture of the oral environment and fully animated facial aspects of the patient to data transfer into powerful software for virtual CAD design and CAM manufacture of the replacement tooth, she predicts the middle of the restorative process will become more and more digital, technical, and innovative. In addition, she speculates that far into the future, it may involve growing patient-specific bone and replacement teeth. “The digital patient concept of the virtual patient is available today; however, it is just not streamlined,” she claims. Eventually, she says, it will be seamless with secure digital identities for each patient complete with medical and dental history. Furthermore, she expects that patients will control their own digital data, deciding who is allowed access to that data and which healthcare professional will provide the medical or dental treatment services needed based on the data received. Whether the patient data is stored on the cloud or a smart card, patient-specific data transmission, she continues, will allow the restorative process to begin, and, in the case of a repair, be completed before the patient steps over the threshold of the dental practice.

Large laboratories, she believes, will become technology centers where patient data will stream in from dental team members around the globe, with some data requiring only an analysis and CAD design before the design of the final restoration is transmitted for final 3D printing or milling in-house or at the dental practice. Other more complex cases will require consultation with clinical specialists and the material and bioengineering scientists housed at the laboratory. High-end cosmetic cases that need special handling and artistry would be partially completed and sent off or referred in whole electronically to small independent or in-practice boutique specialty laboratories.

“In the new era of dentistry, digital systems will help us be more efficient,” she concludes. “CAD/CAM will eventually be the standard method for creating tooth replacement and repair.” But, she cautions, it is important to keep in mind that the digital revolution and economy are still in their infancy. “All the digital tools we use in our personal and business lives today are still the first generation and quite rudimentary. The digital economy is only about 15 years old,” Ping Fu notes, adding, “The industrial revolution in this country took a little more than 100 years to mature.”

And so, in the following pages, we begin our journey into the future, imagining how technology may reshape what we do and how we do it, the methods of mass customized manufacturing and the machines that may become mainstream, and how dentistry may one day be in the forefront of medical diagnosis. Step with us into the future.

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