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Inside Dental Technology
July 2014
Volume 5, Issue 7

The Dark Side of Digital

Common mistakes laboratories make when introducing CAD/CAM to the team

By Susan van Kinsbergen

Many owners introduce CAD/CAM into their laboratories without truly considering the impact it will have on their technicians. In order for any dental laboratory to have a successful CAD/CAM workflow, everyone along the production line needs to be committed to the process. By setting up realistic expectations and encouraging a constant flow of communication and feedback between the departments, you can take full advantage of the most efficient and productive workflow available to dental laboratories today—without creating problems for your employees.

Often the buyer of a CAD/CAM system has unrealistic expectations. The technicians and the owner need to have a clear understanding of what to expect as the system is integrated and keep in mind that the CAD designers are in a learning curve. Digital technology in the laboratory is becoming increasingly more accurate and esthetic, but it cannot replace dental expertise and experience. Therefore, when the bench technician receives a milled wax crown for pressing, in the beginning, it most likely won’t meet the standard necessary in order to proceed with the process. The technician could probably do better, but expectations should be clarified from the start. The CAD/CAM department will be performing a percentage of work for the technician—perhaps 40%, with a unit that requires only adjustment rather than starting from the beginning. Using CAD/CAM increases the number of units that the technician can produce in a day. For the bench technician, CAD/CAM is like an “assistant” that allows him or her to produce more and to focus on the details of the restoration.

While 40% is a good starting point, that percentage should become 80% to 85% with thorough training of the designers. A full understanding of tooth morphology and occlusal function is required in order to reach that high percentage of completion. In addition, an open line of communication and feedback between the CAD/CAM department and the production floor is needed. This is especially critical at the beginning stages of CAD/CAM implementation, when laboratory preferences are being “dialed-in” and the learning curve is the steepest. The designers should receive constructive feedback in order to assess their work. One of the most important aspects of a successful implementation is dependable follow-through, making sure the production floor is getting what it needs. This communication process should encourage an environment of teamwork, patience, and good will between the CAD/CAM department and the rest of the laboratory.

Unfortunately, one of the most common mistakes laboratories are making with their CAD/CAM departments is to put untrained, low-paid employees in front of the scanner or design station producing restorations with the expectation that the crown-and-bridge technician or ceramist will fix them. However, in this scenario, the labor cost of the most expensive technicians in the laboratory—the crown-and-bridge technicians and ceramists—will increase. This can have a negative impact on the bench technicians and decrease motivation. Not only have their jobs become more difficult, but also their production goals have probably increased since the laboratory has gone digital. As a result, overtime hours for the technicians may necessarily increase and the quality of the restorations may be affected.

These are the facts: Digital technology can improve your quality, productivity, and profitability, but it’s only as good as the information that is entered into it. If your design technicians don’t have the dental expertise necessary to deliver a product that increases production for your bench technicians, then it is necessary to hire more experienced people, or invest in training current employees. A concurrent investment in well-trained, committed employees and strategically integrated digital technology will advance your laboratory to the next level.

For too long, the analog and digital worlds have been at odds in this industry. That situation is gradually being changed by stakeholders who understand the possibilities—but also the limitations—of CAD/CAM technology. By setting clear expectations in the laboratory and automating as much of the process as possible without compromising quality, bench technicians can increase their productivity. With this highly efficient, digital workflow, the laboratory can save labor dollars without negatively impacting the quality of the restoration, and as a result, keep the most valuable asset in the laboratory—the technician—satisfied.

About the Author

Susan van Kinsbergen is the owner of SvK Consulting in Newport Beach, CA.

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