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Mechanical Skills Help Drive Former Racecar Crew Chief’s Laboratory
Open system, ability to customize are keys when purchasing CAD/CAM equipment
High-performance automobiles and dental restorations might not seem to have much in common on the surface. So when John Noel, CDT, was working as a crew chief for a racing team in Germany in 1969, he didn’t expect it to lead to a career as a dental technician.
That’s exactly what happened, however, as Noel parlayed his ability to create high-precision products and later his technological acumen into a dental laboratory business, Noel Laboratories Inc., that is now entering its 38th year.
Noel was a 21-year-old crew chief for a dentist named William Oliver who raced Alfa Romeos as a hobby. Oliver was impressed with the engines Noel built, and suggested that his hand-eye coordination might translate well in a dental laboratory, so he set Noel up with an apprenticeship. Noel continued working on racecars in his free time but embraced the new opportunity.
“The satisfaction you get from building an engine that performs exceptionally well is similar to what you experience in dental technology,” Noel says. “When you fabricate a restoration, you have the opportunity to look at it and decide whether it is up to your standards or if it could be improved. You take ownership.”
Upon returning to his native California in 1973, Noel did freelance work and then served briefly as an in-house technician at a dental office before opening his own laboratory in 1979.
True to his mechanical roots, Noel paid close attention in the 1980s to the work of Prof. Francois Duret, DDS, DSO, PhD, MS, MD-PhD, one of the early pioneers of CAD/CAM. In his previous career in the auto industry, Noel had witnessed the controversial integration of robotics into the Ford Motor Company’s processes, and he resolved to be more receptive to new technology.
“The unions should have worked to have their workers trained to work on the robotic equipment,” Noel says. “The denial and refusal to adopt technology was harmful to them. Adopting technology is the best strategy; if you are resistant, you will be left behind. You cannot arrest progress.”
From 1989-95, Noel worked on a side project that involved 3D medical imaging systems. They successfully generated subsets from CT data to generate models using rapid prototyping models of patient anatomy.
“We were successful technically, but not financially,” he says. “We were too early for the marketplace.”
Despite this inclination toward technology, Noel and his business partner, Steve Barron, RG, did not rush to integrate digital dentistry into their Noel Laboratories Inc. They waited until 2007 to purchase their first scanner.
“We waited for open systems before we got involved,” Noel says. “If you enter into a relationship with a closed system, you are limited in what you can do with the system.”
Sticking to that philosophy, when Noel was ready to ramp up his production recently with a premium mill to supplement the two dry mills he already had, a key factor in the purchasing decision was the ability to customize the machine.
“We looked at a lot of different products and vendors, and we selected the Versamill 5X200 from Axsys Dental Solutions because of their structure and willingness to work with a client like us,” Noel says. “That set them apart from the comparable options on the market.”
Noel says Axsys works with them to develop milling templates and other capabilities to meet the laboratory’s needs going forward. He says the expertise that the Axsys support staff has developed from working with other customers around the world is invaluable.
“From a business standpoint, we could hire our own software engineer and try to pursue that in house,” Noel says, “but then you are isolated. There is a lot more strength in relying on the manufacturer, in this case Axsys, because they are receiving requests from whomever else owns the same kind of equipment, and they have a global view of how they can improve the machines.”
Noel Laboratories Inc. already is using the Versamill to mill titanium bars and other fixed removable products in house. They also plan to offer chrome cobalt frameworks for PFM restorations, and they are looking into a new composite material, Shofu Dental’s Trinia, for milling bars. Additionally, the Versamill has helped them expand the lab-to-lab outsourcing services they have offered for the past five years.
“This machine is allowing us to diversify the products that we offer, and to do that digitally,” Noel says. “It is producing very, very nice work. It is a robust piece of equipment with a very nice envelope. They claim repeatability over the working envelope to 7 microns, which is about twice as accurate as some of the other options on the market.”
One might even say the Versamill is the engine that is keeping Noel Laboratories Inc. near the front of the pack in the race toward the future of dentistry — a future that Noel anticipates eagerly.
“I am looking forward to a day when dentistry will have an open-source system in which the files that are gathered can be viewed and used by anybody,” he says.
For more information, contact:
Axsys Dental Solutions