Building for Tomorrow
Design your laboratory to adapt to and capitalize on current and future trends
By Jason Mazda
A dental laboratory needs to adapt to the changing needs and expectations of dentists, patients, and its own employees in order to remain viable, regardless of size, specialty, or degree of digital integration. As the industry continues to become increasingly competitive, most laboratories need every edge they can get, from marketing and branding to efficiency, lean manufacturing, and employee satisfaction. Achieving success in those areas starts with the facility out of which a laboratory operates.
“The whole industry is changing rapidly, and it is important to keep up with that change,” says Alexander Wünsche, owner of Zahntechnique in Miami, Florida.
The stereotypical older dental laboratory—small, dusty, compartmentalized—is being replaced in many cases by the laboratory of tomorrow, which is often larger, more open, and modern. Location and curb appeal are being recognized more as valuable assets. Floor plans and workstations are being customized to streamline workflows. Education centers and imaging machines are being added to offer dentists and patients extra perks.
Dene LeBeau, CDT, based the thoughtful design of his laboratory, LeBeau Dental Lab in Renton, Washington, on several studies that indicate that the layout of an office can significantly impact employee efficiency and satisfaction.1
“Our employees are motivated and productive, and the professional atmosphere is really a bonus when clients visit the facility,” LeBeau says.
Reaching that point is not easy. There is no single blueprint for the perfect laboratory, as each business has different needs.
“We talked extensively to industry leaders,” Wünsche says of his laboratory’s recent move to a new facility. “We focused on the question, ‘How does the industry do the job?’”
The answer is complex and ever-evolving.
Location, Location, Location
The first decision a laboratory owner must make when designing a new facility is the location. With a fast-growing emphasis on quick turnaround times and making the process as easy as possible for both client and patient, many laboratory owners are gravitating toward highly populated areas that are centralized to their client bases.
“Site selection was one of the most time-consuming parts,” says BJ Kowalski, President of ROE Dental Laboratory, which recently moved its main facility to Independence, Ohio, just a 12-mile drive on Interstate 77 from Cleveland. “It is everything—location, location, location. We sought a location with access to freeways, proximity to our existing employee base, and proximity to the metropolitan area,”
One of the most basic advantages that local and regional laboratories have over their national and offshore competitors is proximity to their clients, so maximizing that advantage is important.
Olivier Tric, MDT, CDT, currently operates Olivier Tric Dental Laboratory and Educational Center in Elmhurst, Illinois, approximately 30 minutes from downtown Chicago, but he plans to move into the city soon. Tric wants patients to have easier access for shade matching and other visits to the laboratory.
“People are not as willing to travel as they once were,” Tric says. “In many cases, we actually need to go to them, but if they visit our laboratory then we need to make it easy.”
Additionally, being in a heavily traveled area can provide a marketing advantage.
“We need to be visible,” Tric says.
Visibility is also a priority for Darin Throndson, president of Innovative Dental near Memphis, Tennesee. He’s building a laboratory in a 1.2-million-square-foot former Sears warehouse that will also house an urban village with restaurants, a performing arts center, and more. Throndson, who hopes to move into the new facility in July, is hoping to take advantage of the estimated 3,200 to 3,800 people expected to walk past his laboratory every day.
“We put in windows so people can look in and see our 3D printers and monitors everywhere,” Throndson says. “If someone has been considering getting a tooth replaced and sees our capabilities for implants, he or she might visit a dentist and ask to work with us. Showing off our facility can help dentists do more dentistry, which helps us get more business.”
Just as important as drawing more business is operating efficiently to maximize profit margins. Laboratories that have integrated CAD/CAM systems into their workflow are particularly affected by these changes to their space and layout requirements. LeBeau cites a study by the Center for Health Design indicating that a good layout benefits a company by 6% of an employee’s salary.1
Wünsche operated Zahntechnique out of a 2,000-square-foot building in a residential area until 2015. With each piece of equipment he acquired, the space became increasingly tight for his 12 to 14 employees.
“It was just impossible to work efficiently,” Wünsche says.
In 2015, Zahntechnique moved to a 5,000- square-foot facility that includes a large education center. The laboratory floor is mostly open in layout.
“Technicians need to be able to move between departments,” Wünsche says. “The acrylic department and the digital department need to communicate. The porcelain department and the CAD/CAM department need to check the design of a framework. We cannot have separate departments anymore. The open floor plan helps them all work together and interact with their colleagues on cases.”
In Wünsche’s laboratory, every technician has a computer and/or a tablet. All prescriptions are scanned into the computer system along with patient photos, videos, and any other information from dentists. The whole case can be viewed at any workstation and updated by dentists in real time.
“Our goal is to eventually to have a completely paper-free workflow,” Wünsche says. “This also helps us be more HIPAA compliant, because visitors cannot see the prescriptions as they walk through the laboratory.”
Kowalski also opted for a large, open layout for ROE Dental Laboratory’s nearly 40,000-square-foot space. He kept the straight-line structure for some of the laboratory’s benches but shifted to a pod-style setup for some procedures in which the technicians can benefit from shared access to certain equipment.
“We designed our benches to have staging areas for different components so technicians are pulling work from there instead of having work pushed onto them,” Kowalski says. “At the end of each bench, there is a rack system; your upcoming work is at the end of the bench, your current work is in front of you, and when you’re finished, you put it in the staging area at the end of someone else’s bench. The flow of our work determined the bench layout, and the bench layout determined the staging areas.
“It was very important for us to be organized, so we took a lean approach to our workflow and analyzed with spaghetti diagrams how things would flow and where good staging areas would be. As your laboratory grows, you cannot have technicians wasting time looking for cases; everything must be where it is supposed to be. This approach has definitely increased our efficiency.”
In a fortunate twist, ROE’s building previously housed a data center, so it has a raised floor with 3 feet underneath the production area for wires and cords.
“We were able to bring up all the utilities, including centralized air and, in some locations, gas,” Kowalski says. “There are no outlets in the walls.”
Stable, vibration-free surfaces are extremely important for CAD/CAM equipment, as are power sources. Throndson’s new laboratory features plenty of 220-volt outlets for milling machines and 3D printers.
“Because we are so heavily digital, we needed to really plan out where we wanted computer ports,” he says. “We are running cable all over this place.”
Throndson’s laboratory is carefully laid out to accommodate the different needs of digital and analog workflows.
“We will have both design stations and workstations,” Throndson says. “Workstations will have porcelain layering and grinding—dirty tasks. Design stations are strictly for CAD/CAM design. Because workstations need to be closer to your eyes, have armrests, etc, they are set at a higher level than design stations, which need lower keyboards. We also have pneumatic chairs that lift up and down so a technician can slide between a CAD/CAM station and a workstation.”
Each CAD/CAM station will feature 33-inch curved computer monitors to provide a 180-degree feel for technicians.
“We will be able to have multiple cases up at the same time, or intraoral images, cone-beam data, and digital design,” Throndson says.
Even the benches and desks themselves are changing. One laboratory furniture supplier in Chicago during Midwinter week in February said laboratory owners are requesting everything from new drawer setups to different hose locations on benches to fit better with digital workflows.
“Our bench supplier and equipment suppliers were very helpful throughout the process,” Kowalski says.
Many laboratories of tomorrow will have more than benches and design stations, however. ROE Dental Laboratory, for example, has an education center and three operatories with CBCT, digital x-ray, and intraoral impression scanning capabilities. Kowalski has contracted a dentist on a part-time basis to help with research and development.
“We set the operatories up with complete digital capabilities, so we are planning to be as progressive as possible in the boutique dental practice operated out of our facility,” Kowalski says.
Zahntechnique has a photo studio for smile design cases as well as an education center. The latter hosts courses for technicians from around the world, as well as some courses for dentists.
“There is not enough education in our industry in the US, and we want to support more of it,” Wünsche says. “Additionally, hosting dentists for courses helps with our business. They come here to learn, they like what they see in the laboratory, and they want to send us cases.”
LeBeau hosts courses as well, drawing some of the top technicians in the world to his facility.
“Having these high-level courses in our laboratory invigorates our technicians,” LeBeau says.
Throndson is partnering with a dentist who will have a seven-chair clinic, connecting the facilities by a room with a CBCT system that they will share. The laboratory’s walls needed to be a certain thickness, he says, because of the radiation, and the milling machines are placed closest to that room so that no employee workstations are near the radiation. Throndson and his laboratory partner are both registering as dental assistants so they can obtain radiology certificates and operate the machine themselves, and there will be computer monitors built into the walls of the design stations for patients to view their cone-beam scans with the technicians—though the stations will not face the open room, for HIPAA compliance.
“The dentist will use the scanner for his practice,” Throndson says, “but we will have a separate entrance for the laboratory, and we will be able to scan patients from other dentists.”
The more patients and dentists visit the laboratory, the more important the appearance of the laboratory becomes.
“We prioritized curb appeal—both outside and inside—with a nice, professional look,” Wünsche says. “We wanted the opposite of the stereotypical small, dark, and dusty look. We wanted a modern facility with a certain ‘wow’ effect. Now, when patients and dentists visit, they say, ‘Wow.’”
A laboratory’s décor can positively or negatively impact its brand. Depending on what the laboratory wants to convey to dentists and patients, esthetic goals can vary.
Tric is searching for small, old building to create a modern look inside, with wood floors, stylish lighting, and high-end furniture.
“We want the look of our laboratory to match our work—high-quality, high-end, a lot of style, and classy,” Tric says, though he adds that the facility should not be so gaudy that clients question whether laboratory fees are too high. “We want a contrast between old and new. Patients need to feel the type of work we do just by walking in the door.”
Throndson, meanwhile, wants a medical atmosphere for his laboratory, so he is working with an architect who has designed hospitals and surgical centers. The building will have epoxy floors with no carpeting. There will be extensive storage for everything from laboratory materials to computer keyboards, so nothing sits out when it is not being used.
“We want really clean, crisp lines and a sterile look,” Throndson says. “We selected a specific dull, gray color for most of the laboratory because it is easy on the eyes and the most neutral color for shade taking. Our lighting will be very specific for shade taking, as close to natural light as possible. In the other areas, we borrowed an idea from Lee Culp, CDT, and are using bright color for cabinetry to offset the gray and give the laboratory more life.”
Wünsche also prioritizes cleanliness, saying one could almost eat from the floor in his laboratory. He also utilizes an open look; there are separate rooms for the mills and the education center, but the walls and doors are glass.
“We have gained new customers because they just like to come here, drink coffee, and hang out,” Wünsche says.
Kowalski chose an ultra-modern theme for ROE as well, with skylights and plenty of glass.
“It was important to us that our building exude technology and a modern flair,” Kowalski says.
Throndson notes that if a facility’s appearance does not reflect the laboratory’s brand, the technicians would be better served not hosting patients or dentists at all.
“Your technical artistry skills may be top-notch,” he says, “but if your surroundings do not match that, you lose instant credibility. First impressions are increasingly important as patients become more consumer-cautious. You cannot afford to have someone visit a basement laboratory and think, ‘Is this the person I want making over my smile?’”
If the goal is to brand a laboratory as modern, perhaps the most important consideration to remember is that the next 10 years could very well bring the same degree of change in the industry as the past 10 did. Technology that is state-of-the-art now may be outdated in a few years.
“My biggest concern with the interior design was the ability to be flexible and change over time, so we are not locked into any particular laboratory design,” Kowalski says. “We opted for a modular setup. If a new product line really takes off and we need to scale capacity, in one weekend we can completely reorganize our workspace with very little electrical and plumbing work required.”
Throndson will have just two milling machines for now, but his facility is being built to accommodate two more.
“We considered the air requirements for more milling machines when we decided on what size compressor we need,” he says. “We set up a whole wall with a 20-foot-long countertop for 3D printers in the future. We have power strips all along that wall because we don’t know if we will have three printers or eight.”
Throndson planned space to expand from two technicians to six without it getting crowded. Similarly, Wünsche says he recommends always planning for at least 50% growth.
“We received great advice to avoid having too small a space,” Wünsche says. “Even if some rooms are empty or some corners are very pale, that is room for growth.”
Perks for Employees
In order to grow, a laboratory must attract and retain top-notch employees, and having an exceptional facility is one way to accomplish that. LeBeau cites a study by the American Society of Interior Designers that indicates people who like their workplaces are 31% more likely to be satisfied with their jobs.1
“A pleasant workplace directly relates to job satisfaction,” LeBeau says. “My average technician has been here 18 years.”
LeBeau’s laboratory has 12-foot false ceilings that are made from a material that absorbs sound. The ceiling also contains an air cleaning system. LeBeau’s workstations feature: custom-made clear plastic domes that he spent two years inventing, with small openings for technicians’ hands and microscopes, to both minimize noise and contain dust; switches to control the lights and microscopes; and a foot pedal to send air blasts within the dome.
“Lower noise levels create a more relaxed environment, and I care about my employees’ lungs, so minimizing ceramic dust around the laboratory is important as well,” LeBeau says.
LeBeau’s laboratory has stunning 260-degree views that include Mount Rainier and the Green River. He also used feng shui principles in his design, including having his laboratory’s logo in the texture of many of the walls.
“I don’t know how much I believed it when I did it,” he says, “but it works.”
Other laboratories offer perks such as employee lounges, food services, child care, and more. ROE Dental Laboratory’s part-time dentist will offer provide dental care for employees.
Simply offering a clean, spacious, vibrant workspace is a broader strategy to make employees want to stay.
“Our team has become so much happier,” Wünsche says.
The laboratories of tomorrow will take on many shapes and sizes, depending on each business’s individual needs. A small, high-end laboratory still will look very different from a larger, more production-oriented facility. What most will have in common is the meticulous thought and planning that went into their construction.
“Designing our new laboratory was a monumental effort,” Kowalski says. “We hope not to do it again too soon, but that would be a good problem to have. It was a lot of work.”
The payoff is keeping up with a rapidly changing industry and increased business from impressed clients.
“Our goal,” Tric says, “is to create something very unique so that we do not just offer the best crowns or veneers but also the best service and overall experience.”
1. Hoare R. Are cool offices the key to success? https://www.cnn.com/2012/08/10/business/global-office-coolest-offices/. Updated August 10, 2012. Accessed April 5, 2017.