How Dental Laboratories Joined the COVID-19 Digital Trend
While other industries have gone largely remote, laboratories have gone more digital to increase efficiencies
COVID-19 tossed the dental laboratory industry out of the frying pan and into the fire. It is no secret that many dental laboratories, specifically those staffed by only one or two technicians, were facing difficulties before the pandemic hit the US hard in March 2020. From consolidation to a dwindling workforce, laboratories had enough on their plates. After COVID-19 started shutting down the world, some dental laboratories followed. Those that survived were faced with a choice. Should they continue as before, or was it time to escalate the already occurring digitization of the industry?
COVID-19 impacted all industries due to social distancing guidelines and various stay-at-home orders. A large percentage of the US workforce suddenly started working from home and telecommuting. This switch has stuck, and many companies are moving to full-time remote work even after the vaccine rollout. Unlike other industries, however, the majority of dental laboratory workers could not go remote. Even with limited workflows, most dental laboratories cannot function without in-person work. However, they did not escape the digitizing effect of the pandemic. Instead of workers going digital, an even stronger push developed for nearly all cases to be sent via intraoral scan.
The dental laboratory industry had already been steadily digitizing since Sirona launched its first iteration of the CEREC scanner in the 1980s. Before the pandemic, many laboratories were already incentivizing their dentists to send digital cases for posterior, single-unit crowns with model-less discounts or intraoral scanner rebates. Suddenly, with COVID-19 shutting doors and clogging supply chains, getting cases from a practice to a laboratory became far more complicated. These issues encouraged the acceptance of intraoral scanners in practices and expedited the switch to new, more digitally friendly materials.
Digital dentures have been a colossal talking point within the dental industry for several years now. Not only do they offer a faster treatment process, but the attractive profit margin helps offset the initial investment. Once the pandemic hit, a sudden influx of dental laboratories marketed digital dentures more than ever. This eye-catching addition to their product lines suddenly became a way for them to direct traffic to their removable departments without the need for traditional cases. Beyond digital dentures, more digitally friendly products began making their way through laboratories, such as CAD/CAM milled partials, SLM partials, and full-contour zirconia.
There is one other reason behind dental laboratories heavily promoting digital cases and moving toward more digitally friendly products. While dental laboratory owners had no trouble maintaining healthy caseloads once dental practices reopened, they were facing a shortage of dental technicians. Exact numbers have not been made available, but given the impact COVID-19 had on all industries, it is highly likely that the number of active technicians has decreased. While this may be acceptable for an industry hit hard by the pandemic, it is disproportionate to the anecdotal evidence provided by dental laboratory owners about their caseloads.
Moving to a more digitally backed workflow allows laboratory owners and managers to be more selective about where they utilize their limited staffing. Instead of having a removable technician hand-pack denture acrylic, they could alternatively have someone managing digital denture cases and printing bases in far less time. Instead of having technicians wasting time unpacking and organizing cases, they could see their next case with the click of a button.
The pandemic impacted the world in many unexpected ways, but one common aspect that all industries embraced was a more digital workflow. While dental laboratory technicians cannot festoon a denture in the comfort of their own home, they can leave the crafting of a denture base to the precise work of a 3D printer. This move to more digital cases, digital materials, and digital processes is an evolution that has been occurring for a long time. The pandemic simply kicked this advancement into high gear.
Terry Fine is President of AMG Creative in Fort Collins, Colorado.