Automation Helps Everyone
Not long ago, fabricating 700 to 1,000 crowns per day required around-the-clock labor in the dental laboratory. Now, when 5:30 or 6:00 PM rolls around, my laboratory clears out. We load up our equipment and then go spend time with our families while the operation continues producing a profit throughout the night. That is the beauty of automation.
It was almost 20 years ago when I first saw automation being utilized in a dental application. As a young dental technician, I felt a natural sense of hesitance, but I told myself that I needed to either be part of the digital movement or find something else I love to do, because fabricating dental restorations completely by hand just would not be an option within 5 years. From that point, I have always been open to any new automation technology that can make my operation more efficient.
My first real experience with relatively advanced automation was approximately 15 years ago. We had a CNC lathe that was converted to be a milling machine; the front part of the sub axle was used to create a loader with a three-axis arm. It worked well—when it worked. But it was not uncommon to realize late in the process that the machine had erred, which led to frantically trying to finish everything on time.
When I opened Peak Dental Technologies in 2020, one of the first questions I asked the manufacturers of mills we were considering was, "How often does the loader err, and how reliable is it?" Automation is pointless if it does not work reliably. Fortunately, the technology has come a long way. I have two industrial mills (Versamill 5X500L, Axsys Dental Solutions) with 12-disc auto-loaders and 14 smaller mills (DWX line, DGSHAPE Americas) with automatic disc changers. They were easy to set up and simple to maintain. The industrial mills have an electronic-based feedback sensor system that performs auto-calibration; the operator needs to initiate the process, but it is not necessary to sit there and try to tram out an axis and get zero point on the piece of equipment. That is done automatically. We calibrate primary zero work points and axes daily and conduct a full calibration once a month.
The return on investment is clear: reduced need for direct labor. A less automated mill requires upfront labor to load it and back-end labor when the machine has finished. Now, I only need employees to come in early in the morning, unload the equipment, cut off the work, and put everything into the sintering furnace. Having a night crew was such a significant expense in the past; I would need at least three or four people working overnight at my current volume. The increased cost of labor over the past 3 years makes that even more significant.
Any good laboratory owner knows, however, that everything cannot be about only the bottom line. Automation is not about replacing people; it is about expanding your business. Much of my cost savings are reinvested into my employees through continuing education, benefits, and better equipment and materials. Working regular hours allows for my employees to have a healthier lifestyle. Automation also helps open the gate to allow talented technicians and staff to focus more on the tasks they enjoy, such as using their artistic talents at the bench.
While milling has been the primary application for automation in my laboratory, others have had success with different applications. There are systems available that allow for 3D printing in an automated format. For my laboratory, the risk of undetected debris damaging a build tray and compromising the quality of the product is not worthwhile based on the products we print—mostly models and dentures, the latter of which we print at a high volume with an 8-hour build time. In some laboratories, however, the automation options for 3D printing are advantageous.
I am also aware of an automated inventory management system (Zimbis) that many laboratories use successfully. My laboratory has a custom system for scanning bar codes on the floor, and many of our products do not require a large inventory, but I can absolutely see the utility of automated inventory management for other businesses, especially when trying to cut down on high-dollar inventory to reduce overhead expense.
Another area of automation that I have experience with is robotic carts to help with workflow, and I believe those will become increasingly popular in the next 2 to 3 years in larger laboratories. Robotic arms now are a lot easier to set up and program and can be installed on the carts for mobile automation. For a large operation, especially one with a larger floor plan, a robotic cart going from department to department at certain times of day makes a lot of sense; it keeps the operation focused on the task at hand while maintaining a constant flow of production.
In the future, obviously, some of the advanced artificial intelligence that is being developed now will be incorporated into automation in the dental world. The possibilities are endless, especially when we look at how quickly the laboratory industry adopted CAD/CAM. Even smaller laboratories today have scanners, and some have milling machines. They see the benefit of having technology and automation in their laboratories. It frees their hands to take more care of the business and client base. That goes for any size laboratory, really; automation can provide anyone with more time to spend on other tasks and improve the quality of their operation.
About the Author
Peak Dental Technologies