Optimizing the Digital Workflow
The dramatic revitalization of the removable prosthetic market is being driven by rapid changes in demographic, technological and social forces that promise to continue revolutionizing this segment of dentistry. As a result, the US removable market is projected to be one of the fastest growing prosthetic segments in the dental industry over the next two decades and a business opportunity ripe for exploration and adoption for laboratory owners and managers.
Current estimates hold that 20.5% of adults in the United States older than 65 years of age have lost all their natural teeth due to tooth decay or gum disease. Another 178 million are missing at least one or more teeth. The numbers of US adults who are missing teeth will only increase as the average life expectancy moves upward from the current 78.9 years to a projected 79.5 years by 2020 and 82.6 years by 2050. This increase in average life expectancy, along with the aging of the 79 million US Baby Boomers and their "forever young" mindset, has boosted the demand for precision-made removable prosthetic appliances for decades to come.
Meeting the demands of this silver tsunami has challenged the dental industry to retrench, rethink, and re-innovate. Not only must the problem of fewer skilled and experienced denture technicians be solved but also the on-going problem of dental schools' reduced curriculum for removable prosthetics, producing generations of graduates not well schooled in prosthetic principles. Compounding these workforce and clinical knowledge shortages has been the challenge of reducing the traditional 5-6 appointment patient protocol and improving final outcomes.
The industry's pioneering spirit has been rapid. On the heels of success on the fixed side of dentistry, manufacturers quickly moved to digitize the removable process. Software engineers created sophisticated CAD modules for designing both full and partial denture prosthetic appliances while CAM and 3D print manufacturers created innovative materials and production processes to automate the try-in and final product phases. Although still in its infancy but evolving at a rapid pace, automated CAD/CAM production for removable processes and materials hold the answer to the demand and supply conundrum the industry faced less than a decade ago. Digitizing and automating removable processes also opened the door for fixed laboratories to adapt and apply their 20-plus years of CAD/CAM skills and knowledge to the removable side, greatly expanding the supply-side of removable services. Most importantly digitization has brought much-needed precision and consistency to the process.
Digitization of the removable process also addresses the needs and expectations of today's patients. Unlike previous generations, the Baby Boomer generation and those that follow expect den-tistry not only to restore their former natural function and esthetics but also to do so in an expedient process that is not unduly disruptive of their busy work, social and family lives. They are less patient with the tedious five-to-six appointment protocol and waiting times inherent in the traditional laboratory and clinical diagnostic and treatment process for removable prosthetics. And they are decidedly less patient and understanding of a prosthetic that does not fit perfectly and meet their expectations of natural function and life-like esthetics.
For laboratory owners and managers, the digital denture market presents an important business opportunity. Only 3.8% of the total dentures manufactured in the US are digitally produced by dental laboratories, according to a 2017 NADL Cost of Doing Business survey. This presents a ground-floor opportunity to take advantage of a new segment of dentistry that is young, vital, and growing. For fixed laboratories already outfitted with automated production technologies and looking to expand their product line as well as their bottom line, the transition from digitally produced crowns and bridges to dentures should be seamless. For removable laboratories eager to finally be included in the digital revolution, the knowledge and skill brought to the digital landscape will help elevate this market as it matures. The digital denture market is in an expanding evolutionary stage as advances in new materials, processes and technologies continue to be brought to market. As the fixed market quickly learned, the best time to get involved in the digitally-driven process is at the beginning before it passes you by.
Inside Dental Technology