Competitive forces are driving change in the dental laboratory business at a lightning pace. Two of the most significant forces are dental practice consolidation and offshore competition. However, regardless of these forces (and others), one thing is certain: as we look to the future, dental labs that listen intently to their customers will be the most successful.
As a national lab network, my responsibility as CEO and that of our executive team is knowing that we must satisfy two distinct and diverse customer bases: dentists and patients. We know that keeping a keen eye on changes in both groups is critical. We also understand that demand for our products and services will continue to change, and we must adapt in order to compete. As we look to the future, we diligently remind ourselves that in order to survive these turbulent times in the dental lab industry, we must evolve to stark market realities.
How can we, and labs like us, evolve in these challenging times? The first step is to become better business partners to our dentist customers.
Becoming better business partners
For years, dental labs have been essential partners for dentists. But where is the relationship headed?
Traditionally, dentists have relied on dental labs to provide three things:
- reliable case consults
- high-quality work requiring fewer adjustments
- uncompromised aesthetics
This will not change. But in the future, dentists will do business with labs not only for quality products, but for increased convenience. Dental practices are businesses, and businesses care about efficiency and ease-of-transactions. Dentists are already looking to labs for more predictable outcomes for smaller, routine cases. (After all, consistency and quality go hand-in-hand.) But for larger and more complex cases, dentists are seeking a concierge experience, including digital services and customized workflows.
The future of the dentist-lab relationship will require labs to be better business partners by providing additional value. Labs will need to provide solutions-driven resources rather than just restoration work.
Quality outcomes will drive business evolution
Treatment outcomes and patient satisfaction are key drivers of our health-care system, and dentistry is no exception. As an industry, we must look for innovative ways to serve our customers and provide better outcomes. Improved shade-matching, increased longevity of restorations, higher quality of restorations, and the pursuit of materials with more lifelike appearance will continue to be market mandates.
Quality outcomes go hand-in-hand with investment in technology, improving processes, and changing the way we think about the dentist-lab business relationship. For our company, the fastest growing aspect of demand is digital impressions. We also see significant growth in implant dentistry and removable restorations. Our main objective in these areas—as in all areas of our business—is producing quality outcomes.
When we look to the future, we see that business services are essential to the evolution of the dental lab business. For example, digital impressions and digital file storage help reduce the need for conventional impressions and improve the customer experience. As an industry, digital opportunities will surely continue to enhance the experience for both dentists and patients.
Dental labs today must simplify their end-to-end partnership with dentists—from initial engagement, to product delivery, to ongoing support. Interactions with dentists must be seamless, regardless of the system used. For example, real-time and on-demand access to labs is key—especially for doctors working late nights or weekends. By enhancing dentist-lab interactions, labs become more aligned with the needs of dentists and patients.
Offshore competition: A blessing or curse?
Offshore competition is formidable—especially in the production of zirconia-based crowns. We see this trend continuing, as foreign and offshore investments see opportunities to capture market share in the United States.
For our company, we do not see offshore options for dentists as a threat. Our customer partnerships—from dental support organizations (DSOs), to group practices, to institutions, to single-practice owners—are always transparent. For some customers, offshore options are the desired solution because price is a real issue for them and their patients. Our company is clear and open about our offshore options as part of our comprehensive portfolio.
As with our domestic labs across the country, we have high standards and rigid processes for selecting and monitoring our offshore partners. This is to ensure quality outcomes and high customer satisfaction. By providing customers with an array of options, whether domestic or international, our team can focus on quality and customer service. This drives additional value by meeting each customer’s preferences.
A challenging—and bright—future ahead
We see the graying of America as a great opportunity to serve dentists and patients alike. As the population ages, individuals will require everything from single-tooth implants to full-mouth reconstruction. In our case, our talented team makes a difference as they guide our customers through the myriad of available options. They ultimately help our customers choose the option that makes their patients happy. In this regard, our industry—more than ever—must provide dentists with end-to-end solutions. This includes case planning, chairside guidance and delivery of the best restoration to match the patient’s needs. This is the key to our industry’s growth.
The dental industry has changed considerably in the past 10 years. With the rise of DSOs, rapid technology cycles, and offshore competition, labs must look at their business models and adapt. 3-D printing is a good example: This technology is in its early stages, but it has shown success in certain product applications. We know we must keep a careful eye on what 3-D printing technologies can—and cannot—realistically deliver.
Higher costs for goods combined with demand for efficiencies will drive dental labs to enhance logistics and production coordination. This will create a larger capacity through a “network” approach for products and capabilities. Moreover, this will improve access to customers and improve overall treatment outcomes. These improvements may happen through industry consolidation or organically—if costs and efficiencies can be achieved by individual labs.
As an industry, our focus on dentists and their practices must remain steadfast: it must guide us in everything we do. Helping dentists through improved workflows and efficiencies will help create stronger bonds and improve business relationships.
We can always do more to improve our relationships with dentists. We know that most in-office technologies are not suited for complex cases, and that is where the lab-dentist relationship becomes even more valuable.
In the end, those improved, trusted, relationships make good labs extraordinary!