In the world of modern dentistry, where missing teeth can be replaced by titanium implants and treatment is increasingly planned with simulation software, dental restorations such as crowns and bridges are still made largely by hand.
But at Protec Dental Laboratories Ltd. in Vancouver, cutting-edge digital technology is transforming the art and science of crafting dental restorations into a highly precise and ultra-efficient process.
“With traditional dental technology, the process is more subjective and dependent on the skill and artistry of the dental technician,” explains Neal Russell, president of Protec, a 40-year-old business with 160 employees. “The results can be beautiful, but there’s also more room for human error in totally handmade prosthetics.”
With this in mind, Mr. Russell set out to equip his lab with technology that could reduce human error and produce high quality, anatomically precise dental restorations. He started 15 years ago by integrating industrial computer-aided design software and computer-aided manufacturing hardware – or CAD/CAM for short – and adapting the technology to his business.
Since then, he has invested in many new digital technologies, including six 3D printers – at a price tag of about $100,000 each – and computerized milling machines that sculpt dental restorations with significantly greater efficiency and precision than human hands.
“We are now one of the worldwide leaders in the use of digital technology for dental appliances,” says Mr. Russell. “In Canada, we’re among a handful of companies that are using new technology to this level.”
As business technologies continue to become more sophisticated and accessible, small and mid-sized enterprises such as Protec are increasingly investing in leading-edge equipment and software to grow their companies and gain a competitive edge. Piyush Bhatnagar, managing director, technology, at Accenture, says it’s often easier for small, nimble enterprises to adopt new technology than it is for large companies.
But with their limited resources, small businesses are under great pressure to ensure their technology investment yields the desired results, says Mr. Bhatnagar. That’s why they have to ensure they're spending on technology that will meet clearly defined goals, and that these goals are aligned with their overall growth strategy.
“They have one shot at making that investment, so they do have to be thoughtful about where and why they’re doing it,” says Mr. Bhatnagar. “Is it about being innovative and reducing time to market? Is it about delivering better customer service?”
The business goal has to be paramount, says Mr. Bhatnagar, “because if your technology investment is not aligned to a business problem you're trying to solve, then it’s all just bells and whistles.”
All told, Protec has spent about $2-million in new digital technologies, an investment that has paid off in many ways, says Mr. Russell. Dentists and patients love the consistent quality and precision of the finished products, as well as the wider range of innovative new materials and treatment options.
“One of the most exciting new developments in dental restorative materials is zirconia – it’s almost impossible to work with by hand but it lends itself very well to computerized milling,” says Mr. Russell. “These milled and sintered materials tend to be stronger and less expensive, and they produce restorations that fit better because we can manufacture them to extremely tight tolerances.”
Protec’s digital technologies have also allowed the company to speed up manufacturing times and have eased the shortage of trained dental technicians. The machines have not replaced humans; dental technicians still need to design, fit and finish the products created by the computerized mills. Mr. Russell says Protec employees have adapted and retrained to develop new skill sets and apply their artistry within the company’s technology-enhanced process.
Since Protec went digital, the business has enjoyed compounded growth of about 10 per cent per year, says Mr. Russell, and it continues to grow.
“What we’re doing today – it’s the way of the future in dentistry,” says Mr. Russell. “We try hard to be just a little bit ahead of everyone else.”
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Financing a technology investment
Investing in a new technology can offer exciting opportunities to expand your business, but making that investment can present challenges, particularly in the area of cash flow. In order to grow successfully, you need to be prepared.
1. Develop a plan
Make sure it covers both short- and long-term goals. Consider not just which technology you're going to invest in, but also what you’re hoping to achieve. If you feel you don't have a strong business case, you might want to reconsider your options.
2. Get the right financing
Ensure you have sufficient funds to cover the cost of the investment and that the outlay won’t make you vulnerable to fluctuations in cash flow. Your financial plan should consider your ability to pay back outstanding debt, the impact those payments may have on cash flow and include a buffer for contingencies.
3. Maintain profit margins
Even if your overall revenue increases with increased volumes, you may be no better off if your profit margins shrink. Don't count on price hikes to cover the cost of your investment, or you could lose customers.
4. Time it right
Consider if the timing is right not just for your business, but also based on what's going on in your industry and the economy. Sometimes, it's best to wait for the right time.
For more business tips from CIBC, visit cibc.com/businessadvice.
This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's advertising department, in consultation with CIBC. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation