Digital dental = practice, practice, practice

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Andrew Wheeler bit the digital bullet, and it bit back... more from Blueprint Dental's FutureLabs 2017

During Blueprint Dental’s FutureLabs 2017 event dental technician Andrew Wheeler entertained the delegates with the story of his poignant journey into the digital dental arena. The road was not a smooth one.

He had seen bigger labs successfully invest in digital, but Andrew was a one-man band and now he is four years older and wiser he can look back at the pitfalls he should have avoided. His journey started at a show where he admired a 3D printer and instantly saw the possibilities for his lab. He invested in the printer and a scanner to the tune of £34K.

At first he thought he could combine digital and traditional technology in his workplace, and it was a disaster. Andrew lost money and realised that digital dental technology was a case of practice, practice, practice. And if you have some spare time, use it to practice.

“Forget about the dentistry,” he explained, “we’re working with machines here!” When it comes to traditional labs everyone knew where they were. One could go from one lab to another and sit down and get on with the job.
“We all worked the same way,” he said, “but that’s all changing now. The wax knife, plaster room, and Bunsen flame will soon become a thing of the past. We either embrace the digital future or we get left behind. Those are our choices.”

He believes the transition will prove easier for the younger generations. The whole concept of digital dental technology, designing a restoration on a screen using a mouse, will be second nature to those who grew up doing everything with iPads, Smartphones, tablets and computers, “The rest of us are playing catch-up” he mused. “But we’ll get there.”

The benefits of digital?

What are the benefits of digital for Andrew? Dental technology is creative work, how you feel that day dictates the quality of the outcome. The restoration you create on a Monday might not be the same as the restoration you create on a Friday afternoon after a long and fraught week. Going digital, he thought, would level things out, it would standardise production.

And anyway, he had been told that dentists were all buying intraoral scanners and he would need to be digital to get work – however, after four years he only knows two dentists who invested in the scanners – and they don’t seem happy with them.

Four years ago Andrew had invested in a Medit blue scanner and he has been astonished by the speed of developments ever since. The latest scanner looks no different from his older one but can do so much more. It sets a benchmark. He wished his 3D printer did the same. It gave him two years of hell.

After he had it completely rebuilt the printer now works fine but he is using it less and less. He still believes that the day technicians say goodbye to plaster models and everything is printed can’t come soon enough, but so much is done in the virtual world now that model-making is becoming a lost art.

Busy stands during FutureLabs 2017

Software support and outsourcing

Andrew asks: “What do you do when this happens: Intraoral scan – CAD – CAM – deliver to surgery, and it doesn’t fit? You redo it of course, and that’s fine when it’s a single unit but what if its a complete arch? All your profit is gone. They tell you the digital journey is faultless but such is not always the case.”

However, Andrew has nothing but praise for CAD software designers and the support they provide. He uses exocad and has done the courses and met other technicians using the software and he admits his peers are amazing.
“Set them a challenge,” he says, “and they’ll rise to it every time. Dental technology survives and moves forward despite everything that’s been thrown at it.”

He outsources his milling and says the turnaround is incredible, less than 24hours sometimes – but, he’s still not completely digital. He still uses a casting machine at a friend’s lab down the road. Old habits die hard.

What can go wrong?

What can go wrong? Losing all your data when your computer goes wrong hurts. Andrew had to pay a lot to try to recover everything from his crashed hard drive and still ended up starting again in some cases. So, lesson learned: back everything up as you go. It might never happen to you – but if it does you’ve been warned.

Learn to say no to rushed work. People will wait for a properly done job, and if they can’t you don’t need the hassle. Remember to send the work to the milling centre. They can’t do anything if you haven’t sent them the file, so don’t blame them when it’s late and they tell you they haven’t seen it. Remember, the job is not just about digital technology. It’s about communication, it’s about people, paperwork and finance. Digital can be a great tool; don’t let it become the master.
Andrew concluded: “There are challenges ahead but we need to keep learning and invest in the latest technology – at least the best we can afford – in order to keep things going during tough times, used correctly the positives of digital far outweigh the negatives. We live in an exciting time of change, embrace it; don’t get left behind.”

Andrew owns AW Precision Ceramics in Ewhurst, Cranleigh, a crown & bridge lab that specialises in dental implants.

For more information about FutureLabs and other Blueprint Dental events visit 

Image caption: 3D scanner demonstrated at FutureLabs 2017.