The number of labs working with digital intraoral impressions has doubled in the past year. In March 2010, just 18% of the respondents to LMT's State of the Industry survey reported working with the technology; today that figure has jumped to 36%. Our latest e-survey data also indicates that another 20% expect to start working with digital impressions within the next year.
Getting involved with digital impressions means a new work-flow for the laboratory and working with digitally fabricated models. Although each system is different, in general, here's how the process works: the dentist takes the digital impression and sends the file to either the manufacturer or laboratory where the margins are virtually marked using CAD software; a model is then milled and sent to the lab for restoration fabrication.
Larger Labs Take the Lead
The majority of respondents involved in the technology are from labs with 11 or more employees, which is not surprising given the related costs. While the digital process eliminates traditional model-making procedures and the associated labor and material costs, the laboratory is required to pay for digital models and articulators and, in some cases, software and hardware.
"Most digital impression providers have upfront costs for the workstations, software and articulators that have made it cost prohibitive for smaller labs to absorb into their existing fee structure," says Jim Thacker, Vice President, Utah Valley Dental Lab, Provo, UT. "Some companies charge up to $35 or more for a digitally produced model. Small labs that produce restorations for price-sensitive clients and who cannot offset the overhead with high volume may feel they have no choice but to pass this cost on to the dentist. In fact, we have acquired several accounts simply because their current laboratory is unwilling to accept digitally produced models or assess an additional model fee. We work hard to encourage our dentists to use these systems by not adding charges that would drive them to other providers."
A growing number of laboratories are working with digital impressions, but dentist-clients continue to be slow to adopt the technology. Of the 36% of laboratories currently receiving digital impressions, they're receiving 9% of all their impressions digitally from an average of 7.8% of their clients. While more than a third of laboratory respondents say their clients are "convinced digital impressions are the future of dentistry" and "excited by benefits of the technology," they report the majority are opting to take a cautious, wait-and-see approach, saying they're daunted by the costs, learning a new technique and implementing the systems.
"We have held programs about digital impression taking and find it almost impossible to convince our customers that this would be good for their practice," says the Owner of a large laboratory in Pennsylvania. "They know it's the future, but will not make the investment or pay the click charges." *
Training Support Boosts Usage
On the other hand, a handful of respondents are having success marketing the systems. For instance, Vinni d'Abate, Owner, York Dental, Branford, CT, has gotten 10% of his clients on board and another 20 clients are waiting to be trained. "Providing support, education and the assurance that the results will be second to none has helped fuel our success with getting dentists on board," says d'Abate.
The lab's success has required a significant investment in both time and money. For instance, he spent over $100,000 on three units to test the technology, have his on-staff chairside assistants help ease clients' transition and market the system.
Other survey participants are also optimistic about the future, banking on the fact that the benefits of the technology--increased accuracy and fit and fewer remakes--will win over reluctant clients and that a new generation of young, tech-friendly dentists will pave the way.
*Editor's Note: In addition to the initial cost of the equipment-- which generally averages around $25,000--some manufacturers charge a "click fee" every time an impression is taken, similar to a CAD/CAM dongle fee. For example, some charge $25 for a quadrant impression and higher for a full arch impression.