How did you originally get involved in digital dentistry?
Lou Azzara: The BEGO organization started getting involved in 1999, when digital dentistry probably wasn’t even a phrase – or at least not a commonly used phrase. Christoph Weiss had the insight that the dental business would begin desiring a higher level of efficiency and increased manufacturing consistency, but wouldn’t want to sacrifice the quality that they were accustomed to achieving through their own methods. In 1999, he teamed up with EOS GmbH, the Fraunhofer Institute, a number of software developers, and a host of different engineers involved in both additive and subtractive engineering. He started on the additive side, building with EOS. At that time, EOS did not have a platform to manufacture dental designs; they were building manufacturing prototypes for different industries, but nothing for dentistry. In 1999, they invested, as you can imagine, millions of dollars in this, which resulted in a viable commercial product in 2003. At that time, though, there weren’t any open scanning systems or scanning companies who had built partnerships with manufacturing facilities. So BEGO also had to build a scanner so that clients could participate. They pioneered this part of dentistry. Many around the world know BEGO for the premium partial metal Wironium® (BEGO USA; Lincoln, R.I.). The partial side of the business is still incredibly strong. Fast-forward to today, and BEGO is now also one of the largest production centers in the world.
That’s a great accomplishment.
LA: What BEGO has done in Germany, across Europe, as well as in other parts of the globe, is to take the expertise that they’ve built — the manufacturing platforms, the understanding, the resources and the material sciences — and apply it to production equipment for technical services. We are leveraging that know-how and trying to replicate that success here in the United States.
You’re looking to replicate the success that they’ve built in Europe and bring it to the U.S.; now there’s a new company, BEGO USA, and you are heading that effort. What’s the overall vision for BEGO USA?
LA: To sum it up, BEGO USA is a high performance manufacturer with extreme dental consciousness. What we mean by that is that there’s a sensitivity to the uniqueness of dental technology and the needs of lab owners and dental technicians. First, we needed an experienced leader for our production center, and we found that leadership and expertise in Dell Dine. It’s not just about the "high performance" equipment. We heard for many years that no one in dentistry wants to pay high prices, and doctors can’t discriminate what a particular piece of equipment accomplishes for their practices. The vision that we have is for BEGO USA to be trusted back-end support system with the most precise manufacturing technology, which is easy and affordable for labs to utilize. We are committed to offering the best available brands on the market — such as BruxZir® Solid Zirconia (Glidewell Laboratories; Newport Beach, Calif.) — and optimizing the delivery of those systems. We have a philosophy that if it can be done better or if there can be an improvement, even if it’s as little as a micron of a difference, it’s worth the investment. And of course, all of this is executed, serviced and managed by a very experienced, highly skilled dental technical team. Anyone who knows Dell can see that he is the perfect person to run our center.
Dell Dine: The way I envision it is that we take every effort to take the advantages of industrial processing and develop it so labs can bring their businesses down a trusted digital path. In my opinion, it is not easy for all of these new technologies to translate into the daily lives of the laboratory. To remedy this, we make some very sophisticated processes readily available to laboratories. That’s what we are doing and will continue to build on. When you work with this machinery, you begin to appreciate that it can consistently deliver restorations and frameworks, which is hard to duplicate with the processes that were available prior to the use of such sophisticated equipment. Yet, as Lou said, we do this with a deep sense of "dental consciousness": the full understanding that we are servicing the needs of the lab.
It makes a huge difference. You have all this technology; you have all this knowledge; you have a very clear vision that if it’s better, you’re going to introduce it to the market; and you’re going to partner with the right companies. How would you describe your business model, and what kind of digital solutions are you going to provide to the dental laboratory?
LA: In order to be a trusted source for our clients, we first have to have the product selection that’s most demanded — BruxZir Solid Zirconia, IPS e.max® (Ivoclar Vivadent; Amherst NY) — the products that are popular for good reason, popular because they’re good materials, and they’re good solutions. We’re going to provide the most demanded and best solutions wrapped around a high degree of technical services. As Dell said, choosing the right technology and making the right choices in that regard are going to influence the outcome in a positive way. But, it also requires a lot of guidance. As labs are trying materials for the first time or being introduced to new types of materials, they need someone who can produce these materials at a high level, and they need helpful and relevant guidance and a knowledgeable source on the phone about the materials and their usage.
In the digital world, it’s not simply putting a case in a box. In order for a restoration to be produced, the file has to be designed, transferred and controlled at every step along with way. One of the amazing things about our BEGO solution is that we possess a world-class file transfer system that makes it fast and easy for laboratories to send work and manage quality at every stage through the process. At each and every step, the product is being checked, both by quality control software systems and professional technicians. It really is amazing.
Based on what you just shared, it sounds like speed and professional guidance services are really important issues for dental laboratories that are expanding into digital manufacturing. So they’re looking to you for guidance on how to put it all together, this maze of technology, speed and conversion. Is that how you see your role? As bringing it all together while helping them get past that initial hurdle?
DD: Robin, I think you’re right. As a previous lab owner and someone who was responsible for implementing technology throughout a network of labs, the real challenge for digital dentistry is not the investment in scanners and CAD programs; rather, it is that we now rely on others to interpret our data and give us feedback. Dental technicians historically have learned through seeing the results of their work in person and making adjustments each day to evolve and improve. At BEGO we are fortunate that we have sophisticated software that analyzes the files as they come in. We then have a great team that is committed to quickly reaching out to clients to make sure we are all on the same page and that there are no surprises after delivery. We spend a fair amount of time working with clients and dialing in their settings in the software so they get results that go beyond what they expect; results as if they were seeing the output come out of the machines themselves. We’re finding that there’s a big communication responsibility that outsource centers need to uphold. We are embracing this responsibility and I believe our clients deeply appreciate it.
Yes, definitely. There’s a steep learning curve. And unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation or misunderstanding that laboratories newest to the digital marketplace are having to sort through as they try to get an understanding of which option is best for them. That’s a critical component that both your company and ours have to deal with.
DD: Yes, it’s a huge support effort. It is important to me personally, and as a team feel very obligated to supporting labs and their efforts to change their business models successfully.
Describe what the typical steps would be for laboratories that partner with you as an outsource solution provider, and how you get them to partner with you.
LA: It’s really simple. We add a file on their design center PC. And through a very short, very efficient and effective testing process, we dial in the correct parameters. We have our standard parameters that work for the overwhelming majority of laboratories. But as you know, there are certain preferences among labs, and within the labs among their doctors; preferences such as tight or loose are fully defined in context with what the lab’s doctor preferences are. We’ll calibrate those steps to make sure that the labs are comfortable. Once that process is complete, those calibrations stay consistent. And, we have invested a lot into making sure our output for the lab stays consistent. Yes, we have invested in high-performance manufacturing equipment; but, we complimented that investment with an investment in analytical systems and software that allow us to manage the equipment at a very high level. We certainly take great pride in our consistency.
You give them all the settings, you put them in the computer; but how do you ensure that information doesn’t get changed, either over time, or for one particular reason that then deviates from the proven formula you’ve come up with?
DD: We review all incoming case files for manufacturability. That’s the key thing. Every file that comes in is reviewed to ensure that it can be manufactured. If it’s not possible, we will contact clients and explain what needs to be changed. This is done within 20 minutes of receiving the file. The lab then can go in and make those adjustments themselves. We also inform them when designs might be reaching a threshold where the manufacturing output has a lower probability of success. The worst thing that can happen to a lab is a situation that delays a case. We certainly don’t want our calls to go out to a lab the night before a case is due. Our BEGO systems are designed to do the file evaluations early and fast, as well as to be highly interactive with clients. I wish I had access to this type of service when I owned my lab. Sometimes, especially with new clients who are just beginning to use these systems, even when we share with them that there might be a problem, they won’t know how to change it. For this reason, we developed a department that will work through the process again – possibly by taking control of their computer and showing them how they can make the changes. We are focused on developing a platform where labs can achieve a real comfort level, knowing that what they design is what we can manufacture and will come back to them on time and as expected. No surprises.
That’s a fantastic service. Speaking from my experience, the service is especially critical in the beginning because there are so many bells, whistles, switches, toggles, and things they can control and change. It can be very overwhelming at first. All of a sudden, they lose sight of what’s important, and can get a file that can’t be manufactured. Maybe they’ve stopped thinking about the connectors, or the contacts aren’t where they need to be. And while they may have done their very best, they were overwhelmed with the number of choices and options. So it’s a great service that you provide there.
DD: Labs are trying to do their designs as accurately and expediently as possible. We hope they learn to depend on BEGO as a second pair of eyes to back up the reliability of their service.
Back to the baseline and start from there. I know that this is early in the process, but can you share a little bit about your growth rate and what your customers are telling you about your services at this stage?
LA: It has been so fulfilling, and I’m so proud to be a part of this type of approach, as well as to have the investment and trust that BEGO Germany has placed in us. It is fun to share all the accolades we’re getting from clients today, not only on the quality of restorations we’re able to manufacture, but as importantly, on the level of service. Althought they are important, it’s not just about the percentages; it can’t just be that there are only 0.5 percent remakes. It’s the mind-set internally where one case that the lab is counting on needs to be 100 percent at an exact moment. It has been incredibly fulfilling and rewarding to be a part of getting that right; not only the ability to make it correctly no matter how elaborate or complex, but also to service it correctly, guide it correctly and get it there consistently on time. It really empowers us to move forward more aggressively.
DD: The growth and positive feedback have been very significant. There are many examples of this whether it is from the SLM, design or milling side of the business. One great example is how well the BruxZir brand is received. I have to say, it has had a truly positive impact on our business and the businesses of our clients.
LA: It’s certainly nice getting those compliments, getting those e-mails, those phone calls, and hearing the praise coming through to our team; but the proof is in the appetite and trust to send more files. As Dell pointed out, we have quadrupled since our launch, which was about 10 weeks ago. The best thing about that record is that it was only set yesterday. The previous week was a new record, and the week before was another record. We are very excited, very fulfilled and honored that we’re earning the trust of the labs that we love to serve.
Not only are you setting records, but also you’re setting record records because each week is a new record.
LA: Dell has done a tremendous job preparing our outstanding team for that. These records come because of great products and great technology, but they really stay and they persist week after week because of great people. He has put together a tremendous team that is highly experienced and incredibly motivated. They really feed off the adrenaline of the increased level of trust that clients have placed in us.
Of all the choices for full zirconia that are on the market today, why did you make the decision to offer BruxZir Solid Zirconia to your customers?
LA: Watching how BruxZir Solid Zirconia has impacted the market and labs in such a positive way, as well as hearing the commentary and the positive remarks from doctors across the country, it was the obvious choice if we were thinking about being in the zirconia full-contour market. BruxZir is the market leader, without question the most recognizable brand, and Glidewell is a partner that we are extremely proud to be associated with. What was expected, I would say, but also very rewarding, is the incredible feedback that we’re getting from the results with BruxZir Solid Zirconia.
DD: The feedback is fantastic from the technicians who are producing with it. The remake percentage that we have here is in the "point" numbers, around 0.2 percent. They want something that can produce consistently. With the shades that we get, we hit them almost perfectly; the entire time I’ve been here, we have only had one shading issue. The shades are very well accepted. We’re using the BruxZirTM Shaded Milling Blanks (Glidewell Direct; Irvine, Calif.), and they’re just so consistent. It’s such a pleasure to work with that because our real essence is providing consistency. The quality is a given. You want to be sure that you’re providing that consistency to those clients so they know what to expect when they get it back. That’s so critical when you’re in the lab. That material for us is just a core component.
You’ve hit it on the head. With the introduction of the BruxZir Shaded material, obviously the concerns of inconsistency with the dipping and the drying and all those variables that were part of the early process have been eliminated. Now you know with confidence that if you pick a specific block, you’re going to get the same result out of it time and time again. It’s nice to see that helps you deliver that consistency to your customers.
DD: That’s all part and parcel of that very, very low rejection rate. It’s almost non-existent.
That’s great, and we’ll definitely work hard to keep it that way. Looking to the future, what new products and services are you planning on offering to your laboratories?
LA: Touching a little on BEGO history, the BEGO organization has a long 123-year history, actually approaching 124. The focus has been frame mastery – frameworks in removables, partial dentures and crown & bridge. BEGO really focused not just on the material part of it, but on mastering systems that made frameworks. That’s from waxes, to investments, to the materials, the metals, to actual equipment, so that the precision and the consistency were always top performance. Fast-forward to the future, we’re really going to utilize that mastery. Mastery has been defined over the years in different ways: There’s mastery of materials, equipment and technology, mastery of service, and mastery of education. Mastering the service component enables labs to optimize the full potential of these systems in the analog world and in the digital world. BEGO has dedicated over 15 percent of its annual resources to education, and 20 percent of its real estate is education facilities, including staffing over 15 educators on site and a vast army of educators globally to help build out the systems and ensure they’re in the context of dental solutions. Going forward, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of focus on bringing that mastery and pushing it into the digital world. You’ll see a lot of innovation on the removables side, continuous innovation of fixed crown & bridge, and a wide breadth of offerings in the implant segment of the market.
Very exciting times.
DD: It is. And I believe that we have great processes in place, and as the materials improve and develop, we’ll just be adding those materials into milling, laser-sintering or printing processes. We are in a great position to just add materials and stay with the very positive trends in dentistry.
We’re excited about the opportunity to get feedback from both of you and appreciate your time, and appreciate your willingness to share your thoughts and vision. The early success you’ve enjoyed is certainly boding well for the future. We are very proud to be partners with BEGO USA. We’re looking forward to your continued success, and building ours as well. This is a great time in the industry, especially with all this technology coming to the forefront. As you eloquently stated, there’s so much information, somebody needs to help the laboratories distill it, understand it and process it in a way that they can take advantage of it, as opposed to getting overwhelmed and saying, "This is too complicated, I’m going to pass on it."
LA: I think that the best days for this industry are ahead of us. One of the most critical decisions that laboratories will make to access those opportunities is going to be their sourcing partner, who they’re working with. Our decision to choose Glidewell as our partner with full-contour zirconia was mission-critical to our success. I believe that laboratories, as they look over the landscape and as they access the opportunities that the market is affording them, will come to the most critical decision: Who is a good partner? Who is going to help me elevate and access what’s in front of us? Without question, our best days are ahead.
Thank you both for your time.