One thing we know for certain: the number of dental labs in the US is reducing. From over 12,000 labs in 2008 we were down to just over 7000 in 2016. In Texas, there are only 641 active dental labs, although there are more than 2900 labs listed by the State Board of Dental Examiners.
Some blame trade imbalances for the reduction in dental labs, but modernization and automation in the industry is also responsible for many of the reductions.
Many people point to the lower cost of imported dental crowns, dental implants, and other restorations as being responsible for the decline in US labs. It’s hard to argue with the logic that if a dentist has to pay $100 for a crown made in the US, but can get a similar crown from overseas for less than $40, they’re often going to pick the overseas crown. Especially if patients and insurance companies are insisting on a lower cost.
The cost drop is often being driven by dental chains, which are owned by investors whose only concern is their return on investment from the chains. These dental chains may not force member dentists to buy from overseas, but they strongly encourage any practice that reduces cost and improves production.
Automation and Modernization
But it isn’t just competition from overseas that is driving the reduction in dental labs. It’s also partly the typical story of automation: as the technology improves, workers can do more, so fewer workers are needed.
A Bloomberg article on dental labs contains several stories of labs that are still in business but with fewer staff than in the past. One is a dental lab in Michigan that used to have seven employees to fill a total of 75 orders a week. Now, though, the lab has only one full-time worker who fills about 20 orders a week. In the past, workers used to fill just under 11 orders per week. Now one worker can handle 20 orders per week, which means that the lab would’ve probably lost three employees anyway, even if orders had stayed high.
A larger lab in Georgia makes the case even clearer. The manager of the lab says that at one time they had 40 employees, but now they only have 12. Even so, they’re filling more orders than they did in the past. When an industry sees a more than threefold jump in productivity, some jobs are inevitably going to be lost.
Another factor is contributing to the declining demand for restorations across the country: dentists are making their own restorations. Computerized dentistry allows dentists to design and manufacture dental crowns, veneers, and onlays in their office. This technology is growing rapidly in popularity. The leading name in the industry, CEREC, recently announced that it had sold more than 10,000 of these units to practices in North America alone. It also said that over the last 25 years, dentists have made over 20 million restorations using its machines. In other words, that’s about a million weeks of work lost from dental labs. And with costs under $25 per dental crown, these machines may be undercutting the cost of even imported dental crowns.
We’re Focused on Quality
While many dental practices may be constantly focused on delivering the cheapest service they can manage, we’re focused on delivering high quality dentistry for a reasonable price.
We have carefully vetted all the dental labs we work with to ensure their demanding standards match our own. And you’ll be happy for that when you see your new, beautiful smile in the mirror.