September 2015
Volume 6, Issue 9

Lean Manufacturing and the Digital Laboratory

CAD/CAM presents new challenges for maximizing efficiency

By Bob Yenkner

Whether your laboratory is conventional, 100% digital, or some blend of the two, using Lean concepts—accepting change, getting employees involved, and eliminating waste—can help. Lean is a philosophical approach to developing flexible, responsive processes capable of providing your customers with what they want, in the amount they need, exactly when they want it, but with fewer resources. As some laboratories are moving into the digital world, they have begun to understand how their profit margins will shift and how this will impact them. The traditional laboratory is affected by rising labor costs, while a digitally outfitted business realizes a reduction in the cost of labor and dramatic increases in output per employee. In addition, a digital laboratory has fewer process steps (read: workstations) so less physical space is required. Shipping costs in the form of insurance, fuel, vehicles, and freight for a traditional laboratory also are increasing. However, as dentists migrate to electronic interfaces, two-way shipping time and costs are becoming significantly lower. Other cost factors—materials, maintenance, and overhead—are also impacted. The traditional laboratory has decreasing materials costs, while the digital business is experiencing the opposite effect. Maintenance is low in the traditional laboratory, but the digital laboratory will require more investment. Overhead costs, such as power, insurance, and financing, will increase in the digital world.


Creativity, which was once only in the domain of the ceramist, has now been usurped by CAD in the digital dentistry process. The author knows of a laboratory that lost a key employee because the worker did not want to be part of its digital integration and opted for a more traditional laboratory.

The transformation from conventional to digital also requires laboratories to shift from a quality-control mindset in which the focus is on detection of errors to a quality-audit process in which the prevention of errors is the goal. Also, the digital laboratory will require owners to manage the business, not so much the process. Some laboratory owners put a disproportionate amount of time into making products because that is where they started and know best. The numbers and management side of the business is not their comfort zone, leading to an overlooking of process improvement, financials, marketing, and purchasing. This, too, will require change.

While digital manufacturing is drawing significant attention, the digital processes themselves represent only a small portion the entire process. For a value-stream map of a typical crown and bridge process (see IDT’s March 2013 issue for “Value Stream Mapping”), the value-add (transforming or shaping the material to meet customer expectations) portion composes only 5% to 8% of the process. Although laboratories can add value faster and more accurately with digital equipment, they need to consider the other steps in the process that still have significant waste. A typical value-stream map will identify 25 to 30 actions required to increase productivity to support a laboratory’s digitalization. Usually included in that list are layout (workflow), workplace organization, mistake proofing (prevention of errors), and a good measurement package.


No one can stop change; perhaps progress can be postponed, but it will come regardless. Change is difficult, uncomfortable, and hard work. The biggest barrier is the fear of the unknown and potential for failure. Make the move to a digital business model, but incorporate Lean concepts to maximize productivity.

About the Author

Bob Yenkner is the owner of Practical Process Improvement (PPI) in Higganum, Connecticut.

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