The Future Is Here, But People Are Still the Heart of Our Business

The Future Is Here, But People Are Still the Heart of Our Business
April 4, 2024
  |   by
Hugo Sousa

A Thought Piece By Our CEO, Steve Campbell.

The landscape looked vastly different when I started in the dental lab industry over 25 years ago. I vividly remember the rows of Bunsen burners flickering, the pungent smell of metallic oxides, and technicians painstakingly building wax models by hand. 

Plaster models lined the shelves, and the schedule was dictated by the wait times for physical impressions to arrive by courier. It was a tactile, analogue world where craftsmanship was measured by the steadiness of your hands and the hours spent hunched over a workbench.

Fast forward to today, and I'm amazed at the metamorphosis. As I walk through the doors of Nexus each morning, one of the country's most advanced digital dental labs, I'm greeted by a symphony of cutting-edge technology. 

3D printers whir and churn out precision models, and the CAD team is busy designing complex restorations with the click of a mouse. Sleek flat-screen computers have replaced the Bunsen burners, and the shelves once lined with plaster now hold neatly organised case files. 

Digital workflows, automation, and now AI have revolutionised our ability to achieve accuracy, efficiency, and consistency.

Reflecting on this remarkable evolution over my nearly ten years leading Nexus, I'm in awe of how far we've come. The technology has undoubtedly given us a significant competitive advantage, enabling us to fabricate restorations with precision and speed that were unimaginable when I first started. 

However, amidst the excitement surrounding these high-tech tools, I'm often asked: will machines eventually replace skilled dental technicians? Is the "human element" still relevant in this new era of dentistry? 

My answer is an emphatic YES! Investing in people is more important than ever, and I would like to examine this question in depth and break it down.

Machines can't build relationships.

Dentistry is a people business. No matter how digitised and automated the dental lab industry becomes, what matters most are the relationships - between dentist and patient, between dentist and lab, and among the lab team members. 

These personal connections are the lifeblood of our industry, the foundation upon which trust, loyalty, and long-term success are built.

An AI chatbot can efficiently book an appointment or answer a question, but it can't replace the depth and nuance of human interaction. 

It can't pick up on the subtle cues in a client's voice that indicate they're stressed about a challenging case. 

It can't remember whether a particular dentist prefers a specific ceramic brand or is passionate about a hobby outside of work. It can't commiserate over shared challenges or celebrate shared victories. 

In short, a machine can't get to know clients personally, anticipate their unique needs and preferences or make them feel genuinely valued and cared for. That human connection is our secret sauce, the X-factor that sets us apart in a world of increasing automation.

This is why I still prioritise old-fashioned relationship building, even as we eagerly adopt the latest technologies at Nexus. I regularly check in with our surgeon clients, not just to discuss cases but to catch up on their lives and practices. 

I want to know how their families are doing, what challenges they're facing, and what goals they're working towards. By listening and understanding their situations, I'm better equipped to support them as a lab partner, trusted advisor, and friend.

I also believe strongly in the power of face-to-face connection, even in our digital age. I prioritise travelling worldwide to attend industry events, tradeshows, and study clubs. 

These gatherings provide invaluable opportunities to nurture existing relationships, forge new connections, and stay plugged into the latest developments in the field. 

Whether chatting with a long-time client at a cocktail reception or striking up a conversation with a new contact during a lecture break, these personal interactions catalyse deep, lasting partnerships.

Importantly, I don't just prioritise relationship-building for myself—I actively encourage and empower my entire Nexus team to do the same. 

From our customer service team to our master ceramists, every staff member understands that their role is not just to deliver a product but to foster genuine connections. 

They're encouraged to listen attentively, communicate clearly, and go above and beyond to make our clients feel supported and appreciated. 

Whether it's a friendly voice on the phone, a thoughtful email to check in on a case, or a handwritten note to congratulate a practice milestone, these small touches compound over time to create unbreakable bonds.

Ultimately, there's simply no substitute for the power of human connection. A friendly face, a firm handshake, a shared laugh - these are the building blocks of trust, the currency of solid relationships. 

By prioritising these old-fashioned values even as we embrace cutting-edge technology, we create a truly exceptional customer experience. Machines may be able to fabricate a crown, but only people can forge a partnership.

Creativity and critical thinking can't be automated.

While AI and automation will undoubtedly revolutionise the dental lab industry, creative problem-solving is one key area where machines can't match human expertise.

Artificial intelligence excels at repetitive tasks that follow a clear set of rules, but it struggles with the abstract, outside-the-box thinking often required to tackle complex cases.

A machine learning algorithm can be trained to design a crown prep based on a 3D scan; for example, it can't think beyond its programming to find a creative solution when that standard approach fails. 

AI can't draw on years of experience and instinct to make a judgment call when a case presents unique anatomical challenges or aesthetic considerations. 

It can't look at a problem from multiple angles, brainstorm novel ideas, or adapt on the fly when plan A doesn't pan out. In short, while AI can be a powerful tool, it's not a replacement for human ingenuity and creativity.

I see this play out daily in our Nexus lab, where our rock-star technicians consistently encounter cases requiring them to think outside the digital box. 

It could be figuring out how to get an optimal shade match for a particularly discerning patient or devising an innovative implant solution to address a severely resorbed ridge. 

In these situations, there's no pre-programmed algorithm or one-size-fits-all approach to fall back on. Instead, our technicians must tap into their deep well of expertise, problem-solving skills, and creativity to find a solution.

Watching them work is like observing master artisans in their element. They bring an incredible combination of technical skill, artistic vision, and adaptive thinking to each case. 

They're not just following instructions but actively analysing the situation's unique challenges and constraints, brainstorming potential approaches, and iterating until they find the optimal solution. 

They're drawing from their wealth of accumulated knowledge—not just of dental anatomy and materials science but also of the subtle nuances of shade, translucency, and texture that can make or break a restoration. 

They use their keen eye for detail and finely honed hand skills to craft functionally sound and aesthetically exquisite restorations.

Importantly, this kind of creativity and critical thinking isn't just a nice thing to have in the dental lab industry—it's an essential ingredient for staying on the cutting edge of innovation. 

In a field that constantly evolves, with new materials, techniques, and technologies emerging, the labs that thrive are the ones that can adapt and innovate on the fly. 

That's why we don't rely on our cutting-edge equipment at Nexus - we heavily invest in empowering our technicians to think creatively, take calculated risks, and push the boundaries of what's possible.

Through extensive training, ongoing education, and a culture that values outside-the-box thinking, we give our team the tools and the freedom to approach each case with fresh eyes and an open mind.

We encourage them to experiment with new techniques, to collaborate across specialities, and to bring their unique perspectives to the table. We celebrate their successes and learn from their failures, knowing that each iteration brings us one step closer to the optimal solution.

In the end, while AI and automation are incredible assets to the dental lab industry, they're not a substitute for human creativity and critical thinking. 

The combination of cutting-edge technology and human expertise truly sets us apart. By empowering our technicians to bring their full creative faculties to each case, we're not just crafting exceptional restorations - we're driving the industry forward, one innovation at a time.

Technology is only as good as the people operating it.

Getting caught up in the excitement of the latest and greatest technology is easy in dental labs. With each new advancement in AI, automation, and digital dentistry, it's tempting to think that machines will do all the work for us. 

But the truth is, even the most sophisticated technology is ultimately just a tool - and like any tool, its effectiveness depends entirely on the skill and expertise of the person wielding it.

At Nexus, we've learned this lesson firsthand as we've grown into one of the country's most technologically advanced dental labs. 

We've invested heavily in state-of-the-art equipment, from 3D printers and scanners to AI-powered design software. But we've also realised these tools are only as powerful as their users. 

A cutting-edge 3D printer in the hands of an untrained technician is like a Stradivarius violin in the hands of someone who's never taken a music lesson - the potential is there. However, it still needs to be fully realised.

That's why, in tandem with our investment in technology, we've made an equally significant investment in our people. 

Continuing education and professional development for my technicians is one of the best business decisions ever. 

By providing them with in-depth training not just on how to use our digital dentistry systems but on how to troubleshoot issues, understand the nuances and limitations of the technology, and integrate it seamlessly into their daily workflows, we're empowering them to get the absolute most out of our cutting-edge tools.

This training goes beyond just technical skills, though. We also focus heavily on helping our technicians understand the "why" behind the "what"—the underlying principles, clinical considerations, and aesthetic nuances that inform every decision we make in the lab. 

By giving them this deeper level of understanding, we enable them to use our technology not just as a rote set of instructions but as a flexible, adaptable tool that they can mould to the unique needs of each case.

The result is a team of technicians who aren't just operators but true masters of their craft. They know our digital dentistry systems inside and out, not just which buttons to push but how to coax the best possible results from the technology. 

They can anticipate challenges, make subtle adjustments on the fly, and leverage our equipment's full capabilities to achieve precise, beautiful, and perfectly tailored restorations for each patient.

In contrast, a lab that invests in technology without an equal investment in its people is like a novice driver behind the wheel of a race car. They might have the most powerful machine at their disposal, but without the skills to control it, they won't get very far (and they might even crash and burn). 

So what's the bottom line? As dental labs navigate the rapidly evolving landscape of digital dentistry, the ones that will thrive are those that recognise the critical importance of the human element. 

Embracing AI and automation is essential to stay competitive - but it must never come at the expense of investing in people. By building authentic relationships, fostering creativity and critical thinking, and continually sharpening the skills of their technicians, labs can create a solid foundation upon which all of their technological advancements can flourish.

At Nexus, this philosophy guides everything we do. We're endlessly excited about the potential of new technologies to elevate the level of care we can provide patients and the level of partnership we can offer surgeons. 

But we always remember that our passionate, skilled, deeply human team truly sets us apart. 

They're the heart and soul of our lab, the source of innovation and success. And no matter how advanced the technology becomes, that's one thing I know will stay the same.

Thank you for being a part of our journey. - Steve Campbell, CEO of Nexus Dental.

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