More than 20 years ago, Gerhard de Boer wanted to set up a small, efficient sales force for dental materials. Dental Direkt was conceived in the home office in his basement. At that time, CAD/CAM production was still in its infancy. The situation is completely different today. We talked with managing director Uwe Greitens about the growth of the company and how it reflects the digital revolution in dental technology.
dl: From basement start-up to an international dental company, how did that happen?
Uwe Greitens: Without a doubt, building a business requires a certain perseverance, diligence, and courage at the right moment. With 105 employees, we are still not a global corporation. But that's not the goal we've set for ourselves, either. We are a family business interested in long-term customer relationships where both sides can grow together. What changed our company's direction was the decision in 2008 to invest in in-house production of medical zirconium oxide. At that time, we had already been selling zirconium oxide blanks, sourced elsewhere, for four years and had developed a certain sales volume in German-speaking Europe. On the one hand, we recognized the material’s potential as a substitute for the precious metals that were and still are an integral part of our product range. On the other hand, we had our own ideas about quality and the manufacturing processes which are necessary to achieve this. Since 2010, we have been implementing these ideas in our transparent factory.
dl: It is said that fortune really does favor the bold...
Uwe Greitens: Yes, of course, that little bit of luck has always been a part of it! Starting in about 2009, "open" CAD/CAM solutions became increasingly available. Zirconium dioxide has since then become the standard among denture materials worldwide. So we were in a position to serve a steadily increasing demand. A high automation standard in production and quality is very important for us. Our team has developed and implemented its own concepts. This ensures homogeneity across our products, which is important with zirconium oxide, while also reducing production costs. This enabled us to open up international markets for ourselves. When selecting our international distribution partners, it was important to us that they also work with the materials themselves. Often we have opted for smaller companies who can provide good advice from real-world experience. Zirconium dioxide and ceramics are materials that require a lot of consulting. Analyzing errors that happen in everyday life and offering customers troubleshooting and preventive measures are important for satisfactory and long-lasting results. This continues to shape how we run our business to this day. Every day, we are learning from and with our customers. Being open to ideas and flexible enough to incorporate them into product development has been another important building block for us and our business.
dl: Was this also the intention with your concept of a transparent factory?
Uwe Greitens: Yes, exactly. Right from the start, we opened the doors to our production facilities to experts and users from around the world to stimulate an exchange of opinions and to demonstrate that not all zirconium is produced in the same way and has therefore different qualities.
dl: From the beginning to today: what's changed?
Uwe Greitens: When the company was founded in 1997, CAD/CAM was still in the early stages of development. Accordingly, the product portfolio has changed. With our three business units (materials, technology, and digital services), we have accompanied the transition from analogue dental technology to the CAD/CAM laboratory. In addition to zirconium oxide and its accessories such as dyeing liquids, we produce medical polymers for special applications such as splint therapies. With our latest project, the manufacture of ready-made, digital implant components, we want to further expand our scope as a laboratory supplier. The goal is to enable our customers to purchase all sorts of CAD materials from a single source. We are becoming the single point of contact for an increasing number of processes. The wide range of qualifications our employees have has also changed accordingly.
dl: What fields are your employees trained in?
Uwe Greitens: We employ engineers from different fields: dental technicians, machining technicians, production, and IT specialists. The number of sales people has remained relatively low. Our company is called Dental Direkt. Although the name does not immediately suggest a production specialist, that is still our primary business, especially in Germany. We try to keep administrative and marketing overhead low in order to offer attractive prices. This business philosophy has not changed.
dl: Why do you operate your own technology center?
Uwe Greitens: We are convinced that this provides ideal support for our laboratory customers. Especially for smaller companies, it is difficult to keep pace with the high amount of investment which are necessary to update equipment. We sell small and efficient bench-top milling machines that enable laboratories to process a wide range of materials. These are the materials, including our zirconium oxide, where it makes sense to have the manufacturing process in-house in order to ensure that prosthetics are aesthetically optimal. In addition, it is the "soft" materials that bring the greatest added value to the in-house laboratory. When processing metals in high-speed cutting or laser melting, other standards are required. Industrial concepts to ensure lasting precision are costly. A high production volume is necessary to be profitable. We have a broad base especially in these areas. Individually machined titanium
abutments made from rod or high-precision bar constructions are a major part of the work at the technology center. But also the STL data set dispatch for therapy splints, which we mill from our own material on machines with blank change systems 24hours a day, can make sense. The CAM processing time for a splint is quite long. Customers who don't want to block their machine for hours can order it from us instead. 3-D printing models based on digital impressions is another fast-growing area for us. Another important aspect why we established the technology center in 2013 was to expand our competencies. Our application consultants can talk to our customers on an equal footing as we have daily input from our own production. At the beginning, we wondered about the extent to which we are perceived primarily as a supplier of materials and competing with the laboratories. Of course, this was not the intention, and the last five years have confirmed that. We work closely with other milling centers and do several joint projects with them. We can see now that there are synergies for the benefit of all. Building and maintaining networks is an important part of our partnerships. Testing new technologies can be handled better if the burden is distributed over several shoulders. At the same time, competition in the digitized environment tends to take a back seat.
dl: Transparent ceramic production: what insights do you give your customers?
Uwe Greitens: Our customers can follow the path from ceramic powder to the finished, pre-sintered zirconium oxide milling blank. However, transparency also applies to our other production areas. Sharing knowledge can ultimately be a win-win for everyone. We also follow this in our training lab, where we offer regular training courses and seminars on the use of our materials and CAD/CAM components. Much of our training involves Exocad software training. These are the best opportunities for customers to get to know us and our team.
The interview was conducted by Barbara Schuster
How does the future of the dental technician profession look to Uwe Greitens? What trends are there with materials? You can read his answers in the second part of our interview appearing in the January 2019 issue.