Interview: 50 years of Glidewell Laboratories
Glidewell Laboratories is currently celebrating 50 years of continuous growth and evolution, and the recent Glidewell Dental Symposium in Orlando was the perfect setting to catch up with company founder and CEO Jim Glidewell, who has transformed a one-man dental shop into the most successful dental laboratory in the world.
Jim Glidewell opened his first laboratory on January 15, 1970, in Tustin, Calif. Continuous growth has forced him to seek larger buildings throughout the years, but his operation has maintained its Southern California roots, with primary campuses currently located in Newport Beach and Irvine. Today, Glidewell employs more than 5,000 individuals across a wide range of operational, scientific and technological specialties. The lab, best known for custom prosthetics such as crowns, dentures and a comprehensive portfolio of implant services, has also committed a considerable, sustained effort toward research and development designed to improve the quality of dentistry while reducing costs.
The most notable development of Glidewell Laboratories to date has been BruxZir Solid Zirconia, used to produce all-ceramic restorations that serve as an alternative to Porcelain Fused to Metal (PFM) and cast gold. It has proven to be wildly successful. In the 10 years since it was launched in 2009, U.S. dentists have prescribed more than 20 million BruxZir units.
BruxZir zirconia’s primary advantage is its incredible durability and resistance to fracture. A landmark eight-year clinical study conducted by TRAC Research, part of Dr. Gordon J. Christensen’s “Clinicians Report” (see sidebar), concluded that “BruxZir… 5full-contour crowns on molars demonstrated clinical service superior to all other tooth-colored materials studied clinically by TRAC over 39 years.” The study also showed 100 percent crown survival, zero terminal fractures and minimal opposing wear.
Additional years of research and development paid off more recently with the development of BruxZir Esthetic Solid Zirconia, which, with a strength comparable to that of earlier BruxZir formulations, also offers a more natural translucency, making it an ideal restorative material for the esthetic zone.
Glidewell has also developed an acclaimed chairside system for digital workflows, called glidewell.io, which the company says is the simplest way to scan, design and mill same-day restorations in the dental practice. In fact, Jim Glidewell jokes in the following interview that the glidewell.io system is so good that he is now competing against his own lab.
Dental Tribune: How would you define Glidewell?
Jim Glidewell: Glidewell is not merely a dental laboratory, but a very large research and development operation. Our goal is to help make dentistry accessible for patients of all economic strata, not only for rich people. The more convenient and affordable we can make our products, the closer we can come to helping dentists preserve or restore smiles for everybody.
DT: And you are very competitive in the U.S. market and abroad.
Jim: By case volume, we are the single largest dental lab in the world today.
DT: You also have labs in Mexico and Costa Rica.
Jim: Yes. In recent years, we’ve opened facilities in Cartago, Costa Rica; Santiago, Chile; Bogota, Colombia; Mexico City; and Tijuana to serve doctors and patients in those countries.
DT: At the beginning, the idea was to manufacture abroad to have cheaper production costs?
Jim: Not exactly. We did open our Costa Rica lab initially because we thought we needed low-cost labor to compete with Chinese offshore laboratories for the growing DSO (dental service organization) market. We now have 265 employees in Costa Rica. However, we’ve always maintained our primary production facilities in Orange County, Calif., focusing on continuous improvements in technology and materials manufacturing to keep costs low. With the automated manufacturing facilities we’ve developed, we don’t really require low-cost labor anymore. It just doesn’t present a necessary advantage.
DT: Can you provide some examples of this advanced technology?
Jim: Most of our focus is in materials manufacturing — the consumable goods used to craft our restorations. Doing so enables us to ensure quality and reduce unnecessary vendor markups. We manufacture our own Obsidian lithium silicate glass, and, most notably, our own BruxZir zirconia. More recently, we’ve been developing intelligent manufacturing and artificial intelligence capabilities that can help us to better address the particular challenges of a mass-customization endeavor like dentistry.
DT: We just saw the “glidewell.io” system. How does it work?
Jim: The glidewell.io solution is a chairside CAD/CAM system that allows dentists to produce and deliver a zirconia crown in as little as an hour. On the surface, it actually competes with our laboratories. Because if dentists can make their own crowns, why do they need a lab?
DT: How has it been received?
Jim: We’re the second player in the market. CEREC has been around for 30 years, and we’ve been in the market for only a couple of years. We are doing really well because our system is simple to use and is supported by specially trained digital technicians back at the lab. Also, our machines can mill what’s called BruxZir NOW [milling blocks] — a fully sintered zirconia material — without having to put it into an oven and fire it. Again, we want the very best tools in dentistry to be available to everybody.
DT: How did you develop it?
Jim: We started by figuring out what would it to take to mill fully sintered zirconia, which is an extremely hard material. In fact, it goes through a burr each time you mill, so we had to add a disposable burr in the packaging with each individual block.
DT: Is it the only system that does that?
Jim: Ours is the only system that can successfully mill fully sintered zirconia, yes.
DT: Does zirconia really last as long as they say?
Jim: In the study conducted by CRA, they observed zero failures after eight years — no chipping. If it was porcelain, in five years, you would see 35 percent fracture. But with zirconia, there were no fractures at all.
DT: And now you have developed a new highly esthetic zirconia.
Jim: Yes. It’s very strong and very esthetic. Ten years ago, the first zirconia crowns were white and chalky. Today, they are very translucent with the addition of about 5 percent yttria to the zirconia mix. Yttria makes it a little less hard, but the crowns still don’t break, and they exhibit more natural translucency now.
DT: How did you achieve all of these developments?
Jim: Mostly by identifying problems our customers face and asking what we can do to improve. With BruxZir zirconia, it began with looking at chipped or fractured PFMs and asking, why don’t we have a crown that’s stronger? I found an engineer here, a materials scientist there, and hired them to produce a different product. They weren’t successful at first, but we kept going. That’s the other trick: Never be satisfied. We could have stopped with first-generation BruxZir and patted ourselves on the back. Instead, here we are with BruxZir Esthetic and a host of additional solutions intended to make dentists more successful.
- Glidewell Dental: glidewelldental.com