How to start up a dental lab

Woman with brown hair in blue scrubs using dental equipment

Dental laboratories construct a range of bespoke appliances according to prescriptions written out by dentists. Get the essentials for starting up and running your own dental lab in our practical guide.

Research your target market

Estimating demand

It's very important to find out whether there will be a demand for the laboratory services you propose to offer.

If you are planning to target a local market you will need a 'pool' of potential customers to whom you can advertise your services. For example your lab will need to be located in a town or city where there will be many dental practices nearby who will need your services on a regular basis. According to the Dental Laboratories Association (DLA) an average lab might have around 25 account dental practice customers.

You could make up some samples of your work, together with a price list, and approach as many practices as possible to let them know about your new business and the services you can provide. Bear in mind that they will already deal with a dental lab (which may be overseas) so you'll need to demonstrate to them that you can provide a superior service.

Remember, rather than trying to compete just on price, it is better for the profitability of your business if you can persuade customers to choose your laboratory because of the excellent service, reliability and quality that you offer. Don't forget to let them know if you participate in the British Bite Mark (BBM) initiative - dental practices using BBM-registered labs can reassure their patients that their dental appliance has been manufactured in the UK to a high standard.

When you are discussing your tariff with your prospective dental practice customers, you could take the opportunity to discuss:

  • what their requirements are likely to be - this would give you the opportunity to make contact with specialist labs if necessary who could do work that you won't undertake in-house
  • how frequently they are likely to require your services
  • whether the work is likely to be mainly NHS, mainly private, or a mix of the two
  • how quickly you will be able to complete each job
  • your policy on remakes

You could also ask them what they think of your pricing and terms and whether they have any suggestions for improvements or enhancements to the service you have outlined to them.

Use the Record sheet to help you record the responses of the dentists you talk to.

Your market research will help you to identify:

  • whether the services you propose to provide are likely to be in demand
  • the price that dental practices will be prepared to pay for appliances, repairs and so on
  • the value and frequency of a typical order

To estimate your annual sales income think about how many dental practice customers you are likely to have and how much each of them will spend each time they place an order.

Research current trends, plus legal and tax issues

Customer profile

Your market

Your customer base will consist primarily of dental practices, but might also include:

  • other dental labs for whom you undertake specialist work
  • members of the public who pop in for a denture repair and so on

Special offers and discounts

Because the sector is very competitive your dental practice customers will be looking for sizeable discounts from you in return for regular orders. You may decide to offer discounts to group practices because they will be putting a lot of work your way. You will also offer trade terms to other labs. Where you have long-standing contracts in place it would be wise to monitor your costs at regular intervals to make sure that your profit margin is not being eroded by increases in wages and the price of raw materials.

Decide which services to offer

Dental labs construct a range of different appliances to a prescription from a dentist or a clinical dental technician, such as:

  • crowns, bridges, implants and inlays
  • dentures, including acrylic dentures and chrome cobalt dentures
  • orthodontic appliances (or 'braces') to correct irregular teeth
  • gum shields, mouth guards, anti-snoring appliances, bleaching trays and so on

Many labs specialise in a particular type of appliance, for example, dentures, or crown and bridge work. Others offer a full service, although they might not undertake all the work themselves.

Dental labs also undertake repair work and some sell items such as denture cleaning powders.

Collection and delivery

It is likely that you will want to offer your dental practice customers a collection and delivery service, probably on a daily basis. Efficient route planning will save you time and fuel costs. You could take the opportunity to call in to other dental practices on your way to tell them about your business.

If you plan to offer an online or mail order service to dental practices all around the UK you might consider entering into an arrangement with a specialist parcels carrier with whom you negotiate discounted rates.

Quality standards

Whatever the nature of the services you will offer, be aware that the industry is very competitive and your dentist customers are likely to demand high standards, low prices and quick turnaround times. You are unlikely to retain customers if the jobs you produce are poorly executed or are not constructed to the dentist's prescription.

A first class service

Because there is keen competition in the industry it makes sense to do everything possible to make your business indispensable to your customers by providing them with a first class service as well as top quality appliances. No dental laboratory wants to waste time and money re-making appliances because there has been a misunderstanding as to what is required. So it is important to build up a good working relationship with your customers and to make sure that each party understands the need for good communication.

Advertising your services

Whichever services you decide to offer, it's essential to make sure that your potential customers know about you.

There are a number of things you might do to promote your business:

  • mailshot and call on local dental practices
  • produce a regular newsletter to send to your customers
  • advertise in local directories
  • create your own website and offer a mail order service
  • use telemarketing to contact potential customers
  • take a stand at an exhibition like the British Dental Industry Association (BDIA) Dental Showcase
  • sign up to the DLA British Bite Mark (BBM) initiative and benefit from a listing on the BBM website
  • use social media like Facebook and Twitter to tell customers about your services

Remember that you must comply with General Dental Council (GDC) Standards for the Dental Team, including Guidance on commissioning and manufacturing dental appliances and Guidance on using social media. You can download the guidance from the GDC website.

Buy an existing business

You might decide to buy an existing farm supply business rather than start your own venture from scratch. Buying a going concern can mean that the products, customers, regular sales, staff, premises and equipment are already in place.

But buying a business can be a hazardous, expensive process unless you have the right skills and experience on your team, including legal and financial know-how. Establish the genuine trading and financial position, so that the price you pay for the business is not too high.

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