Glidewell Laboratories, based in Newport Beach, California, is committed to advancing the science of restorative dentistry and the dental laboratory industry. For more than four decades, the company has adapted and created technologies for the benefit of clinicians, patients and laboratory technicians across the United States. Today, the industry-leading Research and Development department is made up of more than 150 individuals who work tirelessly to revolutionize the products, tools and techniques available to dental professionals. This experienced team of scientists, chemists, engineers, clinicians, Certified Dental Technicians (CDTs) and Master Dental Technicians (MDTs) is proud to have a hand in shaping the future of dental technology.
Early on, after founding Glidewell Laboratories in 1970, Jim Glidewell, CDT, encountered the problem that all manufacturing companies inevitably face: How does a company turn out a consistent product while maintaining a profit margin and further scale that concept? The question is difficult enough to answer for a single facility; however, by the end of the 1970s, Jim owned and operated a handful of local pickup and delivery labs serving communities around Southern California, urging the need for a far-reaching solution.
Though there was no singular moment of epiphanous proclamation, Jim recognized that the key to growth was the reduction of common limitations — the most immediate of which was the cost and quality of vendor-supplied raw materials and manufacturing components. A supplier might deliver batches of the same material in vastly varying qualities, making it nearly impossible to have the resulting dental restorations consistently meet the standards necessary for placement in the mouth.
Jim, along with the dental technicians at the company, knew fully well that the materials being delivered weren’t up to standard, though at the time no pathway existed to prove this hunch. In a move unprecedented in the lab industry, Glidewell Laboratories dedicated a number of employees to analyzing all incoming materials. If any product did not meet the claims stated by the manufacturer, it was promptly returned for a replacement or refund.
By the mid-1980s, this team was fact-checking the claims of all delivered materials, reducing the amount of waste and freeing capital to be spent elsewhere. Perhaps the larger victory for Jim was that he eliminated the ability for these material manufacturers to have free reign over his company; no longer was he reliant on their insistence that their prices were justified by their upstanding quality. Combining this notion with his near two decade-experience in the dental laboratory industry, Jim took to task his next limitation: the cost of components necessary for the manufacture of dental restorations. From his viewpoint, he defined the prices of tools and equipment as vastly excessive when measured against their respective production costs.
First to be tackled were dental articulators. At the time, articulators were many-functioned and complex, and could cost several hundred dollars a unit. Worse yet, clinicians occasionally didn’t return articulators sent out by the laboratory. Jim Glidewell, alongside a team of two engineers, began surveying exactly how the technicians throughout the lab were utilizing articulators: Which functions were necessary? Which were rarely used? With those questions answered, they moved to measure the possibility of developing an articulator that was far cheaper yet still able to maintain the precision and functions necessary for dentistry. And beyond that aim, they sought to fabricate the finished articulator in the extreme quantities necessary for the size of the company. The fledgling Research and Development department solidified its ability with the release of its Dentronix articulator, which was accurate and affordable, and could be produced in vast quantities.
The end of the 1980s saw a consolidation of the handful of local-serving laboratories into four large facilities, with 95 percent of all company business done exclusively by mail. The Research and Development department had grown large enough to necessitate a separate 3,000 square-foot facility, and was seeing other successes. From the very beginning, the aim has been to solve the problem of reducing the need of costly components and finding ways for materials and products to better coalesce into the Glidewell workflow.
As the company continued to grow throughout the 1990s, it soon eclipsed the size of many of the material manufacturers. The internal quality assurance team, which had been conducting tests for the greater part of a decade, was now well-versed in all of the dental materials at the time. Noting the deficiencies that sidelined cases, the team set forward with hopes of developing a better feldspathic porcelain. Having tested countless materials from outside manufacturers, the team had a solid understanding of what material consistencies delivered the best final results. The company devised a recipe built from this knowledge and contracted an outside company to manufacture this new Glidewell-specific porcelain, which is still used in the laboratory today.
The 1990s saw this concept of furnishing products specifically for company use greatly expanded. Jim Glidewell knew that the path to future growth lay in vertical integration: The process where all components necessary for manufacture are produced by the company itself, vastly shortening supply chains — if not eliminating them entirely. The idea became a core, companywide concept: Among other vertical-integration-friendly steps taken by the company, Glidewell Laboratories fabricated custom furniture designed specifically for lab technicians, created an auto shop to maintain the fleet of lab vehicles, and retained the repairmen necessary to take care of all equipment used across the lab. No other dental laboratory company was doing anything akin to this at the time.
Looking to other industries, the R&D department began adapting technologies for laboratory use. One of the most notable was injection molding. Revisiting its first success, the team devised a way to make an extremely simple plastic articulator that could be produced in-house for fractions of a dollar. Soon, case boxes, articulators and other production components were being pressed in-house.
By the new millennium, the R&D team had clinicians, materials scientists, chemists, engineers and master dental technicians all focused on reducing costs for the company and for the dental industry at large. A survey of the industry, however, would show that not much had changed since the foundation of the lab. Dentists were still largely using feldspathic porcelains and laboratories were still doing the majority of their work by hand. At Glidewell Laboratories, a team of nearly 100 individuals with decades of experience was quietly working to make real the ideas of Jim Glidewell.
Meanwhile, material manufacturers had shifted their own research toward the development of all-ceramic materials, the most notable being the releases of IPS Empress® and IPS e.max® by Ivoclar Vivadent. These companies proved that there were alternate solutions for dental restorations. As the demand for these materials dramatically increased, Glidewell Laboratories had no choice but to adopt these into their product selection despite this move being antithetical to the core concept of vertical integration.
The company founded a specific subsidiary aimed at the development of a material that could compete with these all-ceramics. The creation of the company’s own lithium silicate material was not fully realized for many years, until the eventual release of Obsidian® Lithium Silicate Ceramic in 2013 and Obsidian Pressed to Metal in 2015. However, the science conducted at this facility would be used to educate countless projects across the company.
Back in Newport Beach, the main Research and Development team was concentrating on fulfilling Jim Glidewell’s idea of creating a crown that had the strength and function of cast gold but the esthetics of natural dentition — a so-called “people’s crown.” Bringing on board a leading ceramic scientist from England and implementing new technologies from around the globe, the team began testing zirconia powders procured from every supplier imaginable. The processed powder could create extremely durable zirconia copings when pressed isostatically into milling blanks and then fabricated with CAD/CAM technologies. The first rendition of this was Prismatik Clinical Zirconia™, a bi-layer ceramic crown that saw moderate success and provided a high-strength option that had acceptable esthetics.
The industry and company changed forever in 2009. That year, Glidewell Laboratories expanded the concept of using a zirconia substructure through the release of BruxZir® Solid Zirconia, an all-zirconia crown that was as durable as cast gold but had patient-pleasing esthetics for posterior cases. Surprising even those within the company, BruxZir zirconia exploded onto the scene — within two short years, it surpassed the number of PFM restorations prescribed at the company. In the years that followed, the R&D team advanced the BruxZir concept further, releasing pre-shaded, anterior and chairside-milling versions of the product — all in an effort to bring the material as close as possible to the goal of creating the people’s crown.
Today, a multitude of distinct teams amounting to over 150 individuals progresses the science behind monolithic and layered ceramics, composites, dental design software and much more. Scientists from around the globe with experience garnered from many areas and industries now conduct research under the Glidewell banner, steadily advancing dental laboratory technology to a level of sophistication never before seen.
The future of the Research and Development department for Glidewell Laboratories is set in motion by the same goal that has always motivated the company: Reduce the cost of production in order to grow the company and keep dentistry affordable for clinicians and patients alike. Keeping costs low is dependent on finding materials that are inexpensive but extremely high in quality. While BruxZir Solid Zirconia has firmly provided a solution for the time being, the company knows that further advancements have the power to resonate across the world and make restorative dentistry even more accessible for the patient.
“We strive to drive down restorative costs and expand patient access to affordable dentistry.”
— Jim Glidewell, CDT, President/CEO
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