By Danny Chan
“We work with a professional outfit, not a sweatshop,” says Bradley Donald, of his company’s outsource relationship with an overseas dental laboratory. With a resigned expression, the 29-year-old dental technician relates how some industry sceptics have taken a negative view of local labs like his, that send work outside of Australia. Perhaps the most prevalent of such attitudes, Bradley confides, presumes a lack of quality assurance associated with overseas contractors. Other more outlandish complaints hint at sweatshop scenarios, conjuring images of whip-cracking supervisors and overworked dental mechanics.
Countering such under-informed biases, fellow technician Angelo Liakos clarifies:
“The biggest misconception about outsourcing is that they are sweatshops and they use sub-standard materials. Don’t get me wrong, there are labs that deliver second-rate work but such labs exists overseas as well as here in Australia. There is no disputing that fact.
“From our point of view, we experienced first-hand the professionalism and quality output of an overseas outsource lab. Both Bradley and I have enough experience to recognise a professional dental lab for what it is.”
Despite their youthful appearances, Angelo (aged 39) and Bradley are both highly experienced and qualified dental technicians. Between them, the former colleagues at a high-end dental laboratory have benched some 20,000 cases and accumulated 29 years of lab experience: 15 for Angelo; 14 for Bradley.
Angelo and Bradley leveraged their collective experience and know-how into setting up two lab entities: A&B Dental Laboratory in 2008 and A&B Dental Solutions the following year. Both based in Melbourne at the same address, the latter is a fully owned and operated Australian lab; while the former provides clients more affordable lab services via an outsource route.
For the past two years, the partners have made significant headway with their boutique-sized outfit offering personalised services to Australian dentists. From modest beginnings, the companies have since expanded their reach to dentists in every state.
It was a business worked from the ground up. Indeed, the experienced technicians were not averse to knocking on doors and making cold calls in the initial stages of establishing a name for themselves. Credibility is key in carving a niche, says Angelo:
“We use a simple but effective pitch: Quality work, fast delivery times and personalised service. The important thing is, whatever we say to our clients that we would do, we stand by it 100 per cent.”
In terms of giving customers personalised attention, the partners make it a point to spend the early part of every workday at the clients’ place to establish rapport or discuss patient concerns or dentist queries. Angelo adds: “A lot of our customers choose us because we help them solve difficult issues and offer that in addition to regular lab services. It doesn’t matter if the product was made here or overseas, because to our clients, we are a solutions provider.”
A&B labs ensure a ‘10 workdays’ turnaround period – and no less, because “quality cannot be rushed”. The partners readily acknowledge that it would be impossible to meet the growing demands without the help of a mid-sized lab based in Hong Kong.
These days, Angelo and Bradley frequently travel to the former British colony to visit the lab’s staff, including some 120 in-house technicians. They would conduct staff training courses on actual cases through slide presentations or hands-on workshops. Besides these ad hoc sessions with visiting trainers, the Hong Kong technicians also attend regular upgrading courses run by in-house instructors, one of which is a certified Vita trainer. Best known for their VITA Classical and VITA 3D-Master shade guides, the German company is world-renowned for establishing a widely accepted standard for the determination and reproduction of tooth shades.
Says Bradley: “The technicians are genuinely keen to learn and take the training seriously.
“As opposed to one’s idea of a sweatshop, they work in a relaxing but highly efficient environment, as can be seen by the quality of their output.”
Check and double-check
Through the regular visits, Angelo and Bradley are able to ensure that the technicians working on their jobs know their specific requirements. They also receive preferential treatment through a VIP lab that provides a specialised work area and technicians trained for their individual needs. Back home in Melbourne, they are constantly on the phone or emailing their Asian counterparts, and keeping track of every single case.
Angelo shares: “Their consistent standard is what gets us. They are consistently improving and meeting our individual demands. We can tell them “this is what we need” and specify the requirements and it gets done. It’s difficult to do it here.
“They also have an amazing tracking system that is sometimes humbling to watch – considering the number of cases they handle on behalf of their international clientele.”
Although the partners exercise a measure of control at the production end, they still keep to a stringent QC regime. Bradley stresses: “Everything that goes out to our clients gets checked by us – every single case.”
“The lab that we use is of international standards, whether in terms of their processes, technology, training or materials. These are the key differences that make our business so successful. But in the unlikely event that they miss out on something at their end, we organize another QC here as well. There are essentially two checkpoints – plus the fact that it’s already been checked over there based on our specific requirements – so it’s pretty thorough.
“Barring any unusual circumstances, it’s almost impossible to overlook anything.”
For the love of it
For all the advantages of outsourcing, Angelo and Bradley are not ready to retire as technicians themselves. In fact, there are plans to expand the local operations.
Angelo reveals: “There are currently 10 of us working together. Our goal is to double the size of our team and also, the volume of work. The rationale is that we’re currently operating at a comfortable pace, so we want to maintain that level of comfort.
Bradley confirms: “We don’t want to end up as a courier service provider for our outsource partner. It’s not just about the money. This is our craft and we love doing it.
“At the same time, we are creating jobs for the local community – which we wouldn’t have been able to if we had continued working for others – and the company is expanding along those lines.”
Asked for his comments on stigmatic views against local labs that outsource, Bradley rationalises:
“People have their opinions about outsourcing and that’s okay. We have encountered resistance from some people and they’re more than entitled. From our end, we need to be honest about the fact that we outsource our work and let the dentists decide for themselves.”
Angelo concurs: “End of the day, we’re giving people options – some at more affordable prices. We have clients that use both our locally made and outsourced products, depending on the patients and their individual needs.
“It’s a preference thing. But whether it’s a BMW or Holden, they’ll both take you from A to B.”