Beauty and cutting-edge technology can be found in the most surprising places. One of them is in the dentist’s drill
By Nicky Godding
Few will have any reason to consider the engineering expertise in the dentist’s drill.
Lying in the dentist’s chair anticipating an uncomfortable procedure and hours of dull jaw-ache to follow is an experience best forgotten.
But a trip to the dentist has become less painful over the years thanks to technology, some of which has been pioneered by a Gloucester-based business which can trace its history back 150 years to Claudius Ash, the silversmith who manufactured the world’s first false teeth.
Prima Dental is now the second biggest designer and manufacturer of dental burs in the world. A dental bur is the tiny drill piece in a dentist’s handpiece. It can be made of steel, tungsten carbide and diamond grit. The higher quality the bur, the better job a dentist can make of your pearly whites.
Headquartered in Quedgeley, the company has a workforce of around 240, a turnover in excess of £20 million and makes more than 25 million burs a year, exporting to around 90 countries.
Having just won a contract which will see 30 per cent growth at its UK plant, next year it will become the largest manufacturer. And in a largely commoditised sector, Prima Dental is by far the most innovative company, having launched a new digital division which will slash the cost and production time of dental crowns and restorations.
Squinting at the tiny burs on display at Prima Dental’s factory, it’s clear that a many-times magnified photograph is the only way to appreciate their engineering.
If you want to get on, get good teeth
With the phenomenal growth of the middle classes across the world, there is growing demand for good teeth, alongside a greater awareness of the important of oral health to the rest of the body. So much, in fact,that in 2014 social commentator Malcolm Gladwell wrote that good teeth were a sign of social status. If you want to get on, get good teeth.
Richard Muller is the Managing Director of Prima Dental. Under his watch, the company has taken advantage of the increasing demand for the perfect smile. He’s grown Prima Dental from a leaky factory on the Madleaze industrial estate in Gloucester to ultra-modern new premises on the other side of the city.
“I joined in the late 1990s as marketing director,” he said. “The company had 50-year-old equipment and a poor reputation for quality and service.” The company’s American owners had bought the business from one of the world’s largest dental manufacturers. They brought in consulting engineers who advised closure or sale of the business. But Richard saw a gap in the market for pure carbide burs. “To their great credit, our American owners decided they wanted to try and revitalise the business, So I got the job.”
Prima Dental sold one of its five businesses, closed another and raised a mortgage on its Madleaze factory. The money bought three new machines and kick-started the reinvestment process.
Investing in good design and equipment
Prima Dental’s success hasn’t been overnight. “I wish more people understood that manufacturing is a longterm business,” said Richard.
“We are lucky that our owners encourage us to reinvest the profits. They are more interested in the long-term value of the business.”
Richard spent years investing in equipment rather than expensive marketing, and all the time his Prima Dental engineers were pioneering new methods of manufacture. “For years most dental burs were made with a stainless-steel shank and carbide tip.
“We started making them out of solid carbide. Other manufacturers said it couldn’t be done but their machinery was older and couldn’t machine a solid piece of metal as you can now.”
Prima Dental was able to leap-frog the competition with new technology, but proof of concept had to be done on a very small marketing budget.
In 2005 the enterprising Prima Dental engineers designed new test equipment for their stand at the World Dental Show in Germany.
The greatest showmen
Richard takes up the story. “We took on all -comers. ‘Give us your burs and we’ll show you why ours are better,’ we said. And because it was live, and you could hear the vibration of our competitors’ burs and the smooth running of ours, it caused a huge amount of attention. It was one of the best weeks of my life. We arrived as unknowns and left with everyone talking about us.”
To turn showmanship into orders Richard contacted American white-label dentistry distributors. “We offered independent research and validation, wrapping our burs in the best packaging, giving distributors support artwork for their catalogues and training their sales team. It was a whole brand package but under their name and without the advertising which we couldn’t afford. One company bought it, and it led to a snowfall. Now we’re the market leader in America.”
The move from Madleaze came in the fateful year of 2007. “We held the ransom strip on the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal which developers were keen to buy.” (It’s since been turned into a retail outlet centre).
The economic slump offered Prima Dental an opportunity. “We had 300 pieces of heavy engineering kit to move and the developers only wanted to pay us face value for the building less the mortgage. It was a game of cat and mouse.”
The developers blinked first and Prima Dental’s move took place in 2010, since when reinvestment has continued.
Global expansion to get closer to customers
Prima Dental began expanding globally around seven years ago. “If you can, you should manufacture close to the marketplace, and that’s what we try to do. When we began to export, we had to learn to do it properly and be patient.
“We started in India, then Brazil and China. British manufacturers can show the Americans, Germans and the Chinese how to do it. We have a great group of people here, but our financial director Alun Jones has been faced with some huge challenges. Pitting your wits against different cultures can be difficult. Alun has overcome significant challenges even to set up bank accounts, and the regulatory issues can be horrendous.”
Richard continued: “I’ve always worked in manufacturing and find there’s something elemental about it. You find that view in most of our team. I like to recruit people who have that passion.
And having won a significant new contract, we’re currently recruiting again for our manufacturing team.”
Pam Ayres famously wrote I wish I’d looked after me teeth. And people across the world are increasingly loving their teeth. Brazil, for instance, spends far more per person on them than practically any other country in the world.
“Prima Dental is a good solid business and we are in the right place at the right time to take advantage of increasing demand,” said Richard. “And the beauty of being an SME is that we take decisions locally and respond to the market more quickly. We are able to flex our manufacturing locations around the world.”
Prima gets it teeth into digital innovation with new dentistry division
Prima Dental has recently launched a new digital dentistry division. Prima Digital is led by one of Europe’s leading carbide tooling experts, Dr Marilyn Goh.
Replacement teeth (or restorations) and dental crowns have traditionally been handmade by skilled craftspeople. Over the years, more of this is being done in China where 2,000 people work 12 hours a day making teeth in dormitory factories.
Small CAD/CAM milling machines had automated the process. These use inter oral cameras (or scanners) rather than the old putty moulds. The computer designs the new tooth and the CAD/CAM machines mill it out of ceramic.
“The tooth is measured digitally so it’s right first time every time,” explained Richard. “But the instrumentation inside the machine was being supplied by general tool manufacturers. We knew we could do better. Dr Marilyn Goh was senior lecturer at the University of the West of England. She accepted the role of Head of Research and Innovation here and within the year she’d designed a tool which outperforms anything within the marketplace.
“We launched in February and I predict this division will be as big as our current business in five years’ time.”
The Brexit question
Prima Dental won’t be greatly affected by Brexit because of tariffs – its products are largely tariff-free. But regulations are going to be an issue. “The sticking point is going to be jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice which is the ultimate legal authority,” said Richard.
“Our trade associations have all been lobbying hard for two years. If we fall outside the European Court of Justice, we have to be inspected separately. And of course, there is movement of product. More importantly, 20 per cent of our staff are of European nationality and I’ve been lobbying the local MPs vigorously. Free movement of people is important.”
FOUR facts about Richard Muller
- A townie, he moved to Gloucestershire just 10 years ago (what took him so long?)
- He travels constantly for work, so summer holidays are spent just 30 miles away from home
- He solves business problems better on an aeroplane than from behind his desk. “It’s all about perspective,” he says
- If he didn’t love Gloucestershire so much, he might be tempted to live in Brazil