The cutting edge

By Dick Mason, The Observer August 21, 2013 11:07 am

Merle Comfort of Comfort Dental Lab discusses how cutting edge technology is speeding up the crown-making process. (Chris Baxter/The Observer)
Merle Comfort of Comfort Dental Lab discusses how cutting edge technology is speeding up the crown-making process. (Chris Baxter/The Observer)

Technology allows La Grande dental lab to speed up treatment

Patience is a virtue. It is a virtue many dental patients in Union County need less of today due to a technological leap taken by Comfort Dental Lab of La Grande.

Comfort Dental has purchased and is now using cutting-edge milling technology that allows it to create crowns in about half the time it previously needed. Crowns are the tooth shaped caps dentists use to replace portions of teeth that are decayed or damaged. 

“We can now make a crown in about half the time it used to take us,” said Merle Comfort of Comfort Dental Lab, a company owned by his father, Herb. 

Previously it took an average of two weeks to make a crown. Now it takes about a week. Merle Comfort emphasized, though, that some crowns can take longer than a week to make depending on circumstances. 

He noted, for example, that crowns for some teeth are harder to make.

The equipment the La Grande dental lab has purchased includes a digitized scanner, which takes pictures of mold impressions. The scanner analyzes its photos of the mold impression and sends the information to a software program in a computer. The information is then refined and used to create an image of the crown to be made. 

The image and information is next fed into a milling machine, which transforms a piece of zirconium into a tooth in as little as 20 minutes.

Once the milling work is done, the staff at Comfort Dental Lab then stains the crown so that it will match the color of the teeth of the patient, along with other finishing work.

Comfort Dental Lab makes between 150 to 200 crowns a month. Most are for La Grande-area dental offices but some are for dentists in North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland.

The La Grande dental lab previously made all of its crowns through a process that was very labor intensive, Merle Comfort said.

The new equipment, which cost about $80,000, is not only speeding up Comfort Dental Lab’s production, it’s also allowing it to make a superior product, Herb Comfort said.

“We’re getting a better product with our new equipment,” he said. 

Herb Comfort and his wife, Cora, founded Comfort Dental Lab in 1970 in Hopewell, Va. They moved their family and business to La Grande in 1979. Today, Herb and Cora both work at the lab along with their sons, Merle and David.

Merle Comfort believes that his family’s lab will begin producing crowns at an even faster pace and in greater quantity than it does now as his family’s ability to operate the new equipment is fine tuned.

“It is our goal to increase efficiency and capacity,” he said.

David Comfort said that the step forward the new computerized equipment his family’s lab has added is almost mind boggling.

“This is revolutionary stuff. It is taking us to the next phase of dentistry,” he said.

Merle Comfort foresees a day when the process of making crowns at his family’s lab will take only hours. The reason is that some local dentists may someday no longer take mold impressions of teeth that need crowns. Instead, the dentists may use wand scans to take digitized images of these teeth. 

The images could be sent to Comfort Dental Lab through the Internet. The pictures could then be sent directly to the software, which would create an image of the crown to be made. Next the image would be sent to the milling machine. Several steps would be skipped, speeding up the production process significantly. 

Theoretically, a patient in need of a crown could someday visit a dentist who uses a wand scan and have a new tooth put in before he or she left, Merle Comfort said. 

“That is the ultimate goal,” he said.