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Painless drill, painful price

Painless drill, painful price

I just wrapped up the cover story on a new electric dental drill for the 01.07.02 issue of Design News. Fortunately, I did not get to experience the technology first-hand! But in addition to learning about the inner workings of the drill, I was exposed to the business side of the business-and what I found out practically made my teeth ache.

Judging from what dentists told me, no matter how superior new technologies like electric dental drills (or better yet, lasers) are, it's going to be very tough for them to displace the air turbine-powered drill. The reason?

In a word-cost.

Electric drills and lasers have many advantages, not the least of which is the fact that they make going to the dentist a much less painful experience. I for one would give my eyetooth to never hear the high-pitched whine of a pneumatic drill again. Of course, giving up sugar would accomplish the same thing, but I wouldn't have any reason to live without chocolate.

I suspect that most people feel exactly like me. But just because a technology is better doesn't mean it's going to triumph in the marketplace. At about $2,500 for an electric drill and an order of magnitude more for a laser-compared to only $500 to $800 for a pneumatic drill-the cost is simply prohibitive for many dentists.

My dentist is buying one electric drill, but he's planning to use it just for the kind of complicated procedures that make even a root canal sound like a piece of cake. He says he can't afford any more units. Or can he? An electric drill is faster. And the maintenance requirements promise to be lower. Unfortunately, unlike capital equipment expenditures, productivity savings and maintenance costs aren't always a nice, neat line item on a balance sheet.

Now's the time I should start complaining about our lousy accounting systems, and what a deterrent they are to widespread adoption of a promising new technology. But instead I'm going to challenge the engineers behind the design: can you cut the cost?

Sugar addicts everywhere will love you.

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