Expensive pieces of capital equipment can generate a significant return on investment for dental practices and improve patient experiences. Dentists want those investments to last, but new technology is always coming to the market. Eventually, manufacturers will determine that certain pieces of equipment have reached the end of their lifecycles. What happens when manufacturers sunset — no longer offer support for — products still being used by dentists?
In 2017, Mark S. Dinowitz, DDS, purchased a True Definition™ Intraoral Scanner made by 3M™. He made the purchase through dental product and equipment distributor Benco Dental™. In 2019, he was informed that medical, dental and veterinary manufacturer and supplier Midmark was acquiring the intraoral scanner platform.1 In 2020, he had paid off his scanner and was only paying a monthly connectivity and warranty fee.
In 2022, Midmark emailed Dinowitz that it would no longer be supporting his intraoral scanner. The acquisition and eventual sunset of the intraoral scanner was a complete surprise to him.
“One of the reasons why I bought the scanner was the 3M name. I figured 3M isn’t going anywhere. Little did I know that they were going to sell the scanner off to Midmark,” said Dinowitz.
He was given a few months’ notice about the discontinuation of support, at which point the scanner would no longer be able to send images to the laboratory. He found himself frustrated with the lack of support from Midmark and Benco. Dinowitz ultimately had to replace his intraoral scanner sooner than he expected.
Not all dentists will have this exact kind of experience during their careers, but sunset technology is an important consideration for practices. Unexpected discontinuation of product support can be disruptive to patient care and practice budgets. How can dentists prepare for sunset technology? What can they expect from manufacturers, and how can they avoid the potential for disruption?
How Technology Is Sunset
Technology is inevitably replaced by something new, not only in dentistry but in every industry. The exact timeline of sunsetting technology — how long the product is on the market and how long support will be available after it has been discontinued — varies. “It’s really fluid across the board depending on what you’re talking about; every sunset is situational,” said Daniel Sims, director of equipment at dental products supply company Dental Health Products. Dental Health Products is the distributor behind AGDVANTAGE, AGD’s discount program.
In many cases, better technology emerges, and manufacturers are driven to create new products to remain competitive.
“There’s pressure for the manufacturer to have a new piece of technology at the Chicago [Dental Society] Midwinter meeting and show that off. Eventually, as a new technology starts to take grip, the older technologies start to get sunset by the manufacturer,” said Paul Vigario, founder and CEO of dental design and technology consulting company SurfCT. In turn, dentists can feel the pressure to invest in the latest technology.
In some cases, technology can be sunset following mergers and acquisitions, such as Midmark’s acquisition of the True Definition Intraoral Scanner. Rarely, a manufacturer may shut down, leading to the sudden and unexpected sunset of its technology.
Support for Sunset Technology
What happens once a dentist learns the technology in their practice is being sunset? Typically, a manufacturer will notify practices that are using the technology. “The notifications are usually at least 90 days out and say they’re going to discontinue this model, and they often include specific timelines in that communication, say for replacement parts and technical support availability,” said Sims.
Some products can remain in use after they have been sunset by the original manufacturer. Parts to keep the product in good working condition may be available through nonoriginal equipment manufacturers.
Dentists have also been able to get creative to extend the lifespan of certain products. “I think my newest dental chair here is probably 25 years old,” said Ross Isbell, DMD, MBA, of Isbell Dental, Gadsden, Alabama, and the AGD Impact Testing the Tools columnist. “Pelton and Crane closed shop in 2020,2 so there are other manufacturers that have picked up making replacement parts for them.” Isbell has also engaged a local machinist to custom cut a metal piece he needed for one of his chairs.
Dental product distributors can also play a role in supporting practices after technology has been sunset. “As long as parts and technical support remain available from manufacturers, Benco Dental will provide maintenance, support and repairs,” said Sue Evans, vice president of equipment merchandising and supply at Benco Dental.
Some types of dental technology may be rendered unusable after being discontinued. “Benco is an advocate for the right to repair, but manufacturers have legitimate standards that need to be upheld and which we respect,” Evans explained.
Additionally, manufacturers may eventually stop offering software updates for their products. Without that support, a practice is faced with purchasing a replacement.
Sunset technology may be inevitable, but the way a manufacturer approaches that process can make all the difference for its customers. Looking ahead to the eventual sunset of a product can begin before it even reaches the market. “Obtaining a thorough understanding of how people will use products in the real world during the early stages of research and development makes it easier to anticipate what it will look like when a product reaches its inevitable end of life and what customers need in terms of support,” said Curtis Carter, vice president of field services at Benco Dental.
Once manufacturers are prepared to sunset a piece of their technology, clear communication with the practices using it helps to minimize disruption.
“I believe the best way to handle this issue is for the company to make it blatantly clear what its plans are regarding products and services so that the dental community can plan around them and create a roadmap of products and services they’ll have to integrate over the next five or so years,” said Ahmad Al-Hassiny, BDS, director of the Institute of Digital Dentistry, a CAD/CAM and digital dentistry training center.
The longer the timeline, the easier it is for dentists to prepare. “A 24- to 36-month grace period is ideal. Most manufacturers give more of a 12-month grace period,” said Vigario.
As the sunset date approaches, sales representatives can make in-person visits to talk about the future. “The best way to communicate would be to have somebody come out and talk about what new, better products can replace the old one,” said Isbell.
Manufacturers can also support dentists through the transition to new technology by offering discounts or training on how to upgrade to the new technology. “Typically, a device is discontinued but replaced with another device. This should be offered at a trade-in discount for those who have invested and supported your company by buying technology that is no longer supported,” said Al-Hassiny.
Supporting customers with legacy technology and releasing new technology is a balancing act for manufacturers. “There’s no way to completely eliminate disruption; it’s the price we pay for advances that make technology more effective and efficient,” said Evans.
Inevitably, some dentists are going to find themselves dealing with a frustrating timeline for a piece of sunset technology. An acquisition or a shuttered manufacturer can leave dentists with unsupported products. Or a dentist may purchase a product that is nearing its sunset date. “Once a item has been discontinued by the manufacturer, many distributors can no longer accept new orders for that model,” Sims said. “There’s a honeymoon period where you have to sell off existing inventory, both yours [the distributor’s] and the manufacturer’s — sometimes that will run through the discontinuation date.”
Sunset Technology in the Dental Office
What can dentists do if their practice is unexpectedly facing a sunset date for essential technology?
- Talk to the manufacturer and distributor. “Refer yourself to the local manufacturer or dealer representative, and allow them the opportunity to review that situation and work it out collectively,” said Sims. Ask the manufacturer and distributor if they can recommend third-party support or offer any type of training or discount for upgrading to the newer version of the technology.
- Look for third-party support. Depending on the type of product, dentists may be able to find parts and support via third parties that will allow them to continue using the product past its sunset date.
- Connect with other dentists. Consider networking with other dentists. “It’s a good idea to keep your eye on dental Facebook groups so you can connect with people who are experiencing the same problems as you,” Al-Hassiny suggested.
While dentists may be able to continue using a piece of technology past its sunset date, it is also possible a new purchase may be necessary. “Once original manufacturing parts and support are no longer available, the software itself is typically well out of date, and, by that point, it may be long past time to begin your transition plan for replacement,” said Sims.
When purchasing a new piece of equipment, Dinowitz urges dentists to perform due diligence on the technology and the company selling it. “Let the buyer beware. Ask a lot of questions. Check out the company you’re buying from.”
Planning Ahead for the Next Sunset
New dental technology is always on the horizon, which means the next sunset is, too. While dental practices cannot predict the unexpected — like the acquisition or shuttering of a manufacturer — they can create a technology roadmap and budget to be prepared for the future.
Take into consideration the typical lifecycle of the more expensive pieces of technology used in dental practices. “A good rule of thumb is to expect about five years for most imaging products, such as digital sensors, intraoral cameras and intraoral scanners; you could stretch that to seven or eight years in most circumstances,” said Sims.
How far along in its lifecycle is your practice’s imaging technology? Knowing the answer to that question and staying educated on the new technology entering the market can minimize the risk of a surprise sunset.
Budgeting in advance can also help practices manage the cost of replacing technology. Isbell typically plans $10,000– $15,000 for equipment failure throughout the year. “As dental professionals, we typically act in a preventive manner. I would say that’s an important thing to consider in your approach to technology and continued practice investment,” he said.
How much to budget for unexpected technology replacement will be different for different practices. Vigario suggests setting aside 1% or 2% of top-line revenue specifically for technology.
Regularly evaluating that budget and the products used in a practice is also an important step in keeping up with evolving technology. “You should be doing this biannually at least, and you should be doing it with your dealer representative, your certified public accountant and your information technology provider. There should be a small circle of people with whom you’re collaborating on an ongoing basis to look at these situations,” said Sims.
A technology budget can be paired with a holistic strategy. Vigario recommends dentists develop a vision for their practice and implement technology in a system that supports that vision. “When that technology is just operating in a silo, there’s going to be an industry push to replace that technology … because it’s not serving the whole system, it’s just doing a task,” he said. “When you put that technology into a system, you can actually double to triple the lifespan of it.”
Carrie Pallardy is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago. To comment on this article, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. “3M™ True Definition Intraoral Scanner acquired by Midmark in U.S. and Canadian Markets.” 3M, 3m.com/3M/en_US/dental-us/expertise/digital-dental-impressions/. Accessed 5 Jan. 2023.
2. “Pelton and Crane Closing After 100+ years.” Dental Products Report, 26 May 2020, dentalproductsreport.com/view/pelton-and-crane-closing-after-100-years. Accessed 5 Jan. 2023