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Dental lab has a competitive bite

Steven Pigliacelli owns Marotta Dental Studio in Farmingdale

Steven Pigliacelli owns Marotta Dental Studio in Farmingdale with his sister, Christine, and brother-in law Lenny Marotta Jr. The company has made a commitment to make its products locally. (March 26, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Steve Pigliacelli hopes his company's dental restorations will make his clients smile -- even though they pay more than the industry average to get what he says is higher quality work.

Pigliacelli, co-owner of Marotta Dental Studio, a dental lab in Farmingdale that makes crowns, implants and dentures, is taking a counterintuitive approach to the price competition affecting his industry: Instead of lowering quality and prices to compete with cheaper products produced overseas, he's keeping his standards high and relying on dentists to recognize the worth of his lab's output.

Marotta Dental Studio was started in 1980 by a second-generation dental technician, Lenny Marotta Jr., and his wife, Christine. Marotta hired Pigliacelli, Christine's brother, while he was still in high school. Now the three of them co-own the business. They've got a team of 35 technicians, all of whom are cross-trained so that each understands what the finished product is supposed to be -- instead of acting as an assembly line.

"The smart thing to do would be fire them all and send it to China. But I like handmade, quality products . . . and I like to employ people," says Pigliacelli, whose website features an eagle, and a U.S. flag when it loads.

Competing with China

Dental labs in the United States are being squeezed by the realities of the health care industry and a patient base that has been extremely price-conscious in recent years, according to Bennett Napier, executive director of the Tallahassee, Fla.-based National Association of Dental Laboratories.

Many insurance plans reimburse dentists set amounts for dental work like crowns, implants and dentures; beyond that, dentists must pass the cost to their patients or pay out of their own pockets, Napier says. Some dentists are going directly to overseas dental labs to provide lower-cost alternatives, he says. Even some domestic labs will send work overseas, acting as middlemen between foreign labs and dentists.

In 2010, Napier says, foreign labs made 38 percent of dental restorations used in the United States, up from 17 percent in 2006. The majority of foreign work, he says, is from China.

"If you have a [dentist] who's saying I want to have the ability to offer a lower price crown to patients, the labs have to make a decision: Are they going to meet the demand and keep the client, or not?" Napier says. "In some cases the only way to meet the demand is to go offshore."

The average price for a domestically made crown is $150, Napier says. The price of a crown made overseas? Anywhere from $45 to $65, he says, although he's seen prices as low as $12, including shipping.

The crowns Marotta makes run in the $200 to $250 range. Pigliacelli acknowledges that the price is high, but says the quality his lab provides, both in materials and workmanship, makes it worth the money.

"People say we have to compete with the Chinese labs. But why can't they compete with us by doing better quality?" he says, adding that he has about 200 dentists in the tri-state area as steady clients. He says the lab receives 50 to 100 new orders each day. "My goal is to increase my quality and increase the standards of my industry."

Relying on dentists

That strategy can backfire, says Teresa Goodfellow, director of the Center for Operational Excellence at Stony Brook University, who also consults with small manufacturing operations, including some in the dental industry.

"The risk is that you're relying on dentists to have so much faith in your high quality. Any kind of mistake you make is going to have big ramifications," she says. Also, she says, "It's not apparent to the person who has the crown that there's added value" in the more expensive product.

Dr. Kenneth Kurtz, a prosthodontist in New Hyde Park who specializes in crowns and bridges for cancer patients, patients with cleft palates and other difficult cases, says he's happy to pay more to ensure the items fit well and are made of the proper materials. He's been using Marotta Dental Studio for about 15 years.

"I know there will be attention to detail," he says. "If you have good lab work, it makes you a more efficient dentist for the patient."

At a Glance

Name. Marotta Dental Studio, Farmingdale

Owners. Lenny Marotta Jr., Christine Marotta, Steve Pigliacelli

Established. 1980

Employees. 42

Products. Implants, crowns, dentures, veneers

Customers. 200 dentists in the tri-state area

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