While the dentist’s drill is cleaning out a cavity or a hygienist’s tool is scraping away plaque, most people’s thoughts are probably not on where those pieces of equipment are manufactured.
But much of the equipment that dentists, hygienists and orthodontists use are available from a Swiss-based company with U.S. operations headquartered in Akron’s Ascot Industrial Park.
Coltène/Whaledent employs 300 people in Akron — more than 200 in manufacturing facilities attached to offices on Ascot Parkway. The company also has about 40 people in its sales force across the U.S. Companywide, Coltène employs about 900 in Switzerland, Germany and Akron.
The company is celebrating its 10th year in Akron after Swiss-based Coltène and New Jersey-based Whaledent merged in 1990.
The new company chose Akron as its new U.S. headquarters to get away from the high costs of both coasts. It had been familiar with the Akron area with some employees in Tallmadge from a previous acquisition, said Michael Nordahl, general manager of the Coltène U.S. operations.
“We also saw that there were good dental schools and good engineering and polymer programs,” said Nordahl, who has been with the company and Whaledent prior to the merger for nearly 40 years. “It gives us good opportunity to draw from those. It’s a good workforce.”
The company’s products are in nearly all U.S. dental schools, Nordahl said, adding it is important to make an early impression on a dental student to rely on a product for their career.
“Dentists train and use our products. Dentists want reliable products that we can produce,” he said.
Locally, the company has been on a growth spurt. Last year, it hired 68 people and last week, the company was awarded about $150,000 from the Ohio Tax Credit Authority to create 50 full-time positions within six years. Coltène Director of Finance Peter Lengyel said the hires will occur after some projects are completed by the end of 2014. The new hires are based on a capital investment of about $2.9 million.
The company, which is publicly traded on the Swiss stock exchange, has U.S. sales of $55 million and $160 million globally, said Nordahl.
At its Akron manufacturing plant, the company makes about 4,000 of the company’s 6,000 products. While its focus is on dental equipment which ranges from lights to activate fillings to prefabricated composite veneers to ultrasonic cleaners, the company also makes some of its own casings for its products and builds electric circuit boards for its electronic instruments.
Nordahl acknowledged that in-sourcing packaging and other products goes against some business trends, but allows the company to maintain quality control.
“Do we save a tremendous amount of money? No. But we have controls,” he said, adding that the company also uses local suppliers to make other materials used in manufacturing.
The Akron headquarters has about 200,000 square feet of space currently being used, with about two-thirds for manufacturing. The facility was built for future expansion, with a second floor that is not occupied but available.
The company was named the fastest growing dental manufacturer in the U.S. in 2012, said Nordahl. It’s a mid-sized company when compared to its competitors, which include 3M, he said.
Depending on the product being made, some items are made using automated machinery, but much of the work at the plant is done by hand.
“Things tends to be more hand-built because the dental industry is pretty small, so costs to do mass manufacturing are not worth it,” Nordahl said.
In an area where orthodontic pliers are made, workers hand grind the finishing touches onto the pliers portion of the tool and then polish the pliers for a glossy sheen.
“Dentists are very, very picky. They can feel right away” the quality of the equipment, said Nordahl.
Nordahl said the company also caters to and has different products for dentists, orthodontists and hygienists of different genders and even cultures.
“Sixty percent of dentists in the U.S. are females. We cater to the different sizes of hands,” he said.
The company imports and exports many of its products and has some specialties at its various plants. Having a manufacturing plant in the U.S. is also an advantage in making its products more competitive to ship and sell from the U.S. to Mexico with the advantages of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Nordahl said.
The company is also focusing on the Brazilian market, where there are 195,000 dentists. In comparison, there are about 150,000 dentists in the U.S., said Nordahl.