The small shop on the fringe of Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center is the only full-time lab in the Army, supplying thousands of soldiers each year with dentures, bridges, crowns and other dental hardware. The products leaving Augusta ship to 138 dental clinics stateside and worldwide, from Fort Hood, Texas, to Afghanistan.
At the helm of this dental command is Col. Rick Windhorn, who emphasizes quality work for the mouths of America’s fighting force.
“The last thing they need to worry about when down range is a toothache,” he said Monday during a tour of the facility.
When Windhorn joined the Army in 1986, there were four such facilities in the United States, but that number dwindled to just one in 1997. Today, the laboratory employs roughly 100 people, with about 45 of those active military and the rest civilians or contractors.
On any given work day, FedEx drops off between 50 and 100 metal boxes, each holding at least one mold of someone’s teeth. The bar code on the work order is scanned and the task assigned to someone who specializes in that particular job. About 85 percent of the work here is fixed work such as crowns and bridges, with the other 15 percent dedicated to orthodontics such as retainers. A portion of the work also goes to soldiers whose faces have been injured in combat.
A lot of the work is still done by hand: painstakingly carving, smoothing and polishing the fake teeth for a natural look and feel. But new technology is also streamlining the process and creating replicas that can’t be duplicated by humans.
With one computer system, technicians create three-dimensional models of the work to be done, then digitally transfer it to a machine that re-creates the teeth out of a block of a chalklike substance called zirconia. That finished product is then superheated to shrink it.
Most of the work is done in one large room, where technicians wear headphones to block the whir of machinery and focus on the minute work using microscopes. Windhorn said most laboratories only use microscopes for inspection and quality control, but the lab at Fort Gordon equips each technician with a microscope for the production process, too.
“Quality is what we want most,” he said.