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Star Dental Handpieces: A History of Innovation

Jun 9, 2022 | Product News

The DENTALEZ® name has an important history, one that customers have grown to trust for many years. In fact, two of the company's brands, Star® and Columbia Dentoform®, have been leaders in the dental industry for over 100 years!  Over that time, we’ve remained steadfast in our quality, and innovative in our approach to solving everyday problems in dentistry.

We think the stories behind our products represent the people, the thinking, the history of our industry and certainly of our dedication to serving you, our customers. We decided to review each of these historical threads and share with you how our dental products have changed with the times and with your needs, leading the way to a better, more efficient workplace and always with your peace of mind, top of mind.

Let’s take a deeper dive to get to know a few of the people instrumental to one of these brands, Star.

The History of Star Dental Handpieces

One of the most iconic brands in the DENTALEZ family of products is our line of Star handpieces. Star is the handpiece many dentists use from the minute they start dental school and continue to incorporate in their practice over the life of their careers, adding from the expansive variety of options we’ve crafted to fit every need. Manufactured in the United States from premium resources and under vigilant standards, Star’s legendary status has been built on decades of balance, ergonomics, quality and reliability.

We met with various key employees who touch the Star product line, including sales, marketing, customer service, research, and regulatory, to get a truly holistic view of the milestones in Star’s history, and how innovation played a major role in the evolution of our dental handpieces.

Dentistry & Handpieces in the 1950s

We started with a walk back through our history, with Jim Zann, Special Markets Manager.

 In an oversimplified history of handpieces, we’ll pick up in the 1950’s, when handpieces were still belt-driven. A high-speed handpiece simply didn't exist yet. And it wasn’t even powered by a motor - it was a foot-powered belt. So all dentistry, whether you’d consider it a high or low-speed procedure, was done at low-speed, in this way. Star came about just as the dental industry got into using the air turbine to make torque, so right at the moment of introduction of the high-speed handpiece.

The Introduction of Air Turbines & Fiber Optics

Through the 1960’s, 70’s, even 80’s, the high-speed handpiece was essentially a cartridge with bearings and less torque - then just before the 90's it evolved to a turbine. For Star, 80% of the modern innovation for handpieces launched around this time. We were the first to craft a handpiece with fiber optics, so dentists could for the first time truly light the oral cavity and you can imagine how that enhanced the dental experience for them and their patients. Talk about going figuratively and literally from darkness to light! The University of the Pacific adopted our fiber optic system from a teaching perspective.

Close up of the fiber optics on a dental handpiece

Innovations in Safety and Ergonomics

Next, there were evolutions in simplicity and safety in the autochuck. We were not the first to have the autochuck design, but we were the first company to have a push button auto chuck. We were responding to what our dentists needed - this offered a much quicker and more efficient way to change burs out. Plus, you had the added safety - now the practitioner knew the bur was locked safely in place and wouldn't expel from the handpiece.

Around the same time, we were the company that developed the quick disconnect system.  Prior to that (in the late 70s), you had to manually thread them on and off all day long. Our system not only simplified things by letting the handpiece quickly disconnect from the tubing, it meant the piece could be disconnected, sterilized and rotated more fluidly. The innovation was keeping up with the demand at the time; dentists were seeing more patients and adding more staff and bays.

It’s interesting to think about, isn’t it? All these are essentially baseline features at this point - a handpiece without any of these features would be considered totally inferior. But before we created it, it simply wasn’t part of the program.

Arguably, one of the more important of our innovations was going lubrication-free. We developed a ceramic bearing to use in turbines that required no oil. Prior to that you had to oil the handpiece. When you have to oil the handpiece, you have oil residue which is not ideal, in terms of possible patient-to-patient transmission.  A handpiece without lubricant expellant is more innnovative because of composite failures. There is a place for both, so we continue to give customers the option if they want a lubrication-free or lubricated system.

We were also the first to create a swivel design in the handpiece. This was critical for our dentists who were complaining about carpal tunnel syndrome, and generally were just tired of fighting the tubing tug back all day. Can you imagine life before the swivel?

In the early 80’s we were innovators of the sonic scaler. There were electric scalers on the market but they weren’t compatible with pacemakers. So, we created one that was air-driven, and didn't need a special power supply - any existing handpiece setup would be compatible with it. It was a great example of simplicity and efficiency, and at the time, this revolutionized scaling!

Recent changes have focused on more torque, and now we’ve added RFID technology for tracking. That was something we saw being more and more important, as the size of dental clinics grew, and inventory became more unwieldy. It also gives peace of mind to the practitioner or practice manager, not just in terms of knowing where each piece is, but whether it’s been sterilized or processed. Built-in asset management is recognizing our customers’ needs in today’s environment.

We have a system in place that produces the best product out there. We manufacture and source right here in the United States.

Do these innovations also focus on the patients’ needs?

Yes absolutely. Everything we do to make things stronger, smoother, faster, quieter, cooler, brighter, smarter - this all directly impacts the patient experience.

Customer service representative chatting with an online customer

What do our customers say about Star handpieces?

We spoke with one of our long-standing customer experience representatives for Star, Amber Albright, to get some insight into what our customers’ feedback has been over the years, and how that gets shared with our internal team.

Our customers really do love us. We have a loyal following from people who started using us in dental school and keep using us throughout their current practice so that says something! They’ve used us their whole career!

Often when people call they feel the need to tell us how long they've been a customer, and it’s interesting. Often, we get “I’ve used you since dental school”. It’s nice to hear. And if we discontinue a product they love, they tell us about it!

We hear about the quality - Star is a strong sturdy product that lasts a long time. Of course, care and maintenance play a role in how long any dental product will last, and of course, we do go over care and maintenance a lot over the phone to ensure our customers get the most out of their product life and when appropriate, their warranties.

I don’t get requests for change, but we do get positive feedback on changes we’ve made. The iStar Cordless Prophy Handpiece is a newer addition to the Star family; many of our hygienists travel from office to office, so this tool is perfect b/c they can plug it in, use it and then easily take it to their next office. The RFID technology has been a big hit especially in school settings and our large government facilities. Handpieces tend to walk off sometimes so the ability to keep track of them is valuable.

How has innovation affected your job in other ways?

Our customer service has definitely changed through the years thanks to technology - as technology rolls out it’s easier for us - we can track orders live on the phone, track repairs, find tracking numbers - at one time just finding a tracking number was a project, but everything is right at our fingertips now. And our website is now up to date with manuals and other product information which helps customers get to what they need quickly. I feel like I can help more quickly and efficiently in today’s world which is a nice plus.

Leaders in Dental Equipment Manufacturing

Next we spoke to Staff Engineer Luther Gates, who has been in our Engineering & Design department for 11 years, to find out how his department plays a role in the innovation of our products.

From an engineering perspective for innovation, a lot of input comes from the product management team, and the marketing team who distills the feedback from the field and the sales reps and shares it back with us.

Lately we’ve been getting even more feedback from our clinical advisors, a team of dentists who have chosen to work with us specifically to provide feedback from what they’re seeing in the field and how they’re actually using the products.

So, we roll all of that into how to make a better product.

Aeras Titan handpiece

Sometimes it’s a simple update to an existing product, other times it’s a whole new product we’re creating. For example, the original handpiece fiber optics were sort of fragile. So, we kept redesigning to make them more robust, and brighter. Our LED swivels have changed, to incorporate high-output LEDs which use a lot less electricity to make much brighter light. Some of our products had to evolve in order to withstand the rigors of autoclaving. We’ve added more angles, increased head size, made other modifications to combine technology advancements across the line.

In 2008, we wanted a lighter weight, more ergonomic handpiece. We researched special vendors to make the parts out of solid titanium - so, sometimes our process includes collaborating with and developing new ideas with our vendors too. The end result was the Solara, a totally new handpiece, and the only one on the market made entirely from titanium, so it was strong and delightfully light. Unfortunately, supply chain issues meant we had to remove it from our lineup, but we hope it can come back someday soon!

All our changes are considered from every angle of the business. That’s one thing that’s changed over the years - the new product development process has gotten a lot more regimented to ensure we are getting feedback from all the key opinion leaders - internally and externally. So, everyone - regulatory, customer service, sales, our advisors - gets to give their feedback and input into design and development. Right now our engineering department has a combined total over over 50 years’ experience, so we have a deeper breadth than a lot of our competitors that we’re able to leverage, and build future innovations from what we’ve learned in the past.

Historical & Modern Safety Legislation

What are some of the external politics, historical changes or influences that created the impetus for change? Kay Engle, Regulatory Affairs Manager, lent her insight…

 When the FD&C Act was amended in 1976 by the Medical Device Regulation Act, manufacturers had to begin demonstrating to the FDA that their products were safe to use and equivalent to devices already in the market. Over time, various world health crises such as the AIDS scare of the early 90’s and more recently in the early 2000’s the breast implant scandal in Europe have brought about more stringent regulatory requirements for medical devices.

When I review the history of our submissions, meaning, our 510(k)’s, over time, the thing that stands out is how the submissions have changed in what’s been required of us. Our original submissions in the 80’s were several small, simple sections, with marketing claims and instructions for use. By 2002 the number of sections had doubled, and now it’s up to 22 sections, requiring lots of supporting documentation. So, it’s gotten much more complicated, requiring lots of testing and validation and proving. The main takeaway is that these clearance requirements have changed significantly; they’ve gotten much more robust. Which I think is helpful, in terms of protecting practitioners and patients, because you have to prove that the product is safe and that it does what it says it’s going to do. And where we do get pushback, we feed that back into the design process and thinking for that product and anything similar.

Stay tuned for more articles like this talking about the rich history and dedication to innovation across our family of DENTALEZ products!

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