International boundaries are notoriously porous in the face of technological advances, and the fast pace of change in the world is now affecting even the field of foot orthoses. For DOLA Orthotics Lab, recent improvements in CAD-CAM, scanners, and international shipping have led to rapid growth across Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia. The company is now poised to establish a beachhead in the United States.
“Technology has broken down the borders in terms of providing orthotics,” said Claire Nichols, BHSc, who owns the company along with her university classmate, Luke Sinclair, BHSc. The podiatrists founded DOLA on Australia’s Gold Coast when they were fresh out of university in 2000.
“We originally had a traditional plaster lab, but patients expect their healthcare practitioners to be at the forefront of technological advances,” Nichols added. “We felt that that hadn’t been adequately applied to orthotic manufacturing; we were frustrated with our early suppliers and thought we could do a better job.”
Sinclair agreed. “We switched to digital five years ago, when we became the first in Australia to use the Delcam system,” he said. “Since then, our number of new clients has grown exponentially.”
DOLA essentially offers its clients a comprehensive digital clinic, Nichols noted.
“The Delcam iQube mini 3D scanner is portable and extremely accurate, and it allows the practitioner to scan the patient’s foot in non-weight-bearing, semi-weight-bearing, and full-weight-bearing positions,” she explained. “It offers the same options as traditional plasterwork, but it’s faster, more accurate, and less messy.”
Clients can submit scans and prescriptions through email or upload them via DOLA’s website. Clinicians don’t need to use a Delcam scanner, but do have to submit unencrypted open source digital files in stereolithography file format (i.e., as .stl files). These scans are used to design custom foot orthoses using Delcam technology and then milled directly from a solid block of polypropylene or EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate); the devices are finished and top-covered by DOLA’s technicians and shipped out.
To those who might argue that the US market is already fairly well saturated with both central fabricators and in-office systems, the Aussies respectfully disagree.
“There are plenty of feet to go around, and there’s still plenty of room in the international market,” said Nichols.
It isn’t so much a matter of carving up the existing pie into smaller pieces, she said, but of creating new customers. Part of this, as noted, has to do with technological advances that have increased ease and accessibility. Another part has to do with turning obstacles to your advantage.
The logistics associated with shipping would seem to favor US-based businesses, for example, but, as the old song goes, it ain’t necessarily so. By leveraging the efficiencies of international carriers and using advanced CAD-CAM technology, DOLA can often supply orthoses to international clients more efficiently than they can ship them across Australia, and the company guarantees seven-day turnaround for international clients.
Time-zone differences can work in DOLA’s favor, for that matter, because most clinics submit scans at the end of the day.
“If you’re in Australia and send us your scans at seven o’clock at night, the orthoses don’t get made until the next morning,” said Sinclair. “But if you’re a US client, the end of your day is the beginning of ours, so they go right into our system and get started when you’re at home asleep.”
The company has grown to a staff of 50 that includes podiatrists, biomechanists, engineers, designers, and technicians. DOLA also offers marketing support.
“We want to be sure our clients give their customers the best service they can, so we design customizable brochures and information letters for them,” said Sinclair. DOLA collaborates with professional writers and designers on the materials, but the basic information is right at hand because both Sinclair and Nichols have maintained busy podiatry practices even as they’ve built and expanded DOLA. As a result, they’ve learned to market themselves and passed that knowledge along.
“Our philosophy is that, the better educated the patients are, the more business our clients will get,” Sinclair continued. “If I give you five hundred brochures, and those bring you fifty new clients, that’s where we’ll make the money; I’m not going to charge you for a piece of paper. All boats rise with the tide, and it works out better for everyone—for the client, for the practitioner, and for us.”
As for the planned US office, it will be located in Southern California, where Sinclair and Nichols already have contacts. They emphasized, however, that this isn’t exactly an invasion.
“We decided to launch over there based on repeated requests from our existing US customers,” said Nichols.
Given that the company’s production has grown 45% in the past year, it’s a promising prospect; Sinclair said that they hope to double the international client base in the next three to five years.
Cary Groner is a freelance writer in the San Francisco Bay Area.