A-dec, Inc. History

2601 Crestview Drive
Newberg, Oregon 97132

Telephone: (503) 538-7478
Toll Free: 800-547-1883
Fax: (503) 538-5911

Private Company
Incorporated:1966 as Austin Dental Equipment Company
Employees: 900
Sales:$134.4 million (2001)
NAIC: 332912 Fluid Power Valve and Hose Fitting Manufacturing; 339112 Surgical and Medical Instrument Manufacturing; 339114 Dental Equipment and Supplies Manufacturing; 333995 Fluid Power Cylinder and Actuator Manufacturing, 339114 Dental Equipment and Supplies Manufacturing

Company Perspectives:

A-dec will be the preferred choice of dental equipment for our distribution partners, dentists, hygienists, schools and government organizations worldwide by proving innovative, simple solutions and services that deliver superior value to the customer.

Key Dates:

Ken and Joan Austin start A-dec in Colorado.
A-dec and the Austins move to Newberg, Oregon.
A-dec is incorporated.
Company enters into an agreement with Den-Tal-Ez to market A-dec products nationally and internationally.
A-dec moves into a new plant and offices in A-dec Technical Park.
The company discontinues its domestic marketing relationship with Den-Tal-Ez.
A-dec International begins operations.
The company forms Air Lock, a new division.
A-dec Australia begins operations.
DecTron and Air Lock merge to form the A-dec Commercial Products Division.
A-Dec Dental U.K. moves into new headquarters.

Company History:

Located on the A-dec Technical Park campus in Newberg, Oregon, A-dec, Inc. is one of the largest dental equipment manufacturers in the world. A-dec designs, builds, and markets much of the furniture and equipment used in the dental office, including chairs, stools, delivery systems, dental lights, cabinetry, handpieces, and a full line of accessories, such as vacuum pumps, water sprays, and controls--everything except X-ray machines. With an extensive global network of authorized dealers and customers in more then 100 countries, A-dec covers more than 40 percent of the domestic dental equipment market. It provides equipment for 52 of the 53 dental schools in the United States.

Early 1960s: Rapid Innovation in Dental Equipment

The husband and wife team of Joan and Ken Austin founded A-dec (an acronym for Austin Dental Equipment Company) in 1964 with a $2,400 loan from Ken Austin's father and a local dentist, and the goal of having ten employees in five years. Austin, a life-long tinkerer, had trained as an engineer at Oregon State University, from which he graduated in 1954. Upon graduation, Austin served in the Air Force, first as a radar controller, then as a radar site repair crew supervisor, on active duty in Korea, and, finally, as an aircraft maintenance officer in the United States.

Back in civilian life, Austin found himself unable to fit his inventive nature to the restrictions of the work place. He went through a series of seven or eight jobs in eight years. "I thought my ideas were better than anyone else's," he explained in the Oregon Stater's September 2002 issue, attributing his repeated firings to his own arrogance. In the 2001 special edition of the company's magazine ON-DEC, he recalled that he "saw a tremendous need to be able to help the dentist, but my employers kept reminding me that my concerns were not in my job description." Among the businesses where Austin worked before founding A-dec were: Tektronix of Beaverton, Oregon; Research Engineering and Manufacturing of Portland, Oregon; Williams Air Company of Portland, Oregon; Power Brake Equipment of Portland, Oregon; and DENSCO of Colorado, a dental equipment manufacturing company where Austin was chief engineer and learned about oral evacuation systems.

The 1960s were a period of intense innovation in the dental equipment industry. The high-speed air drill had revolutionized the industry in the mid-1950s, creating the need for an oral evacuation device that cleaned debris from a patient's mouth fast enough to keep the working area clean for continued drilling. According to Austin in a 1972 Oregonian article, "The first evacuation systems were composites of existing products and very clumsy. ... The vacuum equipment was manufactured in Salt Lake City, the controls in Portland. The syringe came from Buffalo and the water heater from Ohio."

Austin's personal credo, developed while still in college, was "dream it, design it, draw it and do it"--which seemed to him to be the opposite of what most engineers did; they drew up plans and turned them over to someone else to construct. "An engineer doesn't really know the 'how to do it part'," he was quoted in the Oregon Stater in 2002. Austin became convinced that he could create a new simple piece of equipment designed to do the job the dentist wanted done. When his lack of tact once again led to unemployment, he went to work for Kelly Temporary Services as a temporary draftsman, and began building his first oral evacuator in his home in Broomfield, Colorado. "I built a better version of something that was already being used," he was quoted in ON-DEC. "Mine was smaller, less expensive and more reliable."

By 1964, Austin had perfected a more efficient air-powered system than the industry standard and A-dec was founded. Its A.V.S. (air-vacuum system) was purchased by the S.S. White Company of Philadelphia in 1965, the nation's largest dental manufacturing company, and the Austins moved to Newberg, Oregon, where they set up business in a World War II vintage Quonset hut. Both Austins had grown up in Newberg and welcomed the chance to return to the place they still called home.

The Dec-Et followed the A.V.S. in 1965; this was the first miniature delivery unit designed specifically for the new reclining chair, the first equipment break-through of sit-down dentistry. The reclining patient chair had created the need for units for holding tools that were handier for the dentist to use from a seated position. The Dec-Et was followed by the complementary Tray-Cart, the first mobile dental assistant's work surface.

Late 1960s-70s: Growth at Home and Abroad

A-dec was incorporated in 1966 and began introducing other pieces of equipment at a very rapid pace, including an air operated amalgam condenser, a light post, a small mobile dental cart for both doctor and assistant, and preformed disposable oral evacuator tips.

Mobile dental equipment was a key to the early success of the company. "When we started the company, no one was making mobile dental equipment," Joan Austin noted in the September 2002 Oregon Stater. Prior to meeting her husband, she worked in the insurance industry and had plans to open her own business. At A-dec, she took charge of A-dec's administrative, legal, and personnel departments, eventually becoming the company's executive vice-president and treasurer. "Chairs and movable work tables that could be adjusted to any height and for left-handed or right-handed dentists--these were new and dentists could see the advantage," she recalled.

Dentists also liked A-dec because of the simplicity of its designs. If a unit broke down, a dentist could usually fix it himself. The company avoided equipment obsolescence by using standard parts and components, ensuring that the latest attachment was adaptable to an earlier produced model. When a breakdown did occur, A-dec parts were readily available because A-dec made most of its component parts itself.

By 1969, A-dec was the world's largest manufacturer of oral evacuation equipment, commanding 53 percent of the sales market. The company entered into a verbal marketing agreement with Den-Tal-Ez Manufacturing Company to market A-dec products nationally and internationally. In 1971, it began building a new plant and offices on 150 acres secured for the A-dec Technical Park. The company was also aggressively seeking overseas business with distribution in 23 countries. Domestically, it instituted a distribution plan involving regional representatives. By 1973, A-dec's sales were $7 million.

Dental schools also began to take an interest in A-dec products in the 1970s because of its use of interchangeable components. In 1970, the company developed the Student Unit, a completely portable unit in a case that students could carry to class and later install in a Denta-Cart. The company also completed its first major installation of equipment for teaching at the dental school of the University of Missouri.

The first half of the 1970s was a period of steady growth and advancement for A-dec. In 1972, the company moved into its A-dec Technical Park offices and plant, and by 1975 it occupied three buildings. As the number of its catalog items increased, A-dec discontinued its domestic marketing relationship with Den-Tal-Ez in 1974 in favor of expanding its own domestic marketing team to 16 people. As A-dec entered the second half of the 1970s with sales of $10 million, it appointed its first international territory manager to oversee the distribution of its items in upward of 20 countries, and in 1976 A-dec International began operations.

With more than 600 items in its catalog by the by 1977, A-dec built and produced more dental equipment items than its two next largest competitors combined. Beginning in 1976, with a government contract to produce Porta-Carts for the nation's armed forces, A-dec had begun producing all military dental units as well as 90 percent of all units sold to missionaries. Also that year, A-dec International assumed control of the company's international marketing, while A-dec severed its marketing ties with Den-Tal-Ez. In 1978, the company expanded again to occupy its fourth building in A-dec Park. Employees that year purchased the company's original Quonset hut, which they gave to the Austins as a Christmas present.

1980s-90s: Organizational Innovation

By the early 1980s, A-dec offered a full line of doctors' and assistants' controls, or instrument delivery systems. In subsequent years, it added chairs and stools and dental lights. A-dec entered 1980 strong, with $32 million in sales. It controlled approximately 40 percent of the domestic dental equipment market, but only about 2 percent of the international market. In 1981, the company widened its focus, forming a new division, Air Lock, to manufacture and market air-actuated security locks for commercial industrial buildings and correctional institutions. In 1983, it added a Dental Furniture division as well as DecTron equipment division. The following year, A-dec Australia began operations.

Such expansion necessitated organizational changes, which began in 1980 when A-dec adopted the new practice of "group manufacturing technology," whereby manufacturing "fami- lies," or business units, assumed responsibility for developing new design ideas and ensuring the quality of equipment items. Group technology was followed by a more product-line-focused arrangement to enhance employees' sense of ownership in the production process. Instead of a common machining area to serve all product lines, product units operated on their own, with employees assuming responsibility for seeing a part through to completion. The same was instituted in assembly and other operations.

Despite staff reductions of 100 people in 1982, the company continued to expand through the mid-1980s, adding additional square footage in 1982, 1985, and 1986. By that time, A-dec was the largest dental equipment manufacturer in the nation. DecTron and Air Lock were then merged to form the A-dec Commercial Products Division, and by 1988 this division had sales of more than $1 million. In 1989, A-dec, with about $70 million in sales, exported to 66 countries and more than 200 dental supply houses in the United States and Canada. It also had direct sales to government agencies and dental schools and was the sole source of military dental field equipment for the Armed Forces. By 1990, sales were estimated at $75 million.

The 1990s were a decade of ongoing reorganization and redesign for A-dec. Production was again restructured, adopting a product-unit system that functioned much like an agglomeration of smaller, independent companies. At the same time, the company embarked on a major restyling of its products, addressing in particular the need for infection control by making equipment easier to clean. The company expanded its product line to include modestly priced chairs for sale in foreign markets in 1996, the same year it won the American Dental Association's Distinguished Service Award. By 1997, A-dec did business in 102 countries, earning one-third of its $100 million in revenues from export sales. In 1998, A-Dec Dental U.K. moved into new headquarters.

A-dec turned its attention to streamlining production and delivery as it entered the new century. In 2001, the company purchased new software that could move from the design desk to the shop floor, in anticipation of significantly reduced production time. A-dec also began enhancing Internet sales, implementing an online tool that allowed international dealers to quote prices for customers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, thereby overcoming the obstacle of time zones.

Although the market for dental equipment had become increasingly competitive, A-dec was at the top of its field, covering more than 40 percent of the domestic dental equipment market and enjoying an extensive global network of authorized dealers and customers in more then 100 countries. The company that had helped revolutionize its industry by developing products for sit-down dentistry, now in its mature years, looked forward to a future of continued expansion in its domestic and international markets.

Principal Subsidiaries: A-dec International, A-dec Trading Company of Australia, A-dec Dental UK Ltd.

Principal Competitors: Planmeca; Royal Dental Group; Sullivan Schein Dental; Air Techniques, Inc.; JB Dental Supply Co.; Patterson Dental Supply Co.

Further Reading:

  • "Celebrating 35 Years," ON-DEC, Special Edition 2001.
  • Edmonston, Jr., George P., "Building a Better Mousetrap," Oregon Stater, September 2002.
  • Gutierrez, Max, "Dental Gear Firm Flourishes," Oregon Journal, March 4, 1975, p. C5.
  • Johnson, Angela, "Success With One's Self," Oregon Business, January 1989, p. 34.
  • Khermouch, Gerry, "A-dec Finds Success in Thinking Small; Dental Equipment Producer is Being Run Like Family Shop," Metalworking News, March 19, 1990, p. 4.
  • Magmer, James, "Newberg Dental Equipment Plant Grows," Oregonian, June 27, 1972, p. I15.
  • Olmos, Bob, "They Must Be Doing Something Right Down in Newberg," Oregonian, July 6, 1980, p. E2.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 53. St. James Press, 2003.