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The Future has Arrived
Laboratories can digitize everything from scheduling to the finished restoration while maximizing production with the Objet EDEN260V™.
Chris Brown’s analytical mind is constantly calculating how to further automate and speed up the workflow processes in the milling center he manages while still producing a top-quality product. Any time he can reduce steps in the production process, his internal capacities increase, delivery times shorten, and the consistency of the final product improves. In the end, speeding up throughput without compromising quality standards reduces production costs and directly affects the business’ bottom line.
Brown believes that his ultimate goal to achieve a fully digitized outsourcing business is in sight with the incorporation of 3-dimensional printing technology. But it has been a long, challenging, and sometimes frustrating 5-year process, especially for someone whose education and professional background was in the field of mechanical engineering. Married to a dentist, Brown worked as an applications and design engineer for a local Ann Arbor, Michigan, safety equipment manufacturer, when he was approached by colleagues of his wife about opening and managing the first milling center in the state of Michigan. The year was 2007 at the height of the centralized production center explosion. Soon after Apex Dental Milling opened its doors, the price for milled-zirconia substructures tumbled.
Undeterred, Brown threw himself into building a business focused on producing the highest-quality products in the market and offering the best technical expertise the industry has to offer. “I believe in setting extremely high goals,” Brown says. “And our goal at Apex is to be experts at what we do and deliver quality products that raise the bar on the industry. We are constantly in pursuit of perfection.” It is Brown’s engineering mind and that of his lead engineering-degreed dental technician that attracts manufacturers to Apex for testing and researching prototype materials and equipment to ensure suitability for the production environment of a dental laboratory. Once suitability has been determined, the real work begins—tweaking the digital workflow processes to extract the highest level of efficiency from the materials and machines to effectively and reliably process each case that arrives at the door.
Although Apex perfected its digital workflow processes over the years as new technologies became available to the market, there was one stumbling block. Each time they received digital data from customers scanning an impression or receiving scanned data from chairside digital impression technology, the production center could not efficiently produce models for those cases. Instead, they had to outsource model production to a CNC (computer numerically controlled) model milling or 3D printing center affiliated with the manufacturer of the impression scanner. Although outsourcing the model production process was a definite improvement over conventionally pouring models, it still slowed the workflow process. The ability to print models
in-house offered Apex the opportunity to further expedite the process.
“Outsourcing even one production step takes us away from our core strength which is a completely in-house digital workflow,” Brown explains. “And as chairside impression scanners become more widely adopted, and as laboratories begin to scan impressions in-house and CAD-design restorations, we could see that the future ability to produce our own models rather than outsourcing them was going to become an ever more important business strategy.” Investing in a technology that could efficiently produce models would also help those customers who did not own scanning technology by allowing them to send the impression to the milling center for processing rather than spending valuable time and money pouring a model to send with the case. Brown believes that—especially when it comes to chairside digital impression technology—the laboratory industry must have an in-house digital solution for producing models before adoption of this technology accelerates.
“For medium- and large-sized laboratory businesses and production centers, the model manufacturing solution must be one that is scalable,” Brown says. But when Brown began investigating his options for CAM-model production, it quickly became apparent that milling solutions were out of the financial reach of most laboratories. “Machines that could mill models on a larger scale without human intervention were much too expensive,” Brown elaborates. “And the smaller units that could mill models didn’t produce at a level that justified their cost. Add to that the material wastage inherent in any subtractive production process.”
For Brown’s operation, 3D printing technology was the solution that made the most sense. Not only is he able to print multiple full, half, and quarter arches in 4 hours, but also this technology allows “lights-out manufacturing.” Printing models overnight without human intervention means that models are ready first thing in the morning—restorations or frameworks can be milled that day, and cases can be shipped. “Our Objet Eden260V™ offers us a far better cost per case and a higher productivity process,” Brown says, who was familiar with the Objet brand of printers from his experience in the industrial safety product industry. “Plus it is scalable. If I need additional capacity, I can easily add another printer and double my production or invest in a larger capacity printer and more than double production.”
Brown admits that the resin material used to 3D print models results in a final product that “feels” considerably different than the stone model technicians are accustomed to handling. However, he adds, the benefits of using a technology and an industrial material that results in a consistent, accurate, and repeatable end product far outweighs the imprecision and inconsistencies inherent in a manual production process. “Anything you use comes with compromises,” Brown acknowledges. “But for us, the ability to batch-manufacture highly accurate and detailed multi-case models using high-speed manufacturing processes offers us an affordable solution.”
The 3D printer is also opening new business opportunities and growth potential for the production center from receiving and processing scans from major intraoral impression scanners to offering the ability to efficiently CAD design and print diagnostic proposals for case acceptance. “It took one of our technicians only 1 hour to create an 8-unit diagnostic case and 5 minutes in model-building software to send to the printer for production,” Brown says. “This is a technology that will continue to evolve and accelerate the pace of change in dentistry.”
The preceding material was provided by the manufacturer. The statements and opinions contained therein are solely those of the manufacturer and not of the editors, publisher, or the Editorial Board of Inside Dental Technology.
About the Author
Chris Brown, BSEE and business manager of Apex Dental Milling in Ann Arbor, Michigan, alongside the Objet EDEN260V™.