Korean photopolymer firm Graphy recently announced that it has a material for directly 3D printed dental aligners. These devices also have a shape-memory property, so you can submerge them in water to get them to go back to their original shape once they deform from wear. The Graphy aligners can additionally be submerged into 100°C water for a minute to clean them.
The ability to clean them easily will make them safer, which is an achievement for a photopolymer material. The safety aspect is also important with photopolymers and Graphy has biocompatibility approvals for the clear Tera Harz TC-85 material used to make them, as well. In addition to being clear, the polymer is flexible, which should make them more comfortable than rigid counterparts. The company claims to be the first to have a directly 3D printed dental aligner. There are other firms that say the same.
At the same time, we see more and more dental-specific solutions coming to the market, such as those from Sprintray. Existing companies, like Stratasys and 3D Systems, have made significant investments in dental printers and materials. 3D Systems has executed numerous acquisitions in the space, as well. Prodways is expanding in dental, too. We’re also seeing a lot of one-stop-shop dental solutions like Singapore-based 3D3, which is taking on China, Formlabs has specific workflows for dental, while LuxCreo will build you a production line for it. SmileDirect Club is entering the market with a fleet of HP Multi Jet Fusion machines, while Zenyum is like Invisalign, but for Asia. Everyone is piling in, but what is happening and why is everyone so enthusiastic about digital dentistry?
First off, this is a revolution that has been around for decades. BEGO, for example, 3D prints millions of metal crowns and bridges each year and has been doing this for over a decade. Meanwhile, millions of polymer dental parts, intermediates, and molds have been made on EnvisionTEC and 3D Systems machines for some time. Scanners and software are becoming more commonplace and 3D printing has penetrated most of the dental market now. It’s one of the biggest success stories in 3D printing. But, the disruptors are now being disrupted.
It used to be that large labs were doing a lot of the 3D printing. They used EOS machines or Concept Laser machines specifically designed for dental. In production, 3D Systems stereolithography (SLA) and EnvisionTEC Perfactories were often used. The Perfactory’s smaller form factor and price tag meant that it led to smaller labs adopting digital dentistry practices. The ticket for implementing a total 3D printing dentistry solutions was lowered so that nearly all labs could afford it. With smaller Asiga, and later on Formlabs, 3D printers the smallest of mom-and-pop labs and even individual dentists could get in the game.
More materials were developed and FDA approvals given. So, now you can print dentures, molds, bonding trays, splints, orthodontics, thermoformed aligners, lost casting wax-like parts for casting teeth and crowns, impression trays, surgical guides, and mouth guards. And every player in the value chain from the largest companies in dental to new start-ups and individual practitioner are piling in. Huge dental group Straumann has dental 3D printers and Dentsply Sirona has 3D printed solutions, as well. In dental, 3D printing is everywhere.
Why the success in dental then? With smaller machines, the workflow was available to a big group of customers. This large group had so much potential that materials companies and OEMs started to develop specific dental products. It was high-margin, safety was important. and it was a long-term growth market. as best practices in dental would percolate around the world as people became richer. For once, 3D printing performed user-centric innovation. People went to dentists and labs and had their needs heard.
Businesses started to then make specific end-to-end solutions. Everyone started taking part in this fun high-margin activity, so we came up with a good offering for this market. Dental parts are relatively high-cost and, so, could bear insanely elevated resin prices. Dental practitioners are used to paying more for dental stuff. It’s like the industrial version of telling people you want catering for a wedding. Dental practitioners don’t mind paying more for safety and time savings, as well. They also have defined outcomes and criteria for success, which made it easy for them to find out if digital dentistry was or wasn’t working for them. It also became a trend to buy a 3D printer.
The biggest reason for success has been that we can reduce visits, time during visits, time in labs, and manual labor in labs, while also increasing the throughput of a small team and…wait for it…actually have a cost-effective, often cheaper solution for this industry compared to competitors. 3D printing can also make relatively small parts that are unique. The workflow to do this—from CT or scan to finished part—already existed, as well.
This all made dental the perfect case for 3D printing for localized manufacturing. Dental 3D printing is by far the biggest case of this. Dental parts are, if you combine them all, the most popular 3D printed things on Earth. There are more practitioners working with 3D printers in dental than nearly any other industry. 3D printing in dental generates revenue and cost savings across the value chain. It is also democratic and easy enough to engender supply chain competition and value chain hopping, with dentists performing lab work, for example.
This is happening with a backdrop where dentistry has gone from being a chore to something important to value yourself. It has also grown incredibly quickly and gone from a kind of mom-and-pop healthcare trend to a very competitive global business.
And then, there’s Invisalign. Yes, the dental braces alternative featured in a Billie Eilish song. “I have taken out my Invisalign and this is the album,” uttered at the beginning of a music video played tens of thousands of times on TV and over a billion times on YouTube. You are not a marketeer. They are marketeers. Invisalign is a 3D printing success story. The $52-billion market cap align technology has over $2.4 billion in revenue. Through dogged advertising directly to consumers, the firm has become a huge success.
The company takes scans of impressions and, then, in Costa Rica, staff members evaluate and plan the entire workflow. A series of Invisalign molds are then 3D printed using 3D Systems SLA printers in Mexico. These are then used as thermoforming inserts and a thermoformed silicone aligner is produced. This is sent to the customer. A single treatment from end-to-end could cost from $3,000 and $8,000. Invisalign produces around 250,000 3D prints a day. Competitor Smile Direct does around 50,000. So, in terms of cost savings, this is a huge market.
Invisalign would save a huge a mount of time and money if it could directly 3D print aligners and skip a production step. Maybe it doesn’t want to because it has approvals for the thermoformed silicone and thinks that is safer. But, have they tried to print aligners directly this? Hell yeah. They and everyone else in dental have tried this. Hopefully, now maybe, Graphy has succeeded, but everyone is a bit freaked out that a small Korean firm ended up making this happen, so people aren’t screaming it from the rooftops yet. But, if this works, it’s huge.
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