Align Technologies Buys Cubicure for Direct 3D Printing – 3D Systems Responds

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(See update at the end of this article.) Align Technologies (Nasdaq: ALGN), a dominant force in the global clear aligners market, recently revealed a definitive agreement to acquire Vienna-based Cubicure GmbH, a forerunner in polymer additive manufacturing (AM). This acquisition, priced at approximately €79 million, aims to amplify Align’s core competencies in direct 3D printing, further supporting its long-term growth strategy.

Dental 3D Printing Context

The dental market is, in many ways, the crown of the 3D printing industry, demonstrating how thoroughly the technology can disrupt an industry and see widespread adoption. According to the “3D Printing in Dentistry 2023: Market Study & Forecast” report from SmarTech Analysis/Additive Manufacturing Research, revenue for dental 3D printing grew to $4 billion in 2022, representing a whopping third of the entire AM market.

The dental 3D printing market, as projected by SmarTech Analysis/Additive Manufacturing Research.

Align is a particularly illustrative example of the disruptive adoption of 3D printing. The company created an entire market segment based on the creation of 3D printed molds derived from intraoral scans of patients’ mouths, with which it created its Invisalign braces. Now, with its first acquisition directly from the AM space, the company seeks to keep ahead of the multi-billion-dollar niche it established.

“Align and Cubicure have worked together for many years and our successful collaboration has contributed to breakthrough technologies and innovation in direct 3D printing,” said Srini Kaza, Align senior vice president of product research and development. “The acquisition of Cubicure will not only strengthen the Align Digital Platform and our core capabilities in direct 3D printing, but their talented team, including visionary founders, engineers, and material scientists, will expand our knowledge and expertise in one of the most strategic areas of innovation over the next decade. I look forward to welcoming the entire Cubicure team to Align and continuing to extend our global leadership in digital orthodontics and 3D printing.”

“As the pioneer and a global leader in clear aligners with the world’s largest 3D printing operations producing over 1 million custom appliances every day, Align is continuing to innovate and invest in technologies that enable the next generation of direct 3D printed products, thus creating more sustainable and efficient solutions,” said Joe Hogan, Align Technology president and CEO. “Our partnership with Cubicure began several years ago as a joint development program and has evolved over time with the potential for significant innovation in scaling our direct 3D printing processes. The agreement to acquire Cubicure is a natural next step to bring their talented team and unique cutting-edge technology in-house where they will support our long-term growth strategy by enabling us to scale our 3D printing operations to eventually direct print millions of custom appliances per day.”

Cubicure and the Next Phase of Dental 3D Printing

The announcement formalizes a successful collaboration that has existed between Align and Cubicure for several years. This partnership initially began as a joint development program, aiming to unleash potential for innovation in scaling Align’s direct 3D printing processes.

Cerion’s large-format 3D printer with Cubicure materials. Image courtesy of Cerion.

Cubicure GmbH specializes in creating innovative materials, equipment, and processes for industrial 3D printing solutions. The company is renowned for its patented Hot Lithography technology, which employs a specialized heating and coating mechanism. This allows for the processing of highly viscous resins to produce extremely durable and temperature-resistant polymers. Such materials are the key to the next phase of AM in dentistry: the direct production of dental aligners, as well as dentures and other devices.

Previous generations of resin 3D printing technology have been unable to process thicker photopolymers with the properties necessary for directly printed aligners. However, new firms like Inkbit and Quantica have demonstrated the ability to 3D print more viscous, functional materials. Even Stratasys has showcased the ability to directly 3D print dentures, while Graphy in Korea has begun 3D printing aligners directly. All of this is to say that Align’s pioneering method of thermoforming aligners on 3D printed models may become obsolete.

Because Cubicure materials have been used on large-scale systems like those from Cerion, there’s the possibility for mass production of direct dental aligners and other devices. At the same time, these photopolymers have been used on extremely small machines, like those from UpNano, demonstrating possibilities for the medical, electronics, and military sectors.

Strengthening Align amid Industry Shifts

The acquisition of Cubicure by Align Technology can be seen as a strategic move to bolster Align’s foothold in the 3D printing space, particularly when considering the challenges faced by the industry. Align, the market leader in clear aligner treatments, has recently seen a decline in shipments and revenues due to deteriorating economic conditions affecting discretionary spending on cosmetic dentistry. Given this backdrop, the integration of Cubicure’s patented Hot Lithography technology could offer Align a significant advantage in the direct production of clear aligners.

In addition, Align’s decision to bring Cubicure in-house may also be seen as a protective strategy against increased competition and shifts in supplier relationships. 3D Systems, a key supplier to Align, has also indicated declining dental revenues and is facing competition from other solutions adopted by Align, like those from EnvisionTEC. Therefore, owning an innovative 3D printing technology could serve as a hedge against market uncertainties and supplier instabilities.

Alongside the acquisition, Align also made headlines by announcing a new tool in its digital workflow: the Plan Editor in ClinCheck treatment planning software. This innovation provides doctors with greater control of digital treatment planning. Furthermore, Align introduced the Invisalign Palatal Expander System, a cutting-edge 3D printed device designed for both skeletal and dental arch expansion.

The acquisition is subject to customary closing conditions, including adjustments related to Align’s existing ownership of Cubicure’s capital stock. The transaction is expected to finalize in the fourth quarter of 2023 or early 2024. Over the past six months, Align has seen an 11.3% increase in share price, outpacing the industry average growth of 9.6%.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t just a big win for Align as it moves into the next phases of dentistry and beyond. Nor is it only a successful move for Cubicure. The startup’s key financial backer, AM Ventures, must also be excited by the deal, as it represents one of the firm’s most successful exits yet. To learn more about the team’s keen vision, you can find AM Ventures at the Additive Manufacturing Strategies event in New York February 6-8, 2024, where the VC company will be sponsoring the networking event.

Update 9/8/23: 3D Systems has since issued a press release reiterating its partnership with Align, lasting over 25 years. 3D Systems’ stock dropped from $5.73 to $4.91 after the news of the acquisition was made public, with 3D Systems stating that it had received “significant shareholder inquiries” about the deal. Due to the significant business that the 3D printing stalwart has with the dental company, its stock price often fluctuates in tandem with this customer’s public reports. For instance, in 2021, growth in Align coincided with a price per share increase for 3D systems, just as had occurred in 2020. Given the shear price that ALGN trades at (currently $332.88), it’s no surprise that investors might worry.

3D Systems assured investors that the partnership was still strong, noting, “3D Systems’ 25-year partnership with Align where 3D Systems provides hardware, materials, processing, and services for Align in connection with its highly efficient indirect production of aligners remains strong. Align operates hundreds of 3D Systems’ printers producing over one million parts daily and continues to rely on 3D Systems to support its operations. 3D Systems’ forecasts remain intact and already account for Align’s existing partnership with Cubicure.”

The company went onto say: “Cubicure’s R&D efforts on direct 3D printing of aligners have had no impact on 3D Systems. 3D Systems continues to move forward with advanced R&D to further its capabilities for direct printing aligners as that approach is further evaluated as a complement to well-established and highly efficient indirect production.”

In this case, there shouldn’t necessarily be reason to doubt 3D Systems’ partnership with Align. It is reasonable for large corporations to use products from multiple manufacturers (just ask Apple). Given the sheer volume of machines that Align has from 3D Systems, this may actually be a reason to expect further growth between the two, as 3D Systems machines may be tailored to process Cubicure materials. In fact, upon publishing this statement, 3D Systems’ share price actually rose 5.7% to $5.60 premarket following four straight days of losses.

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