Additive manufacturing (AM) is the cornerstone of Align Technology (Align) production operations. Creators of Invisalign, a clear aligner orthodontic treatment for malocclusion, Align is pioneering the mass use of AM with “the world’s largest 3D printing operation” (2) to revolutionize the dental industry.
Traditionally, clear aligners were fabricated using individually-casted teeth molds. Orthodontist would manually alter these molds for each phase of the treatment, making it a time-consuming and labor-intensive process. Plastic thermoforming machines would then create the aligners for the up to 48 molds needed for a treatment.
Despite the fact that the treatment itself is not new, Align’s innovation comes from its production process. It utilizes stereolithography (SLA), a 3D printing method where a UV laser shines through a photo-sensitive liquid resin solidifying it to a desired shape. This process creates all of the fully customized molds needed for a treatment in one print. These molds represent the anticipated position of a patient’s denture as the orthodontic treatment progresses. Using these molds, the aligners are then vacuum-formed utilizing an advanced, medical-grade, FDA-approved polymer. This makes it possible to create a year’s worth of aligners in a fraction of the time traditional methods allowed. Align’s facility produces more than 320,000 unique clear aligners per day. Utilizing 3D printing makes it possible to customize each mold without incurring additional costs. After the treatment plan is developed utilizing the company’s proprietary software, 3D printing 48 identical or highly customized molds has equal cost and takes equal time. This scalability occurs because there is no setup, tooling change or additional prep time required. Harnessing the power of 3D printing, the company has been able to grow their patient base six times since 2009.
Snapshot of Invisalign’s 3D printing production process (3)
To further develop their AM capabilities in the short-term, Align Technology developed a multi-year partnership with 3D Systems, pioneer of additive manufacturing technology, to develop customized solutions for their production line. One such example of customization is the addition of a unique patient ID to the device design that is then directly printed into the aligner to avoid confusion between different patient’s units. In September of this year, 3D systems announced Align has increased its investment in the AM company’s SLA technology that supports Invisalign maker’s expansion. As the company grows and enters new markets, it is scaling its operations by opening local production facilities in key regions like China, where the company anticipates a 15-20% annual growth rate.
Besides strategic alliances, material science is a big focus for the company as well in the medium term. Development of highly innovative materials in the future would allow the aligners to be printed directly (instead of having to 3D print the molds and then thermoform the aligners). Direct printing could further streamline Align’s operations and waste from all the sacrificial molds currently produced.
Invisalign’s massive market potential is quickly attracting competition. Currently, clear aligners represent 15% of the existing orthodontic market with Align holding an estimated 10% market share. In 2017, this amounted to close to $1.5 billion in revenue with a little over $230 million in profit. Large competitive players like ClearCorrect and a myriad of startups such as Candid Co and SmileClubDirect are establishing themselves in the clear orthodontics space, making the competitive landscape tougher. Combined with expiring patents, Align needs to strengthen its position. One way to do so would be to optimize their supply chain and reduce transportation costs by moving to a decentralized 3D printing process consisting of multiple mini production plants. This would also help reach international markets faster. Another way to cut down costs would be to improve the current 3D printing so the aligners are produced in one step. Currently, the gum line trim happens after thermoforming in a separate step. If aligners were to be printed to exact specs, a one-step production process would eliminate the need for material handling equipment and other factory capital costs.
So far, mastering AM has been one of Align’s main competitive advantages. As technology evolves, is the company prepared to adapt to newer methods? How would it respond if the competition adopts faster, more flexible, more cost-efficient or higher resolution technologies? Can it leverage the data of its over five million dental plans created to date to improve not only treatment creation but also the production process?
(1) Press release: 3D systems’ SLA 3D printers enable align technology’s unprecedented use of 3D printing in manufacturing. (2018, Sep 11). Dow Jones Institutional News Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/2102197772?accountid=11311
(2) Invisalign Clear Aligners | Invisalign. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.invisalign.com/
(3) Retrieved from https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/3d-printing-impact-on-dentistry-121284/
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