The world of orthodontics has been revolutionized by 3D printing, and Smile Direct Club is leading the way with affordable, convenient, and accessible orthodontic care.
Through a partnership with HP, begun in 2019, Smile Direct Club now uses 60 of the latest 3D printers created by HP, Multi Jet Fusion 3D Printers. Overseen by employees at a facility dubbed Smile House, the printers run around the clock, helping to create millions of aligners, enabling so many to have the smile of their dreams.
3D printers allow for mass personalization to take the place of mass production. Ramon Pastor, HP’s Head of 3D Printing Technology, Operation and Metals, extols its virtues as, “a great example for many other industries — such as health and wellness and consumer goods — that mass personalization is possible, scalable, and that we can produce it.” But why is the use of 3D printers in orthodontics so important?
An Underserved Population
An independent study showed that while as much as 85% of Americans could use orthodontic care, only 1% receive it.This is due to prohibitive costs. Braces, the most common form of orthodontics, ranges from $5,000 to $8,000. The problem is also compounded by so many Americans lacking physical access to orthodontic care. And 60% of counties in the United States have no orthodontist.
Smile Direct Club is on a mission to solve both of these problems. Why has 3D printing become a major part of the solution?
Creating a mold like no other
The power of 3D printing allows for highly personalized equipment. “it’s tailored to the shape of your teeth, the location of your teeth in your mouth, and how it conforms to all those curves and crevices and angles,” explains Brandon Ribic, the Technology Director of America Makes.
3D printing allows for individualized treatment to be affordably mass produced. Smile Direct Club is able to create 40,000 aligners per day in their factory, with 6.7 million slated by the end of the year. They are already expanding to a second facility of the same capacity as Smile House in Columbia, Tennessee, planned to open later this year.
How does Smile Direct Club solve the problem of access?
Customers now have three options for beginning their treatment for straighter teeth. They can begin by getting a 3D scan of their teeth at a Smile Direct Club location called a SmileShop, or they can have one done at an affiliated dentist or orthodontist. But Smile Direct Club has truly solved the problem of access by enabling people to access quality orthodontic care without ever having to make a trip to the dentist’s office. They can take an impression of their teeth and send it back directly to Smile Direct Club to begin the process.
How Does the Rest of the Process Work?
Although it is not done in person, a dentist reviews every customer’s unique information and approves a treatment plan. This is then sent to the factory in Antioch where the plan is translated into what are called voxels. Much as pixels instruct a printer with 2D patterns, a voxel is used in 3D printing.
The molds themselves are created with an industrial strength substance called Nylon-12, because it is only 0.003 in thick and is able to capture every last detail of the shape of a person’s teeth. The molds are then used to create the clear aligners which are sent out to individuals to complete the straightening process at home.
Clients can choose between two programs, one where they wear the aligners for 22 hours per day and the other which they wear for 10 hours. The first option takes 4-6 months, while the second one takes 8-10 months. Both options are significantly shorter than braces which usually takes 2 years. The customer uses a different aligner every two weeks, moving through a succession of aligners until their teeth are shaped to the desired final smile. On average a customer will go through 12-18 aligners in a treatment. After that, Smile Direct Club offers retainers to help customers maintain their smile.
What are the benefits of 3D printing aligner molds?
One thing is for certain, Smile Direct Club’s method works for giving more people access to orthodontic care. The clear aligner treatment that Smile Direct Club offers costs $1950, which is up to less than half the lowest cost of braces. 3D printing allows for the highly individualized aligners to be made during a very streamlined process. Indeed, the whole process can be done without the customer ever having to schedule an in-office visit.
There are additional benefits to producing orthodontic care this way, a big one being that it is much more environmentally friendly than more traditional manufacturing methods. This is built into the process because the molds and aligners are produced on demand, eliminating any surplus waste. Also, the technology allows for the digital files to be printed locally, eliminating the cost, both financial and environmental, of shipping and distribution.
As Smile Direct Club continues to revolutionize the orthodontics industry by bringing accessible and affordable care to many, it will no doubt continue using 3D printing as a major tool in achieving that goal.