In today’s fast-paced world of digital dentistry, where labs are printing and milling hundreds of bridges, crowns and implants every day, smart automation software can be your secret weapon for increasing productivity. In this article, you’ll discover how dental production software powered by artificial intelligence is enabling dental labs to automate a wide range of manual tasks and achieve new levels of efficiency.
Both 3D printing and CNC milling are largely automated manufacturing processes. In both cases, a digital file is sent to the machine that contains all the instructions necessary to produce a batch of dental parts.
Digital dental production often requires input from a technician on part orientation, labeling, support generation, nesting, and more.
What is not automated, however, is everything else that must happen in order to create that file in the first place. For 3D printing applications, these steps include:
This refers to importing the 3D model from a CAD/CAM software application into the 3D printing preparation software and fixing any resulting errors.
How each dental part is oriented affects where and how many supports are required as well as its quality and build time. While, with training, each individual orientation decision can be made quickly, it is extremely repetitive and becomes time-consuming over the course of a day.
This step removes extra material to reduce material consumption and in some cases speed up print time.
Each dental product is made for a specific patient, so every part is often labeled for identification during post-processing.
Supports are the additional scaffolding required to hold the parts and prevent them from collapsing during the build. It is important to place supports as much as needed for build success and as little as possible for minimal print and finishing time, while avoiding support marks on critical or hard-to-reach surfaces.
This refers to how groups of dental products are arranged in order to maximize the number of parts made with a single print, which reduces the cost per part.
The slicing file contains all of the information the 3D printer needs to complete the build, including layer height, supports, and build strategy.
For labs running multiple printers or mills, technicians are also responsible for creating an optimal job schedule, or which machines take which jobs at which times. In addition, technicians need to monitor the machines as they run to make sure there are no errors.
As you can imagine, a dental lab with a very small staff will struggle to handle all of these manual steps efficiently under normal conditions. When volume surges, all of these issues become worse, leading to an overly stressed staff, more overtime, and higher labor costs.
It is true that some software applications can automate some of these steps. But the results are typically not very reliable, which creates even more work for technicians on the back end because they have to check and correct the automated output.
The answer to this problem is not just automation, but smart automation. Specifically designed for 3D printing and CNC milling operations, new software platforms use artificial intelligence (AI) to automate virtually all of the steps in the printing process. This not only saves dental labs a lot of time, but it reduces the most expensive part of the process – labor costs.
This is exactly what happened at Bertram Dental Lab in Menasha, Wisconsin, in the US. Bertram Dental Lab is one of the largest RPD manufacturers in the US and runs five SLM 280 printers. The lab had reached a limit with its current 3D printing software, which required technicians to perform all steps manually. This was not scalable.
With smart automation, Bertram Dental Lab successfully automated many of the repetitive tasks 3D printing involves, such as support generation. The smart automation platform not only performed this task but also found ways to reduce the number of supports involved in a typical build, which saves printing time and reduces material waste.
The same automation platform also automated nesting of RPD frames, enabling the lab to fit 20% to 25% more frames in each build. Because the lab was running five machines, a 20% efficiency gain for each build had the same effect as adding a sixth printer.
Motor City Lab Works (MCLW), based in Detroit, Michigan, in the US, offers a similar example. MCLW was an early adopter of direct metal printed appliances in the US and today produces everything from acrylic Hawleys to laser sintered appliances, all digitally designed to individual patient specifications.
MCLW turned to automation when labor shortages and recruitment challenges began to hinder growth. With the help of smart automation software, parts are oriented, support structures are added, and parts are nested — all without manual intervention.
Automated nesting had a particularly powerful effect on productivity for MCLW. With automated layered nesting, MCLW can run machines longer and with higher productivity. Parts are automatically nested in stacked layers with easy-to-remove supports growing around the parts to avoid any critical surfaces. Most important, each nest can fit three times more parts than before.
Again, this type of smart automation is only possible with AI that allows the software to learn user preferences over time, getting “smarter” with each print run.
If you want to discover the practical steps you can follow to automate your dental lab, download our white paper The Next Digital Revolution: Future-Proofing Your Dental Lab in the Age of AI and Automation. Start your journey today!