Smile Direct Club uses HP’s 3D printing technology to reshape America’s smile

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By Jacob Maslow

When Smile DirectClub entered the teeth straightening business in 2014, the orthodontics industry was more than 100 years old, worth billions of dollars, and was ripe for disruption.  Smile Direct Club founders Jordan Katzman and Alex Fenkell discovered, through an independent study, that while 85% of Americans could benefit from orthodontic care, only 1% get it. So there were two main problems Alex and Jordan set out to solve:

  1. Accessibility: Many people have no physical access to treatment. Only 40% of counties in the United States have any orthodontists.
  2. Cost: The price of orthodontic care is prohibitive. Braces, the most common form of treatment, cost from $5,000 to $8,000.

And solve these problems they did. Solving the first problem was done by creating an innovative method for customers to begin the treatment that initially gave them two options. They could go directly to a Smile Direct Club location to have a 3D scan taken, or they could self-administer this themselves using a putty-like substance and then send this mold to Smile Direct Club. Recently, Smile Direct Club added a third option to serve their growing customer base — to have a scan completed at an affiliated dentist or orthodontist’s office. Each option gave Smile Direct Club everything needed to create a treatment plan.

The cost was also a problem solved. Smile Direct Club can offer their clear aligner teeth straightening system at just $1,950, less than half the braces’ minimum cost. And a big part of how they can keep the cost to a minimum while providing top-quality care? A partnership with HP to have 3D printing as central to the manufacturing process.

Smile House: Producing 40,000 Aligners per Day

Just outside of Nashville, in Antioch, Tennessee, 60 HP Multi Jet Fusion 3D printers work non-stop and are on a path to make 6.7 million molds for individual aligners by the end of the year. Each aligner represents a step on a person’s journey to having the smile of their dreams.

Once a customer has completed the initial process with Smile Direct Club, a dentist reviews their teeth and creates a treatment plan. The dentist sends the treatment plan to Smile House, which turns it into a pattern of voxels. Just as pixels instruct a 2D printer to print, voxels dictate the design in 3D printers. By digitizing this delicate process, 3D printing can mass-produce completely personalized items, specifically built to the exact specifications of each individual’s teeth.

Ramon Pastor, HP’s Head of 3D Printing Technology, Operation, and Metals, explains that it’s “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.”

For Smile Direct Club, it’s the “heartbeat of their manufacturing capability,” according to Dan Baker, the company’s Global Head of Supply Chain.

The molds themselves are created using an industrial-strength substance called Nylon-12. At just 0.003 inches thick, it’s perfect for capturing every detail of teeth. 3D printing enables this to be created. The molds are used to create a series of individualized aligners, which are then sent to each customer.

The customer uses the succession of aligners, wearing them for 22 or 10 hours per day depending on the treatment plan their doctor prescribed. Every one to two weeks, they will move onto a different aligner on their way to a perfect smile. On average, customers use 12-18 aligners, and the process generally takes 4-6 months, significantly shorter than the two years that braces can take.

Additional Benefits of 3D Printing

The benefits of integrating 3D printing into their manufacturing process extend beyond cost-saving. This method has many environmentally sustainable advantages as well. The print on demand system that is built into the process eliminates any surplus waste. The technology allows for the printing to be carried out locally using the digitized plans that can be reviewed and sent from anywhere in the world. This reduces shipping costs and the accompanying carbon footprint.

The partnership between HP and Smile Direct Club also opened up new opportunities for recycling. Once all molds are used, they are sent to HP, where they are turned into pellets to be reused, primarily by the automotive industry. That the aligners themselves can be recycled through at-home programs by consumers means Smile Direct Club expects to have recycled 238,000 lbs of 3D printed material by the end of the year.

Recently the partnership extended beyond the world of orthodontics. In response to the shortage of PPE during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Smile Direct Club began using their 60 printers to create protective plastic face shields for emergency responders. They were able to quickly transition into manufacturing these because HP provided the plans and designs.

Smile Direct Club has been shaking up the orthodontics industry since 2014. By partnering with HP and making 3D printing central to their manufacturing process, they promise to have much more to contribute in the years to come

Images Courtesy of DepositPhotos