At the brightly lit “Smile House” manufacturing facility in Antioch, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville, SmileDirectClub employees in purple masks, gloves, and other safety gear work amid the industrial hum of an unconventional production process. The facility is the heart of an innovative approach to manufacturing that has delivered affordable orthodontic treatment and straighter bites to more than a million customers in a major disruption to the 120-year-old, $12 billion orthodontics industry.
In three pristine rooms, much of the action happens within 60 state-of-the-art HP Multi Jet Fusion 3D printers, which follow detailed plans to produce customized molds. Each mold is as unique as the smile on your face and custom made for each customer’s teeth. The molds will be used to shape SmileDirectClub’s signature clear plastic aligners, which are then shipped directly to consumers.
3D printing systems have the potential to evolve manufacturing from mass production of identical products to “mass personalization” of unique, customized products at scale, when and where they are needed, says Ramon Pastor, head of 3D printing technology, operations, and Metals at HP. “It is 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,” he says.
Expanding access and affordability
According to SmileDirectClub, although 80% of Americans could benefit from orthodontic care, just 1% get it, primarily because of cost, among other barriers. Sixty percent of US counties don’t have an orthodontist.
Removing those barriers is a major goal for SmileDirectClub. Braces, the classic strategy, typically cost $5,000 to $8,000, says Dan Baker, SmileDirectClub’s global head of supply chain. SmileDirectClub’s Clear Aligner therapy offers straighter teeth at less than half of that cost: $1,950.
HP’s 3D-printing solutions create a significant part of those savings, allowing SmileDirectClub to make products more efficiently with lower-cost materials. In collaboration with HP, the company is advancing a new era of digital manufacturing that’s fast, highly personalized, and more sustainable than ever before — shortening supply chains, producing less waste than traditional manufacturing, and maximizing recyclability.
At its current facility in Antioch, SmileDirectClub’s 60 HP Multi Jet Fusion printers work around the clock to produce millions of the molds used to create their aligners each year, Baker says. The partnership is set to grow next summer with a new facility in Columbia, Tennessee, that will significantly expand SmileDirectClub’s fleet of HP’s Mutli Jet Fusion printers and create 600 new jobs. The new facility in Columbia is expected to match the current production level — which totals 40,000 aligners a day.
“The heartbeat of our manufacturing capability is 3D printing,” he says.
The steps along the smile journey
There are several ways for customers to begin their “smile journey,” Baker says. Those include a visit to one of the company’s SmileShops or to the customer’s Partner Network dental provider to get images taken. If they prefer, or if local SmileShops are closed because of the pandemic, customers can order a doctor-prescribed impression kit to complete at home, using a putty-like material to take an imprint of their teeth that they then mail back to the company along with other information.
Regardless of how they get started, technology allows customers to see exactly what their progress will look like via specialized 3D-imaging software, Baker says. “We’re able to show you how your smile is likely to progress from where you are today to the smile that you’ve always dreamed of.”
Next, a treatment plan is developed for review and approval by the customer’s treating dentist. Once the customer has signed up, individualized plans get sent to the facility in Antioch, where HP’s Multi Jet Fusion 3D printing systems produce precise, custom molds that are tailored to each customer and used to shape clear plastic aligners.
The 3D printers follow a set of personalized instructions that specify the precise shape of a mold in a pattern of voxels, which are the 3D equivalent of pixels. They create each mold by squirting out Nylon 12, an industrial-strength material, in layers only 0.003 inches thick, to create precise shapes and contours. The mold is then used to produce the aligners, which are sent to the customer.
Each customer receives an average of 12 to 18 sets of aligners, which they progress through over the course of their treatment, moving on to a new set every one to two weeks. Treatment plans, which specify 22-hour or nighttime only wear, average four to ten months, respectively, far shorter than the two years that are typically required for braces. Customers have regular virtual check-ins with their doctor throughout treatment via the company’s teledentistry platform — saving time and making care more accessible to people who don’t live near an orthodontist. At completion, customers have the option to order a retainer to maintain their new smile.
Manufacturing for a market of one, with sustainability built in
One major advantage of 3D printing for orthodontia is the ability to create patient-specific solutions in unique geometries, eliminating the cost of extra tools for shaping each product, says Brandon Ribic, technology director of America Makes, a manufacturing innovation institute established by the US Department of Defense as a public-private partnership.
“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,” Ribic says.
SmileDirectClub says it is on track to make 6.7 million individual 3D-printed molds by the end of the year.
3D printing also reduces the environmental footprint of the manufacturing process in multiple ways, says HP’s Pastor. In traditional manufacturing supply chains, products are made in one place and then shipped all over the world.
With 3D printing, digital files are sent to facilities to be printed locally, saving energy and lowering shipping costs. Instead of mass producing parts and products, 3D printing also happens on demand, producing only as much as customers ask for, which reduces waste.
And, the process creates more opportunities for recycling, keeping the material in use instead of in the landfill. SmileDirectClub sends the molds to HP, where they get chopped into pellets for reuse, primarily in the automotive industry. Consumers can recycle the clear plastic aligners themselves just like plastic bottles.
By the year’s end, SmileDirectClub expects to have recycled 108 metric tons, or 238,000 pounds, of 3D-printed parts — the equivalent of about 60 passenger cars.
The power of mass personalization
Ultimately, the partnership between HP and SmileDirectClub, which began formally in 2019, is collaborative, Baker says. SmileDirectClub relies on HP technology while also helping inform and influence how the technology evolves. For example, his team helped find a way to get printer fuse bulbs to last eight times longer. That lengthened the time that machines could operate before a bulb failed — a periodic event that forces a print failure and wastes materials.
The collaborative spirit kicked into gear in unexpected ways earlier this year when SmileDirectClub began using its fleet of HP 3D printers to help fill a shortfall of face shields for first responders. HP provided print files and design options to get that production going. “They were a really important partner as we repurposed and pivoted due to the pandemic,” Baker says.
The ability to pivot in creative ways suggests a productive future, he adds. “It’s a big scale operation that we have, and it’s really important to us that we’ve been able to partner with HP and be at the cutting edge of that technology and collaboration with them.”