Additive manufacturing gives an edge to U.S. companies

By getting in on the ground floor of additive manufacturing more than a decade ago, Albensi Laboratories has not only survived when U.S. dental laboratories shrunk from 18,000 in the mid 2000s to fewer than 6,000 today, it has thrived.

Albensi Laboratories manufactures and sells custom dental prosthetics to U.S. dentists and prosthodontists, and additive manufacturing is an important step in the company’s production workflow.

Don Albensi Sr., CEO, owner and certified dental technician, says when he started the company 35 years ago, it required hands-on artistry. Today most products have a digital component, through CAD/CAM.

“We’re probably ahead of the curve in comparison to most laboratories in the United States,” he says.

Eight or 10 years ago, the laboratory had about 35 employees — senior technicians who had 15 to 20 years experience — and each person was responsible for 25 or 30 percent of the manufacturing process.

“Today, we have about 160 employees, and if you look across the room now, the average age here is 25,” he says. “Each process is streamlined to the point, where your particular part of the manufacturing requires five to 10 minutes.”

With an assembly line, you can teach somebody a small segment in a short time, which controls your labor costs, Albensi says.

A head start

This transition began about 15 years ago. 3-D printer manufacturer ExOne Co. approached Albensi Laboratories with an opportunity to work with MIT to 3-D print a portion of a crown that the company could then apply ceramic to, says Chris Halke, CAD/CAM supervisor at Albensi Laboratories.

“It was a pretty elaborate process — as you can imagine, being one of the first ones out,” he says.

It took as much time as the conventional way, but it did lay the foundation for Albensi Laboratories’ reliance today on scanning, 3-D designing and 3-D printing.

“In 15 years, our company has taken a complete turnaround, both in materials products and technology,” Halke says.

By getting involved early, Albensi Laboratories had a head start establishing processes before it affected a multi-hundred-unit-a-day production line, he says. This in turn allowed the company to expand at a faster rate.

In addition, other laboratories send restorations overseas where cheaper labor rates create less expensive crowns. Technology not only enables Albensi Laboratories to compete, it also provides a competitive advantage.

Albensi says rather than making a rubber impression, a digital scan can be done and sent within minutes. The finished product, which is less than 10 percent manual labor, can then be out of the lab within 48 hours, while competitors who outsource overseas need two weeks.

Ask the right questions

In additive manufacturing, there’s constant pressure to look for better, more affordable machines and the 3-D printing market has gotten more crowded.

“If it seems too good to be true, it is. You have to know what questions to ask to make sure you don’t get a machine that’s going to save you money in the short term, but cause problems in your entire manufacturing chain in the long term,” Halke says.

It’s critical to do your homework, Albensi says. If a manufacturer approaches you with new technology, you don’t want to agree to be their R&D buddy without realizing it.