Automation rules the future of 3D printing

NEOLab is located in Andover, Massachusetts, the US. It is the largest privately-owned orthodontic laboratory in the nation. More than 45 years of experience, over 100 skilled technicians and more than 9,000 square meters make NEOLab the largest privately owned orthodontic laboratory in the country.2 We are able, with our manufacturing space, to service a nationwide clientele that includes orthodontists as well as paediatric and general dentists. I joined NEOLab in 2001, and my father succeeded me as the leader of the business. We still work together to run this family-owned business and make decisions which propel us forward. These decisions are often based on 3D workflows or process automation.

Fig. 2: UltraCraft A3D (HeyGears) auto printed part collection.

Fig. UltraCraft (HeyGears), auto-printed part collection.

We were early adopters of 3D workflows in the orthodontic industry, and have been leading the transition to 3D manufacturing and printing since 2013. NEOLab has 18 3D printers, which produce over 600 models a day.

A large portion of our fleet is HeyGears printers. This includes the UltraCraft A2D and five A2D Ortho Printers, of which four also include the HiVE automation accessory, as well as three UltraCraft A3Ds. 1). When there are a variety of printers available, those that offer added benefits stand out quickly. The HeyGears A3Ds have the greatest impact on NEOLab because of their high capacity and automation. Both are neatly packaged in a printer that has a small footprint.

Key Savings

Certainly, capacity can be measured in a physical sense—each A3D is able to hold between 1 and 3 l of resin, and this volume helps in reducing the technician time required for refilling machines. NEOLab’s capacity is measured by the number of produced models. A3D machines can be used continuously throughout the day due to their large platforms and short print times. Print jobs are usually completed within an hour. They can also be queued up in a line to ensure a constant flow of models. Each of our A3Ds can produce up to 100 models per day.

The automated nature of HeyGears equipment is what has the biggest impact at every point in our production processes. Whereas a standard production workflow would require that a print tech build print trays manually, empty and fill machines and queue the next jobs, a HeyGears workflow can complete all steps automatically. 2).

Fig. 3: A NEOLab print technician using HeyGears Cloud preprocessing.

Fig. 3: A NEOLab print technician using HeyGears Cloud preprocessing.

Automated systems have many advantages

We manufacture a large number of appliances every day, including clear retainers and aligners. The fabrication of these two types of appliances has traditionally been a labor-intensive task that required physical models. File preprocessing requires each printer to be loaded through individual and dedicated software, whereas equipment requires technician time to refill resin, monitor 3D printing, and clear and clean the tray after each job—all before postprocessing can even begin. In summary, 3D printing traditionally is a process which requires constant monitoring.

NEOLab has implemented the HeyGears Workflow to automate as much as possible. Using HeyGears Cloud, technicians are able to automatically generate print trays from uploaded STL files, drastically reducing the time required to organise files for efficient printing, and can quickly assign prepared print jobs to individual printers—from the same portal. Plus, several print job queues can be run in parallel, saving the technician’s time and avoiding the need to restart at the end each job. The next job will start automatically when the previous job has finished. 3).

If a more urgent file is received, the technician can easily rearrange the jobs using the rush order function in the software. The automation will ensure that the time technicians have saved in delegating and preparing jobs ahead of schedule won’t be wasted when a rush order is inevitable. It is important to note that automating 3D printers does not drastically change the process, but streamlines it. This software automation helps us work more efficiently while still addressing rush orders.

Each A3D contains enough resin so that it does not need to be refilled between jobs. Using the UltraCraft station (with its holding capacity of 6 l for each machine and 24 l total), four A3Ds can be continuously fed without having to constantly input manual data. Finally, tray reset and model removal are automated. These are without a doubt some of the time-saving automatons that we have seen in 3D Printing (Fig. 4). In a 3D workflow that is based on a more traditional workflow, a technician must manually remove the printed models and clean the build plate before starting a new project. HeyGears printers use an automatic arm to remove the plate and clear the models. The plate is then reset for the next print job. Models are gathered in a collection bin that makes the post-processing of many jobs at once a simple task—especially when the models can be removed while the printer continues to run. Once the plate is re-installed, the software starts the next queued job. Printers can run uninterrupted, even when off duty. It is well known to any laboratory owner that technician time is a precious resource. The ability to continue printing the same number jobs as we do during normal working hours even when our doors are closed at night has proven to be a huge advantage.

Fig. 4: Full workflow of the UltraCraft A3D printer and Resin Station.

Fig. Figure 4: The full workflow of the UltraCraft A3D and Resin station.

Fig. 5: Twenty-four-hour Essix solution models printed on the HeyGears UltraCraft A3D printer.

Fig. Figure 5. Twenty-four hour Essix solutions models printed on HeyGears UltraCraft 3D printer.

Automated opportunities

HeyGears’ automations allowed new product lines to be developed. Essix, a solution we started offering in 2021, prints models and fabricates clear retentions, then sends them back to the patient within 24 hours after receiving prescriptions. This solution has worked well for both NEOLab and many other dentists, as it was impossible without HeyGears. Because the machines have shorter print times, we are able to get started on our cases faster. This is particularly important for retainers, since they require such a quick turnaround. Essix cases are usually completed in 6-8 hours. With other printers, we wouldn’t even have models fully printed in that window. The ability of our technicians, who have other jobs to do, to skip the print line and jump to the front with an Essix 24-hour case is also a big advantage. Once the rush has ended, jobs are seamlessly reordered and picked up. We can also automate printing jobs so that any 24-hour Essix orders we receive can be sent to printers for them to print all night. When we arrive at work in the morning, our day’s workload is already well underway (Fig. 5).

The A3D printers have made our workflow more efficient, even though we started with HeyGears A2D. The 24-hour Essix is one of NEOLab’s quickest growing solutions, thanks in large part to the automation made available by HeyGears.

Fig. 6: Automated arm on the HeyGears UltraCraft A3D printer.

Fig. Fig. 6: Automated arms on the HeyGears UltraCraft A3D print.

Automated 3D printing is the future

One of HeyGears’ greatest strengths is its insight into the automation of repetitive tasks (Fig. 6). We began our journey towards automation at NEOLab by trying to reduce the number of clicks each day required in our digital design departments. With more than twenty technicians performing the same tasks over and over again each day, thousands of clicks or scrolls on opposite sides of screens were made during each shift. Even though each of these processes may only take a fraction of a second in real-time, once they were compiled, and then eliminated from the workflow we saved technicians hours every day. HeyGears’ printers and workflows are built on the same foundation as this first proof-of-concept for automation.

I think that 3D printing is going to continue to be a world where more automation is being integrated. STL file reception is improved to remove the need for manual input and to improve quality. Also, digital design software continues to be analyzed and is infused with artificial intelligence in order to speed up processes. Whereas HeyGears has already removed much of the manual labour of physical 3D printing, I think we will continue to see advancements—in software, when it comes to nesting and build platform design; in hardware, with technicians being able to step further back from actively monitoring machines; and in material resources, by being able to cut out fabrication entirely with direct printing. In a decade’s time, automation may remove from the workflows what was once a basic, everyday process.

NEOLab has made automation a core part of its process development. We integrate it wherever possible. Partnering with HeyGears has helped to quickly bring significant automations into our everyday work without the development time required for other solutions—it is ready to go right from the start. You would be hard-pressed not to see a change in the way that our business operates with a HeyGears UltraCraft A3D.

3D printing
Clear Aligners
Dental laboratory
Digital workflows in dentistry

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