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NEOLab, located in Andover in Massachusetts in the US, is the largest privately owned orthodontic laboratory in the country. With more than 45 years in business, more than 100 capable technicians and over 9,000 m2 of manufacturing space, we are able to serve a national clientele of orthodontists, paediatric dentists and general dentists. I joined the NEOLab team in 2001 and succeeded my father in leading the business. Together, we still run this family-owned organisation and work in tandem to make decisions that propel us into the future. Many of these decisions revolve around 3D workflows and process automation.
We were a very early adopter of a 3D workflow in the orthodontic space, and we have helped lead the transition to 3D printing and manufacturing since 2013. Today, NEOLab is home to 18 3D printers that produce more than 600 models per day.
A large proportion of our printer fleet are HeyGears models, including the UltraCraft A2D, five A2D Ortho printers, four of which also have the HiVE automation attachment, and three UltraCraft A3Ds (Fig. 1). Where there is a range of machines available for printing, those providing added benefits quickly stand out from the pack. For NEOLab, the most impactful factors of the HeyGears UltraCraft A3Ds are their capacity and their automation, both wrapped up neatly in a printer with a compact footprint.
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. However, for NEOLab, the capacity can much more readily be measured in the number of models produced. Because of the short printing times and large build platforms, each A3D can run consistently throughout the day. Print jobs typically finish within 1 hour and can be queued in a chain to allow for a continuous flow of models from each machine. It is common for each of our A3Ds to produce around 100 models per day.
Whereas capacity plays a large role, it is the automated nature of HeyGears machines that provides the most obvious impact at each point of our production processes. Where a normal production workflow would require a print technician to manually build print trays, empty and refill machines, and queue subsequent jobs, using a HeyGears workflow allows for all steps to be completed automatically (Fig. 2).
The benefits of automation
Clear retainers and aligners make up a considerable proportion of the appliances we fabricate every day. These two appliance types require physical models to be printed for fabrication and traditionally have involved a labour-intensive process. 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. To sum it up, traditional 3D printing is a process that requires constant supervision.
To combat this drain on human and time resources, NEOLab employs the HeyGears workflow to introduce automation wherever 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 jobs can be queued to run consecutively, optimising the technician time rather than having to restart the process at the end of each job. The next job in line will simply start when the job before it has finished (Fig. 3).
In the event that a higher priority file arrives, jobs can be easily rearranged with the rush order feature in the software, allowing the technician to reprioritise on the go. This automation ensures that time saved by technicians in preparing and delegating jobs ahead of time will never be lost when an inevitable rush order comes through the laboratory. This is an important point: automating 3D printing does not massively change your process; it simply streamlines it. Rush orders are an everyday occurrence in the laboratory, and this software automation allows us to work around them while still working more efficiently.
Each A3D holds enough resin to avoid having to refill between jobs, and when using the companion UltraCraft resin station (with a holding capacity of 24 l, 6 l per machine), up to four A3D printers can be fed continuously without the need for constant manual input. Finally, model removal and tray reset are automated. Without a doubt, these are some of the most time-saving automations we have found in 3D printing (Fig. 4). In a traditional 3D workflow, a technician would be required to manually remove printed models from the build platform and clean the plate before a new job could be started. With HeyGears printers, an automatic arm attachment removes the plate, clears the models and resets the plate for the next 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. As soon as the plate is back in place, the software begins the next job in the queue line, allowing printers to continuously run unattended, even in off-duty hours. As any laboratory owner knows, technician time is a limited resource, and the ability to run the same number of jobs we do during the day even when the doors are closed for the night has been a massive advantage to our print capacity.
Opportunities of automation
The savings enabled by HeyGears automations have been so significant that they have allowed for new product lines to emerge. In late 2021, we began to offer an Essix solution that prints models, fabricates clear retainers and sends them for return shipping direct to patients in only 24 hours from when the prescription is received. This has been a successful solution for debonding procedures, not only for NEOLab but for many dentists and patients as well, and it simply would not have been possible without the HeyGears machines. With shorter print times than many competitor machines on each job, we can get to work on cases quickly, which is especially critical for retainers with such a short turnaround time. Often, we have between 6 and 8 hours to complete these 24-hour Essix cases. With other printers, we wouldn’t even have models fully printed in that window. In addition, because these cases have to be expedited through the print room, the ability of our technicians to jump the print line with a 24-hour Essix case, without losing all their other jobs, is a huge advantage. The jobs seamlessly reorder and pick up once the rush is finished. Finally, because we can automate print jobs, any 24-hour Essix cases we receive at the end of the day can be prepared and delegated to printers to run all night. By the time we arrive in the morning, we have a massive jump start on our workload for the day (Fig 5).
Although we built this product line with HeyGears A2D models, the emergence of the A3D printers has made our workflow even more efficient. The 24-hour Essix is one of NEOLab’s quickest growing solutions, thanks in large part to the automation made available by HeyGears.
Automation rules the future of 3D printing
One of HeyGears’ greatest strengths is its insight into the automation of repetitive tasks (Fig. 6). At NEOLab, we started our journey to automation by trying to eliminate the number of mouse clicks required each day in our digital design department. Having more than 20 technicians completing the same processes over and over each day, the number of clicks and scrolls to opposite sides of the screens would quickly add up to many thousands during each shift. Although each one of these may take only half a second or less in real time, when they were compiled and eliminated from the workflow, we saved hours in technician time every single day. This was our first proof of concept for automation, and HeyGears has built its printers and workflows on the same foundation.
I believe that the world of 3D printing will continue to see more and more integrated automations. STL file receipt is being improved to remove manual inputs and improve quality, and digital design software is continually being reanalysed and infused with more artificial intelligence 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. Within a decade, we may not even recognise what used to be basic, everyday processes because they have been so removed from workflows by automations.
Automation has become foundational to process development at NEOLab, and we integrate it whenever 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. Automation has changed the way our business runs, and you would be hard-pressed to find an easier place to jump in than with a HeyGears UltraCraft A3D.
This article was published in 3D printing—international magazine of dental printing technology vol. 3, issue 1/2023.