|There is money in dentistry and it is for the most part a recession proof industry. However, times change for good or bad and the US based dental manufacturing industry suffered setbacks. Now 3D printing is bringing back to the US from China.|
May 15, 2017
One of the early applications for 3D printing/additive manufacturing (AM) was in the medical industry. As the machines and materials have improved, the use of these technologies expanded into almost every application. In medical, there are unique challenges as patient safety is paramount and government regulation and insurance issues structure what can and will be done. But medical and especially the dental industry is a perfect use of AM. Why? Because although AM has improved in capability and cost, it is still the most beneficial when used in customized products and short production runs.
Traditionally, dentistry has made good use of mainstream manufacturing methods. Many of the low-volume molding technologies, for instance, have been applied for years. That led to small labs cropping up everywhere so that at one point they numbered around 14,000 facilities across the country. In the last 20 years, small CNC machines have been employed in these labs and later in some dentist offices. Software for the manufacturing technologies used in dentistry evolved. Serious business enterprises developed.
There is money in dentistry and it is for the most part a recession-proof industry. However, times change for good or bad and the US-based dental manufacturing industry suffered setbacks.
What happened to the manufacturing in the US dental industry was in parallel with what impacted US manufacturing overall—overseas competition. The Chinese began to make serious inroads in the US dental market, making products cheaper and, in this case, better. The dental labs in the US went from 14,000 down to where there are only some 6500 today, with three labs closing daily.
But something changed within the last two years—technology. In this case, 3D printing has arrived. Now new labs have started to spring up and older institutions have not only been revived but are flourishing. Case in point is what has happened to Albensi Laboratories (Irwin, PA).
Albensi is typical. Started in a basement in 1973, Albensi began making crowns and other dental pieces. The business prospered quickly, growing out of the basement to a new facility with 25 on staff and revenues reaching $25 million a year. Emphasizing customer service and a quick turnaround, Albensi developed a loyal clientele. However, in 2002, Albensi began losing business to China. The company was impressed with the pieces coming out of China and in 2003 changed its business model. Albensi began outsourcing much of its work to China but this was only a temporary fix. In order to survive, Albensi would have to make products faster, cheaper, and better than the competition.
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