Process Insights

High-Performance Machining Capabilities: Doctor Recommended, Operator Approved

Ultradent is filled with smiling faces, and they’re not just advertisements for the company’s dental care products. Located on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, Utah, Ultradent has become an international leader in dental manufacturing with a rich history of innovation and quality. Founder and CEO Dr. Dan Fischer attributes most of the company’s success to five core values: integrity, quality, hard work, innovation and care.

“I’ve never experienced a work environment quite like this,” says Mike Krumpelmann, Ultradent R&D engineering machinist/CNC programmer. “Dr. Fischer’s company values aren’t just rhetoric, but a conduit for open discussions and creativity. These values are deeply rooted and can be seen in the quality of the products we produce.”

A key to Ultradent’s success has been the establishment of an internal mold shop for their dental manufacturing. This shop handles high-performance machining and works hand-in-hand with the company’s R&D engineering group, developing prototypes internally and doing manufacturing research and development with turnaround times as short as two days.

“Prior to the establishment of an internal mold shop, we utilized external resources for development of our R&D prototypes,” says Krumpelmann. “The process was expensive, slow and unsecure for proprietary product concepts. By investing in a set of high-performance machining centers, we're gaining flexibility in our dental manufacturing and getting products out into the market faster than ever.”

A History of Innovation

Over three decades ago, a young and aspiring Dr. Fischer established Ultradent in the basement of his house with the assistance of his family. Dissatisfied with many of the dental products available to him, Fischer worked tireless evenings and weekends researching and developing new and improved oral care products.

Fischer’s first breakthrough came in 1979 with the development of a successful hemostatic solution called Astringedent®. This set the pace for a succession of products that would exceed expectations in the dental manufacturing industry.

Within a 12-year period, Ultradent grew from an operation based out of a home to a 220,000-square-foot facility. Today the company has subsidiaries in countries across the world, including Germany, Italy, Brazil and Japan. Ultradent now manufactures and packages more than 500 materials, devices and instruments used worldwide by dentists, group practices, dental and veterinary labs, government agencies and universities.

Fischer continues to play an active role in the company while also lecturing, developing articles about state-of-the-art dentistry and connecting with patients at his daughter’s dental practice.

“Dr. Fischer is a very hands-on type of guy who likes to be involved in every step of the manufacturing research and development process,” says Krumpelmann. “I speak with him in person two or three times a day regarding his latest ideas, our design concepts and overall project status. He’s very open to feedback from designers and engineers, which has been conducive to the development of new products.

“There’s no red tape in our manufacturing research and development process. Engineers, programmers and machinists work together seamlessly in the development of new products, reducing the opportunity for errors and increasing the understanding of design intent. Even the smallest over-looked details can be hammered out on the shop floor, no questions asked.”

Manufacturing Research and Development

“In the dental care market, products have to stand out from the competition in terms of quality, design and innovation,” says Ed Brown, Ultradent’s machine shop manager. “For this reason, manufacturing research and development has become critical to this business.”

In 2003, Ultradent invested in a Makino S56 to gain full control of their R&D process with high-performance machining capabilities that previously required outsourcing to perform. The machine was purchased with several upgrades, including a 20,000-rpm spindle, 5th-axis rotary table and a laser tool-length measurement system.

“Outsourcing was a severe bottleneck in our manufacturing research and development process in which we endured lengthy lead-times, design discrepancies and discomfort around the security of our intellectual property,” says Krumpelmann. “We were tied down, plain and simple. The S56 allowed us to remove these constraints and put all of our focus on innovation.”

“The configuration of our S56 has been ideal for developing aluminum prototypes with complex geometries,” says Brown. “Its high speeds and feeds combined with Makino’s SGI control and 5-axis capabilities produce extremely smooth surface contours with no signs of mismatched tool blends. We can take a mold hot out of the machine without any handwork, deliver it to the injection facility and have finished silicone parts in a day.”

An additional benefit to their investment in the S56 is the ability to test prototypes on the spot to find and fix any potential design errors.

“Design errors are almost inevitable in research and development, and if you aren’t experiencing any, then you’re not trying anything new,” says Krumpelmann. “By having a dedicated R&D machining center, we’re able to dramatically reduce design lead-times while preventing costly failures from occurring in the production process.”

One of the first prototypes created on the S56 was Ultradent’s Valo product, an LED light wand capable of curing underlying resin cements. Using the same tooling, programming, speeds and feeds as the company’s previous machinery, the S56 produced a noticeably better surface finish and smoother contours without any manual finishing labor.

“This high-performance machining investment has given us a higher degree of security, flexibility and efficiency than ever before,” says Krumpelmann. “Just the other day, Dr. Fischer called me about a new screw-style locking mechanism for an advanced version of our Valo light wand. That same day we designed and developed a prototype and had it shipped to him in Texas within 24 hours. This is a testament to the company’s fluid operations and the S56’s ability to get new designs done quickly without sacrificing quality.”

Adding Capacity and Versatility

The differences Ultradent observed between the S56 and other previous machines led to additional Makino investments in 2009, including a second S56, an SP43 wire EDM and an a61 horizontal machining center with 4th-axis NC rotary table with pallet changer.

“The molds we’ve developed on our first S56 feature more complex geometries than what any of our previous machines could produce,” says Krumpelmann. “In order to add capacity, we needed a new set of machines that could match this performance while providing additional flexibility. Our experience has taught us that you get what you pay for, which is exactly why we selected Makino.”

One recent application performed on the SP43 was an endo file gauge used to check cleaning files used during root-canal operations. While the product features a simple flat-metal-plate design, the gauging slots range in size from 1/16 inch to 0.005 inch with a one-degree taper.

“We’re building products that go on or within your tooth, so we’re dealing with small, delicate workpieces,” says Krumpelmann. “The SP43 allows us to machine tight hole location tolerances within plus or minus 0.0001 inch and finishing operations that require no hand finishing. The accuracy is so precise, we’ve reached the maximum measurement capabilities of our CMM.”

To facilitate greater accuracy in part setups, Ultradent also produces several custom fixtures using their a61 horizontal machining center. Designed in the same CAD software used for their part and mold designs, this fixturing device eliminates the need to dial in datum points, as they are already programmed into the CAD software.

“It’s not uncommon for a process to be stopped mid-run to take care of a higher priority application, resulting in additional setups that could potentially cause inaccuracies if not re-fixtured properly,” says Brown. “With the a61, we’re able to produce fixturing systems with location and hole roundness tolerances of plus or minus 0.0001 inch, giving us part positioning repeatability of plus or minus 0.0001 inch or less. This allows our operators to spend less time on setups and removes any doubt as to whether our parts are positioned correctly.”

Ultradent has designed fixtures for both their vertical machining centers as well as the tombstones used on their a61. Transfers between vertical and horizontal machining centers are simple, reliable and can be performed in a matter of minutes. The shop is currently engineering a way to transfer fixtures between the milling machines and the SP43 as well.

From Shop to Market

“The faster our products hit the market, the more opportunities we have to make a profit,” says Brown. “Because dental products are constantly improving, it’s critical that we get current technologies out as soon as possible and beat the competition to the market. This has been a major factor in the ROI of our Makino machines, which run continuously two shifts a day and oftentimes unattended over nights and weekends.”

Using their custom-designed tombstone fixtures, Ultradent is able to produce nearly 1,000 parts each week on the a61. One of the machine’s primary applications has been an aluminum cover plate for the Valo light wand. Each run accommodates 32 parts and can be produced in less than four hours, a 60 percent cycle-time reduction compared to their previous CNC machines.

“The finishing capabilities of the a61 provide additional increases in productivity, allowing us to eliminate a large amount of our previous EDM work,” says Krumpelmann. “A mold insert developed for our endo file packaging was previously produced exclusively by EDM, requiring a week and a half of processing. Today we machine that same mold insert in just five days using the a61 with only side-wall finishing performed using the SP43.”

The mold shop’s productivity also impacts other departments of the company’s product development. During the development of a new type of toothbrush bristles, a request came through for a toothbrush handle mold for internal bristle testing. The company was able to produce the mold over three nights on the a61 and another day on Ram EDM for bristle slot finishing. Design, testing, production and delivery were complete in less than two weeks—a faster, more cost-efficient solution than purchasing from an outside vendor.

Development for the Future

Ultradent is committed to its vision, mission and core values. By continuously improving its high-performance machining capabilities, the company is meeting its goal for improved human oral health care throughout the world.

“Our management maintains a high level of commitment to our dental manufacturing capabilities through training programs, seminars and investments in high-performance machine tools" says Krumpelmann. "Since purchasing the Makinos, our product development process has gained greater flexibility, higher quality and a faster time to market than ever before. The products we produce are proof that with integrity, quality, hard work, innovation and care, we can continue to lead the industry in top-quality dental care products."

Salt Lake City, Utah
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