In restorative dentistry, every product is Lot Size 1. For Glidewell, producing tens of thousands of patient-specific devices such as crowns, bridges or dentures each week requires intensive engineering efforts. Glidewell’s investments in automation and cloud-connected systems have culminated in what is known as Intelligent Manufacturing (IM), allowing the company to maintain its industry-leading market share.
“We do business with some 60,000 dentists each year, or nearly 50% of all practicing dentists in the U.S.,” said David Leeson, vice president of Engineering at Glidewell. Flexible automation provides a decisive advantage in an industry that still relies heavily on skilled artisans using time-consuming manual processes.
Dentists either mail physical impressions to Glidewell or upload 3D digital impression images to the company’s proprietary material requirements planning (MRP) digital platform, CloudPoint®, built on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud. A proprietary AI technology then generates a custom prosthetic design to match the impression and turns the CAD file of each patient-specific restoration into a unique project.
Glidewell IM assigns a case with the prescribed characteristics, such as tooth size, shade and thickness, and selects a zirconia milling blank of suitable size, shape and color. A robot transfers the zirconia blank to a milling tower for detailed anatomical shaping, after which the restoration undergoes glazing for a more natural surface appearance. Barcode scanners track the case throughout the process, and if an operator removes the case for any reason, a vision application follows the technician and case.
“To make this a closed-loop process, optical scanners generate a 3D geometry of the finished product, and an algorithm compares it to the design file. The dental restoration must be within 50 μm to pass quality inspection — and most often, it’s within 20 μm,” said Kunal Patil, automation manager at Glidewell. “Performing just the glazing by hand could create variances of up to 150 μm. PC-based automation helps us achieve much higher precision.”
However, it was not always this way. Jim Glidewell founded the company in his apartment in 1970 using traditional, hand-fabrication techniques. As his number of dentist customers grew, so too did his need for additional labor and supporting services, giving rise over the years to a highly diverse and self-sufficient manufacturing chain.
Today the Irvine, California-based company produces everything from restorative materials to final restorations and other medical devices and employs more than 5,200 Glidewell professionals around the globe. Following dentistry’s CAD revolution in the early 2000s, Glidewell evolved quickly to its current highly automated, cloud-based production.
“Now we are creating heavily connected systems and leveraging data from the more than 10 million individual patient designs we store in the cloud,” Leeson adds. “Our vision is to keep extending up and down the value chain to improve our current products and create new ones.” This vision is most fully realized in the Glidewell IM workflow, despite technological and environmental challenges.