LightForce Orthodontics is a dental device designing and manufacturing company founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2015. The company serves as an engineering aide to orthodontists across North America by designing and manufacturing 3D printed orthodontic treatment devices. Their mission is to revolutionize dentistry with their patient-specific dental braces.
This case study sheds light on how LightForce has spearheaded a new era in orthodontics, leveraging the design capabilities of nTopology’s design software.
“The models are better, we save a tremendous amount of time on the design process, and we’re able to bring new people up to speed very quickly.”Amos Benninga, VP of Engineering at LightForce Orthodontics
Eighty-five percent of patients need wire braces to straighten their teeth. To hold the wire, dentists or orthodontists need to attach brackets (small, square handles) to the front of the teeth. Installing each bracket by hand takes a long time and often results in immense patient discomfort.
LightForce wanted to provide custom-designed, 3D printed orthodontic treatments to help eliminate the challenges of manual bonding and shorten the treatment times. The idea was to create a portal that would provide a fully digital workflow so orthodontists could design fully custom treatment solutions for their patients.
The custom brace is placed within a custom tray, and it can be directly attached to the patient’s teeth using dental cement. After light-curing the adhesive, the orthodontist can remove the tray with the braces accurately positioned over the patient’s teeth.
Since the brackets are custom-made to fit the 3D contour of each tooth, orthodontists do not have to spend time bending wires as they would conventionally. The new procedure significantly reduces the time a patient needs to sit in the dentist’s chair from 1.5 hours to 30 minutes.
While the idea of creating custom brackets that fit the contour of each tooth of the patient may seem straightforward, executing it without errors in a short amount of time is a significant challenge. The challenge lies in the design phase.
Using legacy design software, it used to take as long as 10 hours of design to create a brace and a dental tray that attaches to 20 differently contoured teeth in a patient.
In this situation, scaling up engineering and manufacturing operations meant that time had to be cut down wherever possible. Three areas presented significant challenges in this regard:
To achieve this, the engineers of LightForce turned to nTopology’s engineering design software. Leveraging nTopology’s design automation capabilities, the engineering team of LightForce built the back end of their product on the software. nTopology is used to generate both the design of the braces and the dental tray that orthodontists use to install them.
Orthodontists who use LightForce’s platform obtain intraoral scans of their patient’s teeth and upload them to a secure cloud server. On the back end, nTopology generates multiple versions of bracket designs based on each tooth. Previously, LightForce engineers had to manually optimize each of these designs, which drastically increased the engineering time.
“This is when the automated workflows really shine, potentially saving engineering departments hundreds of hours and providing more consistent product designs as well. It was a game-changer for our company.”Amos Benninga, VP of Engineering at LightForce Orthodontics
Since the critical limiting step in the production of custom-made braces was the designing process, it was crucial to reduce the design time to scale up LightForce’s manufacturing operations. Just by shifting from the legacy software to nTopology, LightForce reduced its manual design time from 10 hours to 3.
To bring down this design time even further, the engineers of LightForce leveraged design automation. nTopology’s Command Line Interface (nTopCL) feature effectively makes manual operations in the design workflow unnecessary. nTopCL enables you to run nTopology workflows in a headless, programmatic environment using scripts. Such automated processes have now helped the engineers of LightForce to fully automate the design step and reduce the design and validation time to a mere 10 minutes.
A significant challenge that LightForce had noted with the CAD software they used previously was the inability to track the progress of their multi-step design work. As a result, users had no way of knowing which steps they had already completed. To add to this issue, users had to start afresh if they made an inadvertent error in the design workflow. These issues led to an exaggerated design time and hence, hampered the productivity of LightForce’s engineers.
nTopology provides visibility into each step of the design workflow, allowing users to track the design parameters they used in different iterations of the process. It further provides its users the opportunity to identify errors at any stage and reuse previously designed workflows. Error handling and reusable workflows ensure that LightForce engineers do not have to waste their time performing endless repetitive tasks. Instead, they can focus on performing focused reiterations and optimization to yield failure-proof and unbreakable product designs.
Training new employees on using a new and advanced software platform can often prove tricky, tedious, and time-consuming. LightForce identified this challenge early on in its journey when using legacy CAD software to design custom braces. They found it hard to train people to learn how to use their previous CAD software without errors.
“Before, we were using a CAD tool that was not prescriptive and allowed freeform operations. It was more difficult to find people able to learn the process, which, for a growing company like ours, was becoming a real obstacle.”Amos Benninga, VP of Engineering at LightForce Orthodontics
The prescriptive and intuitive nature of nTopology makes it possible for inexperienced team members to swiftly pick up the nuances of the software and use it to its full potential. Its reusable workflows further make it quite trainee-friendly, allowing any technician to reuse a workflow that someone else designed comfortably. Thus, LightForce was able to quickly train its staff to use nTopology to the company’s benefit.
Customization of orthodontic and medical devices can have a significant positive impact on a patient’s treatment. This is why the engineers of LightForce are constantly trying to improve the output of the patient-specific dental brackets project.
The most recent addition to the project has been the nTopCL feature which has helped automate the design process even further and significantly reduce design time. The hope is that with similar updates to the platform in the future, LightForce and nTopology will continue to revolutionize patient-specific design and treatment for orthodontists around the world.
This article was first published on the nTopology blog.