Small-Batch Shop Embraces Automation – and Growth

Aug. 4, 2022
A custom manufacturer of dental and medical components adopted automated machining to increase throughput, and the result is not only higher uptime and improved repeatability – but also more market share.

Meeting rising levels of demand in a consistent, cost-effective manner can be a complicated problem for a machine shop. The operations group at Ultradent Products Inc. in South Jordan, Utah, is a developer and manufacturer of high-tech dental materials and devices, and in 2017 it sought to increase production of its Valo curing light, used by dental clinicians to cure dental composites, sealants, and various other chemistries.

Ultradent’s curing lights are complex pieces of equipment that require numerous holes, finishes, and different geometries – and required almost 50 minutes and three complex machining operations to produce one curing light housing.

The original manufacturing process involved hand-loading the raw materials and finished parts; a cumbersome and slow-moving process for a company that had only had three employees on the shop floor per shift. The manufacturing set-up resulted in an occasional spindle crash, hindering operations and output. “We needed more reliability and faster cycle times,” senior CAD/CAM programmer Ryan Umpleby said.

Moreover, occasionally Ultradent had to subcontract work to other machine shops to meet rising demand. Not only was that an additional cost, but Ultradent also had to perform additional operations after the fact to remove imperfections left by the subcontractor.

“We never end up fully outsourcing the part because their costs are too high, or they can’t match our quality,” Umpleby explained.

Ultradent needed to reduce the part's cycle time while simultaneously increasing repeatability. So, it approached Methods Machine Tools' sales engineer David Snow. They exchanged project requirements, and Ultradent decided to move forward with two customized automation cells, each with an advanced RoboDrill, a FANUC robotic arm, and raw stock storage. Methods designed the system to hold 60 blanks – uniform pieces of raw material ready for machining.

Embracing automation

At first, implementing a custom automation cell was a hard sell. Not everyone at Ultradent believed a smaller machine could outperform a larger horizontal machining center, one of the other options the company was considering. “This small RoboDrill with a robot arm was a little intimidating,” Umpleby said. “It’s smaller than a horizontal, it’s automated, and it’s got a robot.”

“Anytime you introduce something new, people can be hesitant,” according to Ultradent engineering manager Kevin Marett.

There also was some concern at Ultradent about the learning curve associated with robotics and automation. Umpleby was tasked with programming the first automation cell, and at the time he was new to CNC machining.

Umpleby accessed Methods’ support network of application, automation integration, and installation experts. With that support team providing back-up and guidance on demand, Umpleby got the cell up and running.

“That was kind of an intimating task for me,” Umpleby said. “Between the help of a couple key people at Ultradent and all the support I needed from Methods, we were able to pull together a fantastic, automated machining cell.” It provided actionable data points and precise results, and it cut in half the cycle time for a curing light housing – from about 45 minutes down to a 21-minute average.

Support on speed dial

With 24/7 operations underway, Ultradent increased its throughput almost threefold while reducing machining costs associated with third-party processing. “With the help from everybody at Methods, we were able to pull together and were able to come up with fast solutions,” Umpleby said.

While the second RoboDrill automation cell was getting the job done on time and under budget, Ultradent needed to expand the system.

The company worked with Methods to design a larger, third cell that boosted the blank capacity from 60 to 200. “David Snow and the rest of the [Methods] guys have done the best to meet that demand,” Marett said.

Within a few weeks, Umpleby said, Ultradent had a working concept. After executing that idea, the company could automate an entire production run of 200 curing light housings. “That was a pretty cool milestone for me, to see Methods pull through that quickly on such a huge change to the cell,” he added.

Soon after that, Methods added a fourth, 200-capacity automation cell, bringing its total to four RoboDrills and four robotic components.

The RoboDrill cells run unattended for 16 hours a day and completely lights-out on the weekends. In addition to increased throughput and machine uptime, Ultradent has gained the desired repeatability thanks to the RoboDrill's rigid construction and precision. Its quality assurance team has noticed a significant improvement in the machining accuracy of the curing light housing with perfectly threaded, 12-millimeter blind holes.

“The fact that the RoboDrill repeats on the threading and other features is pretty important to us,” Marett said. “As we go through inspection data for thousands of units, we find that features don’t move within a half a thousandth of an inch. Part of that is tooling, part of that is how the tooling is held and how the machine is built so it will repeat from position to position.”

Automation to achieve growth

Ultradent did more than just increase throughput machine uptime and improve repeatability: It captured more market share. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the automation cell together with Ultradent’s ability to secure raw materials allowed the shop to continue machining. This enabled it to capture additional market share while competitors lost production time to sick leave or suspended operations.

“We’ve almost doubled our capacity since we came out of COVID, and we could not have done that without our third and fourth RoboDrill cells, for sure,” Marett said.