How does a company become a powerhouse in two industries in just nine years? Just ask 3Shape A/S. In 2000, the company was launched in a basement by two students--Tais Clausen and Nikolaj Deichmann--at the Technical University of Denmark. Today, the company has a staff of 120, locations in five countries and offers one of the most widely used scanner/software packages for CAD design for both the hearing aid and dental laboratory markets.
The launching pad for the company was Clausen's master's degree engineering project on 3D scanners. He soon realized the real-world application of his concept to the hearing aid industry and 3Shape was born. Similar to a dental restoration, in-the-ear hearing aid shells need to be custom fit to each patient's hearing canal and they're traditionally made by taking an ear impression that is then manually sculpted, cut and used to make a mold. The mold is used to create the shell, which is then adjusted in the ear using a time-consuming, manual process.
3Shape digitized that procedure by creating a 3D scanner for scanning the ear impression and creating CAD software to virtually design the full hearing aid shell, which is then printed by 3D printers. "Our digital system replaced a labor-intensive manufacturing and adjustment process with one that was fully computer-driven. The industry was ripe for mass customization through CAD/CAM technology," says Rune Fisker, 3Shape's vice president of product strategy and the company's first employee.
Since the market is comprised of six main companies that control approximately 80% of the global hearing aid market, digital implementation happened in just a few years. Today, about 95% of in-the-ear hearing aid shells are made using CAD, and 3Shape technology is used for about 70% of them. In 2004, 3Shape set its sights on the dental laboratory market--a logical step given its similar manufacturing process to the hearing aid industry. While 3Shape's original scanner had been designed to accommodate a dental model--the company had always planned to expand into our industry--it needed to find out the needs of technicians and tweak its products accordingly. "Dental restorations are much more complex to digitally design and produce," says Clausen. "We found that our scanner needed to be more accurate for dental applications and it was a challenge to achieve that, but we worked closely with very talented dental technicians and companies to develop the solution."
3Shape sold its first dental scanner in 2004 and the real explosion came the following year when it launched its CAD software for virtual restoration design. Today, the company has two scanners and three software packages for our market that 12 U.S. CAD/CAM manufacturers have incorporated into their systems, and thousands of scanners are installed in 55 countries.
A Winning Business Model
What keeps 3Shape on top of its game? According to Fisker, it's sticking to what it knows best. "We have 65 developers on staff and we know who we are: a technology company. Our business model is to only sell our products to distributor partners so we can focus on our strengths--developing scanners and CAD software--and let our partners do what they do best."
The company isn't slowing down anytime soon. Last year it had its biggest growth year ever: it hired 40 new employees and opened its first U.S.-based office in New Providence, New Jersey. And, in March, it launched several new products at the IDS in Cologne, Germany.
For instance, its new D700 Scanner allows users to scan an impression to create a digital model, then send the file to a model-making machine for production of a physical model, eliminating traditional model making and allowing CAD design and manufacturing of the restoration to start immediately. 3Shape is also working with impression material manufacturers to develop a material with optimal scanning properties for use with its system. 3Shape partners will sell the material, and it will be ready by the end of the year.
Also slated to be on the U.S. market later this year is 3Shape's Face Scanning solution, a communication tool that scans a patient's face, teeth and model, then combines them into one 3-D image. 3Shape software allows the patient to view before-and-after 3-D photos, and the dentist can update the C&B treatment plan while the patient is in the chair and get a prep guide. The restorations are then manufactured by milling glass ceramic or by outputting them in wax and then pressing.
Given these product developments and its laser-like focus on technology, it's no surprise that 3Shape makes this prediction for our industry: "Like the hearing aid market, we believe laboratories will be completely digital in the future," says Fisker. "However, since the laboratory industry is more fragmented and requires more complex CAD designs, it will be slower to adopt a completely digital workflow."
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