Why do digital x-ray sensors still cost thousands of dollars?

Our office uses the Schick 33 sensor, a start of the art chip with a suggested retail price north of $8,000. Any CMOS chip as big as size 2 x-ray film is actually quite expensive…a $500 nVidia 1080 board has 340 square mm in its main chip. A $400 Intel i7 has 49 mm^2. The cost of producing a silicon chip is basically how many you can cram on a single silicon wafer. In other words, they are priced by surface area, just like the carpet in your home.

So the smaller you make your chip, the less it costs to make. Intel, Qualcomm and nVidia have spent billions shrinking their chips and/or cramming more in through lithography. Dental sensors, like most imaging sensors, have to be a specific size, so they cannot cut production costs through shrinking. A Size 2 x-ray sensor is 31x41mm in size. That’s 1241 square mm–bigger than the CMOS sensor in a $1500 Canon 6D and almost as big as the sensor in a 645 medium format camera worth $4-20k. All of these CMOS chips are engineered and encased for vastly different uses, but it’s all expensive. A Nikon D5 can withstand rain, snow and all sorts of weather, but a digital x-ray sensor has to withstand hundreds of pounds of biting force, daily wiping with harsh disinfectants, ionizing radiation, and rough handling by dental staff.

I do believe there’s a LOT of padding in the price of a digital x-ray sensor. Mechnically, they have no moving parts. They have very minimal supporting electronics, either. But the sheer size of the silicon required means they will never by cheap to produce, at least by consumer electronics standards. Add the cost of FDA approval, dealer distribution (giving the big supply houses their cut), warranty, and support, and it’s easy to see why they are still so expensive. Dentistry is a relatively tiny volume market compared to huge scale electronics commodities like HDTV’s and smartphones. Samsung probably sells more Galaxy phones in a week than the entire dental industry’s output of x-ray sensors. So dental manufacturers have to make more profit per sale because they won’t be moving 15 million units a year.

Recently, a dental sensor came on the market for $1600. Perhaps digital x-ray sensors are reaching the point of product maturity. Ketchup, for instance, has no more innovation left to be had, so now it’s down to pricing and appealing packaging. The desktop PC market is shrinking, due to lack of innovation and migration towards more mobile computing. Once a market matures, then late comers will find ways to eke out cost savings, leading to a race to the bottom for price. We welcome new technology, but we appreciate even more the reduction of price that will lead to better health care in more offices for more patients.

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