Wohlers Associates helps organizations take advantage of technologies and strategies that enhance the rapid product development and manufacturing process.
By Clare Scott
Dentistry has come a long way in the last several years – and it’s largely thanks to 3D printing. Dental 3D printing and “digital dentistry” have changed the way that dentists and orthodontists acquire implants and molds. With this technology, dentistry is faster, less expensive, and overall easier on patients.
If you ever had braces or a retainer, for example, you may remember the messy, putty-like substance that was used to create an impression of your teeth. This was invariably an unpleasant process, but in the late 1990s, the dental industry began to more frequently use 3D scanning to create digital impressions.
How does this work? First, an intraoral scanner is used to capture the anatomy of a patient’s mouth. The scan is then used to create a CAD file, which is then sent to a 3D printer and printed. The resulting model of the patient’s teeth is then used to fit the dental or orthodontic device. These models can also be used to help dental professionals plan oral surgeries or other procedures.
Models are far from the only dental aids that can be 3D printed, however. As 3D printing materials have evolved, they have come to include several biocompatible materials that can be used directly for dental or maxillofacial implants. 3D printing is now also commonly used to create castings of teeth that are then used to produce crowns and bridges. Dentures and surgical guides are also being more commonly 3D printed.
Clear plastic aligners were first marketed in 1997 as an alternative to metal braces for teeth. The industry is growing rapidly, and 3D printing is used frequently in the production of clear aligners. For many years, 3D printing was used to create thermoforming molds for the aligners. More recently, however, the aligners are, in some cases, being printed directly as more biocompatible materials become available.
Dental labs are still often where dental devices are being printed and then shipped back to the clinics where they will be fitted to the patient. One goal of the industry, however, is so-called “chairside 3D printing” or AM Point of Care. In these cases, dental offices and clinics will have their own desktop 3D printers. The dentist can take a scan, create a CAD file, and print the device while the patient waits. This reduces the need for the patient to return for multiple appointments and to wait possible weeks while the lab prints and ships the device. It also allows the dental professional to quickly make changes to the device and reprint it if necessary.
As desktop vat photopolymerization (VPP) printers become less expensive and easier to use, more dental clinics are beginning to acquire them for internal use. VPP is the most common 3D printing technology to be used for dental applications, and it continues to rapidly evolve in terms of both printers and materials. Chairside 3D printing is progressing, and the fact that dental appliances can be printed much more quickly than using conventional methods makes the technology an increasingly attractive option.
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