Digital manufacturing and the future of dentistry
Major dental work traditionally takes days of time and effort but as technology evolves even complex treatment is possible in just a few hours thanks to digital technology.
Advances in 3D imaging and modelling technologies such as cone beam computed tomography and intraoral scanning and the history of using CAD/CAM technologies in dentistry is opening up new possibilities.
While CAD/CAM is not new to the industry, the digital thread that it provides and the advances in both milling and 3D printing technologies is making a real difference.
Traditionally the results of such scans, or even wax impressions, would be taken away and if for example the patient needs a new crown then it would take days to process and mill it. The patient would have to make several visits to complete their treatment.
It is no wonder that many of us fear that regular check up with the dentist, yet alone the prospect of major treatment.
The good news is that milling technology has evolved to reduce this time to within a day with minimal post processing. But the real disruptive technology that reduces this time even further and promises to revolutionise dentistry is in 3D printing.
Dental 3D printing applications
Dentists are really beginning to wake up to all the possibilities that 3D printing offers them. It is suitable for creating practically any type of dental appliances and implants. Let’s run through just a few examples:
Anatomical modelling was one of the first medical applications of 3D printing. Dentists can scan the patients jaw and 3D print an accurate model for study before deciding on treatment and surgery. This is ideal for patients who have serious injuries or an unusual anatomy.
For other procedures, such as fixed and removeable prosthodontics a technician can take the scan and plan the whole treatment before designing the restorations in CAD. This means the treatment is planned in a virtual environment before it is even started.
Retainers, aligners and guards
By using transparent resins, you can use dental 3D printing to create virtually invisible retainers, aligners and guards. Thanks to the combination of accurate scanning and the ability of 3D printing to create virtually any geometric shape these can be customised for a close fit to minimise discomfort. The result is a pain free, aesthetic solution.
Using high resolution 3D printers and materials, dentists can create accurate drilling guides that perfectly fit into a patient’s mouth. This will make surgery faster and also reduce that chance of any errors.
Using digital imaging and data you can now manufacture an exact copy of a patient’s missing tooth for a new implant. 3D printing allows you to create extremely complex geometries such as bone like morphologies that other manufacturing simply can’t do. While milling still has its place in this area of dentistry since it can use harder wearing resins such as zirconium dioxide, expect to see some interesting material advances in 3D printing including antibacterial tooth implants.
Again, using the digital data from a patient’s scan you can create bond trays to hold braces in place while they adhere to their teeth. This allows dentists to work faster with fewer errors so there is less time involved for the patient.
Traditionally developing dentures for a patient will require several visits to mould, design and fit them. Even then some patients will find them uncomfortable to wear and use. Using digital manufacturing technology ensures that they are more accurate and comfortable to wear. The process of developing them is also far faster which saves both time and money.
Because 3D printing is ideal for low volume manufacturing you can develop surgical tools that are custom made to either your needs or perhaps for a particularly tricky operation.
Nowadays you can 3D print virtually any material – whether resins, ceramic or metal, so the opportunities to improve dental practice for the patient and the dentist are huge.
When you add the development of new biocompatible materials and the improvements in scanning technology then the whole future of dentistry will be revolutionised. In the near future even some of the more complex treatments that currently take several appointments will be faster and, in some cases, even be completed in one visit.
Just like manufacturing, the dental industry is entering a new digital age that promises faster turnarounds and better solutions for both the dentist and the patient. When you bring together scanning, digital design and visualization, CAD and add in the advances in milling and 3D printing then it’s an incredibly exciting time to be involved.