3D printing is amazingly versatile. It’s not just a novelty process for toys or collectibles – it can actually help save lives and keep people healthy while making both of those easier and less expensive. Dental 3D printing is a great example of this. It’s a niche process born from refining the details of general 3D printing so that they fit the needs of dental professionals, so that does mean there are specific characteristics of equipment and process that you’ll have to consider if you’re looking to get into this area yourself. But don’t worry, we’re here to help you take your first taste of this industry!
How does dental 3D printing work?
Dental 3D printing needs the highest level of exactness possible, and that is achieved by using stereolithography (SLA) or digital light processing (DLP). These methods are closely related, and both use a light on the UV end of the spectrum to basically carve out shapes from liquid resin. First, you design your object on a computer-aided drafting program, like you do for any other 3D printing project. Then, your project file goes to the printer’s UV light, which is focused onto specific areas of the liquid resin based on your pattern.
Anything the UV light hits will harden, and anything it avoids will stay liquid, so once all the parts of your pattern have been exposed, you can pull them out of the rest of the resin. We’re pretty sure that’s how they made the Terminator, but it’s also great for when you need a tooth capped.
What is dental 3D printing used for?
3D dental printing is a great way to ease the expense and effort of a few mouth and tooth molding and replacement processes that are necessary for dental health. The industry is new but expanding rapidly, so this list is growing all the time.
Night guards and aligners
Anyone who has gone through the pure torture of wire and banded braces can understand how big of a deal aligners are. They are plastic trays that you wear in your mouth fitted over your teeth – the aligner doesn’t fit your current teeth exactly, but is in a stage of the shape you want your teeth to become so that it gently and gradually guides your teeth into their new places. They’re replacing the obvious tugs of traditional braces with invisible straightening, so they present a great leap forward in personal orthodontics. And since you go through several aligners in stages to get to your final teeth settings, 3D dental printing cuts down on the time and cost it takes to get those done.
Plus, with 3D dental printing, you can now get an industrial grade nightguard that will last you a much longer time than plastic ones you can buy at the drugstore. Getting a nightguard 3D printed from your dentist will also ensure a much more personal fit, since it will be molded to your own teeth and not a generic set of sizes that may or may not account for your mouth’s true shape. They may be more expensive, but the custom fit and shape will cut back on how much you grind your teeth in so much more comfort, you won’t even notice it’s happening.
Another dental process that is traditionally burdensome but also a mainstream necessity is getting a crown, or having part or all of a tooth replace when it’s broken. Instead of having to send out for a molding that could take several weeks, dentists can now equip themselves with a 3D printer that scans the broken tooth, adds in part needed to make the tooth whole, and print it themselves, all in less than an hour. No external parts or labor necessary.
And depending on your coverage, this will cost either you or your dental insurance company a lot less. Either way, if you’re putting off getting any part of your tooth fixed because you don’t have the cash, see if your dentist offers 3D dental printing for their services – you’ll be surprised what they can do with that.
Dentistry is one area where you don’t want to skimp on precision, and 3D printing is a huge asset to this area of need. One way it helps dentist professionals is by giving them the means to print exacting guides for oral surgeries. This is when a dentist scans a patient’s mouth to us computer drafting to add holes for the areas where they’ll be performing fixes. Then they 3D print the surgery guide like an aligner, so it goes right over the person’s teeth, and use the gaps as their work areas without the fear of drilling or extracting the wrong thing. It’s a great way to help eliminate spatial errors and make sure everything’s ship-shape during delicate procedures.
You don’t want your dentist to be trying something out for the first time on your mouth without plenty of practice first, and that’s where 3D printed dental models come in. If your dental professional can print an exact replica of your teeth, they can have a perfect place for the trial and error that will ultimately prepare them for any and all details – both expected and not – that come up during the procedure. Any quirks that your teeth may be hiding, any unexpected hitches in equipment, any possibilities that things won’t exactly match your dentist’s expectations can be worked out in a harmless resin model that guides the surgeons to perfection by the time they touch you. Plus, since these models aren’t meant to go into your mouth themselves, they don’t require special material, and the dentist can alter them as much as they want to experiment with technique and results. 3D dental printing is a great teaching tool.
3D Dental Printing Pros and Cons
- Flexible applications. As you can tell, 3D printing serves a lot of dental needs. Because this is an industry that is heavily dependant on material that can be extremely precise for the infinite variations of the human mouth, 3D printing is a perfect fit for many dental operations. Small, one-chair practices can benefit from this technology just as much as multi-office groups, and that brings a lot of dentists onto a more level playing field, especially if they are the only ones around in an area bereft of traditional resources. When you can print your own materials instead of waiting weeks to have them shipped back to you, you make the whole process easier on yourself and your patients.
- Easy corrections. Even dentists are human, and all humans make mistakes. But luckily, 3D dental printing makes correcting those mistakes so much faster and easier than traditional dental methods that you won’t even notice they had to be done. And they can usually be done in office instead of outsourced to a lab that would add even more time to correcting it, so 3D printing is a win all around.
- Constantly evolving. By the time you read this article, at least one new 3D dental printing innovation will have been approved for human usage – the industry is expanding that quickly. Besides the points mentioned above, 3D dental printing is moving into areas as diverse as developing anti-bacterial material specifically for all the gross stuff found in the human mouth, to making flossing easier by developing a machine that can floss all your teeth at once. We’re not quite sure how that last will end up working, but we’re excited for the future of 3D dental printing.
- The need for extreme precision. Because of the tiny spaces in which dental procedures are done, they have little to no room for error. That’s necessary for their 3D printing as well, even for 3D prints that don’t actually go into your mouth. If you can’t get a 3D printer to the level of detail you need for the real thing, it’s going to lose all its usefulness as a teaching tool and as a real-world appliance. Luckily, 3D printing has gotten to the precision point needed in the dental world, but it’s by no means the default, so you still have to be careful to make sure you’re getting what you need.
- Startup and maintenance prices. Although you can find DLP and SLA 3D printers for less than $1,000, those are mostly aimed at hobbyists, jewelry makers, and others that don’t use their rigs for medical purposes. The general cost for a 3D dental-grade resin printer is going to average out to around $3,000. This doesn’t include materials, but the good news is those parts of your 3D dental printing experience are going to cost relatively little, way more in line with those used for desktop machines. However, one more thing to keep in mind is how fast 3D dental printing is evolving. This might entail investing either constant money or constant time for you to make sure you’re keeping up as much as you need to. You don’t have to jump onto every new trend you see, but you do have to be ready to give your patients the most up to date services that you can, and that may cost more than you originally expected.
- New training needed. Dentists have to go to more school than most non-medical students will ever want to think about, so they’re not all psyched to have yet another combination of computer skills to learn. They have to keep up with the non-3D printing science and trends in their field as well, which is a lot even before you consider it’s not likely to be in their sphere of expertise. However, you could spin this as a positive since dentists are used to continuous learning. But don’t assume that all will want to pile more onto their plates.
What do you need to look for in a 3D dental printer?
Precision, precision, precision
We can’t state emphatically enough how important tiny detail accuracy is in a good 3D dental printer. DLP and SLA printers harness the power of lasers to make sure this happens for you. Make sure you’re aware of the exact specifications of layer size you need for the specific work you’ll be doing.
Ability to accommodate add-ons
If the 3D dental printer you’re looking at isn’t capable of evolving with your own growing knowledge and practice, don’t buy it. Move on to one that has a greater capacity than you think you need right now, because you’ll find out new processes and new applications that you want to try, but if you can’t, it will stunt both your own interest and your dental capacities.
Compatible with your favored design software
This is another area that’s going to help you expand your 3D dental printing horizons. Just because DLP and SLA machines work differently on the mechanical side doesn’t mean you have to totally relearn any computer-aided drafting work you’ve already got under your belt – you’ll be able to find a pretty decent selection of 3D dental printers to go with your software of choice, especially if you’re comfortable with market leaders like AutoCAD.
It is approved to work with biocompatible resins
If your machine isn’t able to work with materials that are safe for people to have in their mouths 24/7, then you will miss out on the majority of the 3D dental printing game. Technically, you could still make mouth and tooth models, which do have respected places in dental technology, but you will get your best worth out of a 3D printer that can let you give your patients a direct fix. Most printers rated for 3D dental printing will cover this, but make sure you aren’t getting one that is specifically and only for models unless that’s all you’re planning on building.
What are good 3D dental printing products?
To show you what our list of tips looks like in product form, we’ve rounded up a few of the internet’s (and our) favorite 3D dental printers.
- Formlabs. Their reputation precedes them, and they’ve taken their general excellence into a dental direction with their resin DLP and SLA machines.
- Stratasys. These guys go industrial, and while they may not be the cheapest options around, they are definitely the hardest. We recommend these printers for a single office that houses several dentists so the cost is shared and the machine gets to flex to its maximum capacity.
- EnvisionTec. Want to get in on the latest 3D dental printer research as well as the tech to handle it? EnvisionTec has both, and you’ll be all the way out on the cutting edge with their products and services.
There you have it – all you need to know about successfully using 3D printing for dental needs. Use our advice to find what you need, and you’ll be smiling in no time.