The first thing to note about dental industry is that dental anatomy is like fingerprints, i.e., every person has a unique set of teeth. This means dental implants have to be personalized for the patient to ensure a tight and comfortable fit.
3D printing can solve this issue as the production costs and time are much lower as compared to traditional methods, whilst not cutting back on the quality. Alongside that, research and development in the 3D printing industry have led to many materials such as ceramic, metal, and resin being a viable option to print. It’s a long way from plastic, which once were the only material used for printing.
Out of the materials mentioned above, resin 3D printing, in a process known as Stereolithography (SLA), is put to good use by the dental industry to make dental aligners and full dentures. And the other materials, namely ceramic and metal are being incorporated in the industry as well.
Thus, adoption of 3D printing by the dental industry has led to the reduction of manufacturing costs. Whilst delivering a better product than before, these products can also be customized to the patient’s needs much more quickly than before.
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How and Where is 3D Printing Used in the Dental Industry
3D printing materials aren’t the only aspect of 3D printing industry applied to the dental industry. The hype around the collaboration of these two industries has led to the development of Dental CAD (Computer Aided Design) Solutions and Dental 3D Scanners, which are used to capture the patient’s dental anatomy and build designs according to the situation, thus eliminating many manual steps which were required previously.
Here is a list of major dental applications of 3D printing which is happening as of writing this article –
3D Printed Aligners
The most common use case of 3D printing in the dental industry has to be in the form of dental aligners,with companies like Invisalign leading the forefront with the patient-specific dental aligners. However, the use of 3D printing in fabrication of these is indirect, i.e., 3D printers print out the models of the patient’s teeth, and then these models are used to create the aligners.
These models are created by first scanning the patient’s mouth using an intraoral scanner, which is then converted into a STL model, with necessary changes made in order to impose the desired changes to the patient’s teeth. The design of the aligner is now finalized. The finished design is 3D printed using technologies such as SLA and Digital Light Processing (DLP).
3D Printed Dentures
Dentures are an example of direct 3D printed structures. These removable plastic frames restore the ability for patient’s tochew, who are deprived of it due to loss of teeth.
After conducting and intraoral scan of the patient, the final design for the denture is visualized and this design is usually printed in two stages –
- First, the base is printed, which is the part that directly touches the gum of the patient. It helps keep the denture in place, while also being a protective sheath for the printed teeth. This is made from a much softer material in order to make it comfortable for the end-user.
- Second, the teeth are printed, which are made from a much rigid material so as to replace the functionality of natural teeth.
These two structures are then incorporated into one piece by fitting the teeth on the base. And as these are meant to be placed within the patient’s mouth for a long time, the base must be polished so as to remove any rough or sharp imperfections.
3D Printing Surgical Guides
The most important use of 3D printing has to be the creation of surgical guides which are used during surgical procedures. For example, these tools might be used as stencils to ensure that the drills are made in the right area or implants are fitted in the right place.
Most surgical guides are scanned from the already existing tools and then customized so as to make it better, then these tools are printed, polished and finished properly as these have to be fit for oral use.
Current Limitation of 3D Printing in Dental Industry
While it is a pretty smooth sailing for 3D printing to stay in the dental industry, one place where it can still improve is in the post-processing of these orthodontic devices, as theyare meant to be used inside the patient’s mouth, thus following health and safety protocols is a must for these products to be viable.
The market for 3D printed dental products is growing rapidly, with reports estimating that it might reach up to $930 million by the end of 2025. And we can totally see this as possible, as technologies such as Polyjet 3D printing, which is known to deliver smooth, customer-ready end-products seem to improve and maybe adopted by the dental industry one day.