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Robert Elsenpeter is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Dental Products Report and Digital Esthetics. He is also the author of 18 technology books, including the award-winning Green IT: Reduce Your Information System's Environmental Impact While Adding to the Bottom Line. As such, he’s particularly interested in the technological side of dentistry.
And for the dental industry, they represent a slice of science fiction, seemingly come to life.
3D printing can seem like it's ripped from the pages of a sci-fi novel. Here's what you need to know.
“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”
Fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation no doubt remember Captain Jean Luc Picard’s favorite drink, ordered from his Replicator-a device that could make anything from seemingly nothing.
OK: No, Replicators are not the newest and latest piece of technology released this year. However, we’ve got something else: 3D printers are the 21st Century’s baby step toward the 24th Century’s Replicator.
And for the dental industry, they represent a slice of science fiction, seemingly come to life.
We spoke with two leaders in the 3D printing industry for a current snapshot of the industry, and to learn about the innovative things that we will be able to do in the future.
The output component for CAD/CAM was traditionally-if the word “traditional” can be used in a discussion of CAD/CAM-the mill. 3D printers have started to take their place for some workflows, with seemingly constant evolution.
“It’s so exciting, what’s happening in 3D printing,” says Nick Azzara, Chief Officer Sales and Marketing of BEGO USA. “The cost of these machines is becoming reasonable, and, the ease-of-use and the versatility has expanded in an enormous way.”
The modernization in 3D printing seems to make the time ripe for labs to adopt the technology.
“For any size lab to start looking at a 3D printer, it’s more practical today than ever before,” says Azzara.
When first introduced to dental labs, 3D printers just made components that were used in the construction of the final restorations, but were not used for the final products, themselves. Ultimately, the goal is for 3D printing produce those objects.
We are getting closer and closer to that day, and some items can be printed for temporary use.
“There is only one future ahead of us, and that would be printing end-user parts,” says Avi Cohen, Director of Global Dental at Stratasys. “For example, if you go to the dentist and you need a provisional restoration, or a temporary crown, or bridge, [you will be able to ] print those, and don’t have them done by a traditional work form.”
Even more impressively, one day we might see restorations printed from high quality materials that we don’t normally associate with 3D printing.
“The future for that would be printing teeth from zirconia, matching the color and shape from the patient’s mouth,” he says.
While there is certainly a gee-whiz appeal to 3D printing, it isn’t just the cool new toy to impress your friends. Integrating a 3D printer helps labs not only be more productive, but can also help labs become more fully invested in digital dentistry.
“We think 3D printing is crucial in many ways to a dental lab,” Azzara says. “In many aspects, it’s the missing component that empowers labs to take the next steps into digital pathways.”
Thanks to both innovation and lower costs, 3D printing is very accessible to many labs.
“Unfortunately, up until this point, it’s been a challenge to fully integrate a 3D printer into that digital workflow, but now that is changing,” Azzara observes.
Next page: The planets are aligning ...
While some labs embrace 3D printing, others do not. In order for 3D printing to reach the critical mass that it needs, Cohen says that, in addition to state-of-the-art printers and materials, the market must be ready for those advancements. That is, labs and dentists need to see 3D printing’s merits and want to use it.
“Let’s assume that you are using an iPhone or any smartphone,” he illustrates. “If the iPhone was released 10 years before its time, would it have been such a success? Was the market maturity ready for it? Probably not. Timing was probably part of the big success of the iPhone, or any other smartphone. It’s not just ‘are we ready for it?’ But, ‘is the market ready for it?’”
Manufacturers may be able to make fantastically advanced and state-of-the art equipment, but labs must be willing to embrace the technology for it to be successful.
“If we come tomorrow morning with a printer that can print crowns and bridges, is the market ready for it,” Cohen wonders. “Will the dentist know what it is? What is the age of the dental lab owner? Maybe we need to wait for the new generation to ramp up, and so on.
“The question is not only about a 3D printing company and their readiness, but also whether the market is ready,” he continues. “It needs to come at the same time. You need to release the technology when the market is ready, and if you do it 10 years before, you’ve just wasted your bullet.”
So it begs the question: Is the market ready to embrace all the features and functionality that we can muster from 3D printing?
“I think that the market is not there yet,” Cohen suggests. “But we are getting there. I can tell you by the number of intraoral scanners and how many people have moved to digital, that it’s moving there.”
Cohen says that we are marching so determinedly in that direction that we are sure to get there.
“We’ve passed the point of no return, but we are not there yet,” Cohen says. “I believe the market will be ready for a product in about two years. It will take the market that long to say, ‘I’m ready, I’m hungry, so show me something I haven’t seen before.’”
Next page: Remaining challenges ...
3D printers do not work all by themselves. They need software with which to design and the workflow with which to complete cases. It is largely up to the lab to create its own workflows.
“One of the challenges is that 3D printers are sold independent of either the design software and/or the post processing that’s needed to create some sort of device or restoration,” Azzara says. “Many times the labs are left to figure out the complete workflows to get to the end result.”
CAD/CAM in general, and 3D printing in particular, are not unique to the dental field. Both technologies started in other industries and have been adapted to work with dental. For best results, they need to be adjusted and tuned to meet the lab’s unique needs.
Post processing is a necessary final step, because with some printers, the materials produced still require the handwork of a skilled technician to give it finishing touches, like, light curing, cleaning, investing, casting, articulation, color correction and or all types of preparation depending on the device being printed.
Vendors are striving to help labs with their workflows from the beginning all the way through to their post processing efforts.
“The software development is happening very quickly, so in many cases the software is there or very close to being there,” Azzara observes. “The big challenge is more so on the materials and the post processing side. This is really where BEGO has taken a strong position to develop not only a printer but also validated workflows that takes the user all the way to getting a predictable end result.”
3D printing requires materials that are able to meet the lab’s needs, but they must also be compatible with the printer. The materials front is an important place for development, because the materials are what will compose the final product.
Materials have evolved now so that 3D printed materials can be different colors, or even transparent. They can have rubber-like properties for such applications as mimicking gum tissue. Currently, several 3D printing manufacturers are introducing biocompatible materials that can be used in the mouth.
“Yes, the actual printer is important. The size, speed, user interface etc. are all areas that labs need to look at. Yet, at the end of the day, the most important part of a printer are the materials and the actual quality of the end product,” Azzara observes. “Materials and predictable post processing procedures are crucial to getting a predictable outcome. We believe this to be true and have invested heavily in R&D in all of the areas that surround and support the actual printer itself.”
While manufacturers seem to have some impressive materials ready for release, they must follow governmental guidelines before their introduction.
“Due to FDA regulations, we have a scheduled rollout of eight materials over the next five or six months,” Azzara says. “Our next group of four materials is scheduled for release early in Q4 2015.”
Next page: The future ...
9. Printers are getting more versatile with every new generation
3D printers were initially used by labs for single applications. However, Azzara says that to stay innovative, manufacturers must grow to meet labs’ needs. An important demand is the ability to perform more than one task.
“Make it versatile, truly versatile for a lab to use-multiple materials in a fast way,” Azzara notes. “Most labs might buy a printer for one primary purpose, but really what they need is a versatile machine that can change with the times easily, and expand their offerings.”
To meet that need BEGO has developed adaptable printers.
“It made sense for us to move forward and develop a machine that has multiple print potions and is easy to change from one to the other.” Azzara says. “This is why I believe 3D printing is becoming more practical and empowering. BEGO has developed the only closed cartridge, 30-second change, fully encapsulated system available today. This is a big leap forward for lab that will only get better over time.”
10. The future of 3D printing is bright
3D printer manufacturers are enjoying a period of evolution, and what they have to offer labs will meet not only specific restoration needs, but also organizational needs.
“In general, we are working to release one or two machines per year and one or two materials per year that, in most cases, will be compatible with the printers,” Cohen says. “Our next material expected to be released will be biocompatible, so you can put in the mouth.”
“We’re excited to be a part of the industry at this time,” says Azzara. “It’s such an exciting, integral part of the digital workflow. Integrating 3D printers that are in line with the design softwares available and then validating the workflows all the way to the final product will certainly help labs in a meaningful way be really productive and profitable.”
While Replicators are still a few years away, 3D printing is doing a nice job of leading us toward that goal. It’s not impossible to imagine a time when a lab tech can walk over to the in-house Replicator and simply say, “Molar. Zirconia. A2.”
This article is part of DLP's Modern Dental Artistry, meaning it has special interest for anyone who is a part of the esthetic, cutting-edge workflow. Click here to find out more.