Additive efficiencies

March 21, 2012

It’s always a showstopper when there’s a demonstration of a 3D printing system taking place in the exhibit hall of a trade show. Watching digitally designed copings, frameworks, crowns or models rise up and take shape on the print platform can be almost mesmerizing. But these high-tech printers are more than just attractive novelties. With the ability to rapidly produce high-precision parts that fit a variety of production workflows quickly and cost effectively, a 3D printer can become a critical part of a dental lab’s CAD/CAM operation.

It’s always a showstopper when there’s a demonstration of a 3D printing system taking place in the exhibit hall of a trade show. Watching digitally designed copings, frameworks, crowns or models rise up and take shape on the print platform can be almost mesmerizing.

But these high-tech printers are more than just attractive novelties. With the ability to rapidly produce high-precision parts that fit a variety of production workflows quickly and cost effectively, a 3D printer can become a critical part of a dental lab’s CAD/CAM operation.

“Superior accuracy, fine details, high resolution and low cost per case; these should be the key factors for dental labs considering the move to digital dentistry and 3D printing,” said Avi Cohen, Head of Medical Solutions for Objet, which produces the Eden260V 3D printer. “With a 3D printing solution doing the detailed work, dental labs can eliminate the bottleneck of manual modeling and allow the business to expand and stay ahead of the competition.”

Dimensions of efficiency

Consistency and efficiency are big benefits of an investment in a 3D printing system, said Ron Snyder, CDT, Dental Application Manager for 3D Systems, which makes the ProJet™ line of 3D printers along with a range of other additive production technologies. Whether the technology is being used to produce in-house models based on digital or scanned impressions, or making digital designs into wax forms for casting, Snyder said 3D printers provide speed and precision.

“It’s faster than using a dip pot and just dipping a die in,” he said. “What you get is more consistency. If the computer says it’s a 3/10 of a mm coping, it’s really going to be a 3/10 of a mm coping.”

Digital design software saves time on the front end by automatically blocking out undercuts, the wax forms don’t need to be fine tuned prior to casting, and once cast the end results require 50% less finishing time, Snyder said, adding that these efficiencies lead to material savings that can reduce a lab’s alloy consumption by 10-30%.

Grant Day, CDT, Manager, Technical Support for Zahn Dental said the EnvisionTEC line of 3D printers available through Zahn are adaptable and upgradable systems with sizes ranging from desktop units to industrial scale systems.

A variety of materials are currently available that allow EnvisionTEC printers to produce lost wax casting patterns for fixed restorations, and there also is an FDA registered resin for long-term temporaries. Objet’s printers can be used to produce stone models, orthodontic appliances, implant surgical guides and veneer try-ins, and Cohen said parts produced with the company’s 3D Printing system are classified and approved for use as medical devices. Materials available for the various 3D Systems printers can produce casting patterns, models, partial frameworks and just about anything that can be digitally designed.

The fine print

These systems are designed to make existing lab technicians more efficient by automating time consuming tasks, freeing up time for other steps in the production process. Cohen said Objet’s printer can reduce fabrication times by 60%, and if that time is well spent, technician output can increase by an even wider margin. The benefits of 3D printing grow even more evident when the technology is paired with chairside digital impressioning.

“The moment you have an oral scan impression on your computer, the 3D printer gets to work producing exactly what you see on screen, without deviations or faults,” he said.

Digital designs that can be exported in the STL format can be sent for production on any of the companies’ systems, and the ProJet printers also can be set up to print designs from CEREC and Lava users. Very little needs to be done to print a design, and Snyder said his company’s software stands out by automatically generating the supports and arranging the designs on the print platform for efficient production.

“You’re not sitting around looking at a computer screen and fiddling around with the jobs. You’re just sending the jobs and walking away,” Snyder said.

Where the print fits

3D printing systems can be employed in a number of ways to fit in with labs of various sizes and specializations. The only prerequisite for adding any of these systems to a lab is scan and design capabilities.

Finding the printer that fits your lab’s size and business is really the key, Day said. Of course investing in efficient technology is also about growing that business, and Cohen said a 3D printer can help a lab scale up its production capabilities without adding staff to the payroll.

Snyder said ProJet printers are currently in use from labs as small as two-person operations to large scale production centers with 2,000 employees. Regardless of size, every lab investing in the system is set up to fill in unused capacity by taking on outsource work, and 3D Systems promotes the outsource capabilities of labs with its printers online at www.toptobottomdental.com.

Adding an additive system

For labs with scan and design systems in place, adding and being trained on a printer is a relatively simple process. Day, Snyder and Cohen all said training is a simple process and depending on the lab’s CAD/CAM acumen, it could be printing in 3D in as little as one day.

Day and Cohen said Zahn and Objet both provide onsite installation and training with ongoing customer support available for labs with questions after the training is completed. 3D Systems sells printers through reseller partners such as CadBlu and Sensable Dental. Snyder said ProJet labs contact their printer source for support, but if those companies need further assistance, 3D Systems is there to provide the answers.

Of course setting up and learning to properly use and care for the printer is only one part of the equation. It is far more important for a lab to know how the 3D printing system will fit into the lab’s processes if it expects to achieve the best business returns possible, Snyder said. That needs to happen prior to purchase so the lab has a plan in place when the printer arrives.

“It’s one thing to learn how to use a piece of equipment. It’s something else entirely to learn how to integrate it into your business,” Snyder said. “Some of it is ancillary management that has nothing to do with operating the equipment. It’s operating the business.”