The technology is there, and you can invest in it. But can you get a return on investment on a 3D printer in your dental practice?
3D printing technology continues to advance, meaning many dental practices are considering a printer purchase. However, not every dental practice immediately generates a good return on investment (ROI). The good news is that there are valuable tips and tricks on generating the best ROI with your 3D printer purchase, according to industry experts.
Before You Buy
Lisa Aguirre, Dental Marketing Manager for Roland DGA, says there is no magic answer to the question on whether you should purchase a 3D printer for the dental practice. Instead, she narrows down the initial considerations to the investment amount, the size of the printer necessary, the footprint for its operation, and the type of technological architecture needed for the practice.
Cost is a simple consideration for a private clinical practice, Aguirre explains. Knowing how much to spend on a 3D printer for the dental practice will depend upon your practice needs and the available applications. For most practices, she says, clinicians can find a quality 3D printing solution that will suit the needs of their practice for under $10,000 in today's competitive market.
Regarding the size of the printer necessary, Aguirre cautions that bigger isn't always better.
"In most dental practices, space is limited and therefore a hot commodity," Aguirre explains. "For most private practices, a small to mid-size unit will effectively serve your needs since mass production is not typically necessary."
Then, there is the architecture system a practice chooses. Open architecture allows you to select the resin materials of your choice from any given manufacturer, with the ability to mix and match, Aguirre says. Closed architecture does the opposite, leaving you locked into 1 brand or product line of resin materials for use with your 3D printing technology.
"While some manufacturers may offer attractive incentives with closed architecture systems, the quality of service you can provide to your patients with these systems may be limited by the system's capabilities and inability to access the latest and greatest materials," Aguirre says. "In addition, a closed system typically lengthens the road to true ROI. With an open-architecture system, the possibilities are endless as you have access to the newest resin materials and the latest 3D printing technology."
Aguirre explains that a clinician may love the model resin from manufacturer A and prefer the splint/nightguard resin material from manufacturer B or C. Open-architecture systems, like the SOL LCD 3D printer distributed by Roland DGA, allow clinicians the freedom to utilize a resin from manufacturer A for models and manufacturer B for splints/nightguards.
"Clinicians are free to utilize their resin materials of choice for each application to customize based on their patient's individual clinical needs," Aguirre says.
Remo Sagastume, Jr., CAD/CAM Specialist for Patterson Dental, says that before any practice buys a 3D printer, they should understand what they are currently producing that can be done using 3D printing. The most common thing, Sagastume says, is night guards. The second is surgical guides, mainly when the practice is already doing cone-beam computed tomography (CBCT) and digital impressions.
"3D Printers are the first technology where we can produce those things in-house," Sagastume says. "We could get super advanced when we're diving into this, but it's the easiest thing we can integrate for what we’re doing today, and then from there, we can build upon that."
Philipp Striebe, Global Dental Marketing Manager for Formlabs, says involving your team from the beginning of your discovery process is essential, too. Implementing new technology in the workflow is most successful when the team is on board.
Part of the reason you need the team's buy-in is that it can help overcome their fears about adding a 3D printer into the workflow. Striebe says the team probably has concerns about the change the printer represents and how it could impact their day-to-day tasks and as well as their job security.
"Have a conversation with the team about the plans to implement 3D printing in the office and be open about the map for how this will help to be more efficient and generate more income," Striebe says. "Also, make sure the team is open to learning new things."
"Team members love being a part of the technology process," Sagastume agrees. "Especially when an assistant is using the technology and doing something different. It creates a synergy within the practice, equating to a better patient experience. So, I would always say find a champion or champions within the office and involve them in that process."
Generating an ROI Quickly
Sagastume thinks dental practices should understand what type of printing office they will be. For example, the practice could design in-house from a scanner output and print in the office or use a design service that sends back the files for the team to print.
"They have 2 different price points, and doctors typically don't understand that today," Sagastume says. "Knowing how much involvement you want is important to getting to that ROI because it'll help you make a better decision."
Aguirre says that first and foremost, practices should identify their goals and plan what they intend to do with 3D printing technology in the office. Then, they should look for the products identified they can produce relatively fast that will generate revenue right away.
"Often, this planning is the hard part because new technology, like any new toy, is always exciting to use for the first time, but integrating it into a workflow is often the tough part. Instead, I would suggest identifying the specific applications you intend to 3D print in-office short-term, creating a pricing structure for these applications, and setting realistic goals for the number of applications you will produce in a typical day, week, or month" Aguirre says. "For the typical clinical practice, the most common application for quick ROI is the in-office 3D fabrication of nightguards and splints. Clinicians can produce these applications same-day, or with a quick turnaround to patients while reducing the cost of outsourcing."
Striebe agrees that starting with more straightforward printing projects and working up to the most complex is a sound strategy for generating ROI. If the team jumps into a complex case early on, it can cause frustration, which can delay the integration of the technology and leave the machine idle. Going step-by-step to create small successes and then building on those leads to a smoother implementation of the printer. For example, dental practices providing clear aligner therapy could print the models for aligner cases in-house and generate a faster path to paying off the 3D printer investment.
"You need to learn to drive first before you go and take a car on the race track," Striebe says. "It’s the same with a printer. Start with easy cases like a scan-to-print with models, for example, where the software is doing a lot of the work steps for you."
Striebe also thinks that identifying and developing a 3D printing ambassador amongst the team members will encourage use of the new technology and hasten an ROI. The ambassador's enthusiasm for the new workflow will also help other team members overcome any hesitancy they might feel about the technology.
"You use the ambassador to train everybody and then start with the easy cases," Striebe says.
Avoiding Common Implementation Mistakes
Sagastume thinks that not starting the 3D printer purchasing process with the end in mind leads to disappointment. Using pricing as the barometer, practices may buy a printer that can't do what they need, requiring them to start over. For example, he remembers how a dental professional bought a 3D printer on Amazon in the early days of 3D printing, but later learned the resin it used was not approved for use in the mouth. So, knowing what you want the printer to do and then matching the equipment to do those things is essential to avoid this problem.
"It's [about] getting educated on what printer fits the treatment plan of the office," Sagastume says.
Education doesn't stop there, either, Sagastume says. He always encourages his doctors to understand their learning style and invest in training with any new technology they employ in practice.
"I say the more advanced you get with printing, the more training you should invest in," Sagastume says. "Typically, the online training is only an introduction on how to print a model and a simple night guard orientation. So, I told my study club that they needed to be a student of their technology and determine their level. Is it basic, intermediate, or advanced?"
As with all new technology, Aguirre says there will be a learning curve. She also says that trying to "build Rome in a day" will discourage the team and lead them to the let's-just-do-it-the-old-way mentality. To avoid this pitfall, Aguirre recommends taking it a piece at a time and setting realistic goals and markers for incorporating the new technology and applications in the practice.
"Make the experience fun and rewarding for your team. Start by producing 'practice cases.'
When everyone is comfortable with the new technology, scan your patients and bring them back in 2 or 3 days for delivery of the application. Soon, your team will master the entire workflow, and you will be able to deliver applications same-day or within 24 hours," Aguirre says.
Striebe says that practices should not skip the planning phase before investing in a 3D printer. Also, ensuring the digital infrastructure is in place before investing is essential. Finally, solidifying team buy-in is foundational to implementation success. He also recommends getting hands-on with the technology before investing, whether at a showroom or trade show.
Like Sagastume, Striebe says continuing education is critical too. Recently, Formlabs launched the Dental Academy, a free online education platform with resources that help dental professionals implement 3D printing into their businesses. The platform hosts webinars, tutorials, white papers, and more about 3D printing in a clinical space or dental in general. Available to everyone, resources like Dental Academy allow practices to grow with the technology beyond the initial training.
"As an industry stakeholder," Striebe says, "we are responsible not only to sell and implement new technology but also to provide the training tools to the community to boost proficiency and implement it the best way. In addition, we want to ensure users succeed with what they're doing."