You don’t have to be an engineer or an electronics enthusiast to take advantage of 3-D printing. Devices, like the desktop Form 2 from Formlabs, are emerging with ease of use for dentists in mind.
“We think of our market as CAD professionals who are using CAD every day, and dentists are part of this equation,” said David Lákatos, head of product at Formlabs. “People who are part of the digital dentistry movement, they’re also using CAD every day.”
Typically, dentists create digital 3-D scans and send them off to the laboratory, which uses them to create crowns, bridges, trays, surgical guides, replicas, orthodontic appliances, and more at costs ranging up to hundreds of dollars and wait times extending up to weeks. Now, dentists can send these files to a 3-D printer in their own office that creates the object in hours.
Other available 3-D printers already support dental applications. Formlabs, though, says its Form 2 is a breakthrough by offering the accuracy of printers that can cost tens of thousands of dollars for just $3,499. The Form 2 relies on a laser and proprietary technology to achieve high performance at a low price.
“Our laser is not expensive because we’re using a 405-nm ray of light used in Blu-ray disc players, which pushed the price down incredibly,” said Lákatos. “We also use a precision mechanical device called a galvanometer to direct the light of the laser to resolve exactly the features that you put into the machine.”
Dentists begin by installing PreForm, a free software package from Formlabs, on their Windows or Mac computer. Next, they use their preferred 3-D intraoral scanner to create an .STL or .OBJ image file of their patient’s mouth and send it to the computer. PreForm then sends the file via Wi-Fi, Ethernet, or USB to the Form 2, which gets to work creating the desired object.
“We have a one-page, quick-start guide,” said Lákatos, “kind of a plug-and-play version of 3-D printers. There is no learning curve. There are literally 3 buttons to push to orient and position the print on the print band. It’s all automated and included in the 3-D printing software.”
Formlabs releases monthly software updates. PreForm presents a prompt, and users click a button to begin the automatic download and installation. Also, users can register their Form 2 with the company, which enables them to track the status of their printer online. For example, the printer will notify users via email or text if there are any problems or when it is finished.
The Form 2 works with a variety of flexible and rigid materials alike to produce a range of objects. Also, its automated resin system means users don’t have to come in contact with the material when it needs to be refilled, eliminating messes and malfunctions. The printer’s peel mechanism and heated resin tank are designed to ensure accuracy and reliability as well.
“The difference in material properties comes from how we engineer the oligomer and monomer system that is making up this photopolymer resin,” said Lákatos, noting that photopolymers begin the polymerization process when they are exposed to a certain wavelength—in this case, the 405-nm wavelength of the UV laser. “We have an in-house materials team of more than 10 people. They’re developing these materials onsite.”
Lákatos also sees a bright future ahead as dentists begin using 3-D printers more to create models for practicing surgeries, for instance. Also, once dentists create replicas or surgical guides, they can maintain those files for archiving and reproduction later. Plus, new applications will emerge.
“I think digital dentistry is in its infancy. It is extremely interesting that right now, it’s getting over the early adoption. You’re starting to see everyday dentists adopting technologies that were previously esoteric or exotic,” he said. “In this next phase, you’re going to see a lot of dental labs adopting 3-D printing. But I also can see the low price point being attractive to individual dentists.”