The buzz is back. Excitement about 3-D printing in the dental industry seems to grow every day. With a history of 3-D printing technology generating high expectations but delivering poor reliability and limited applications at a high cost, many dentists are rightfully wondering what the fuss is about this time, and whether to take it seriously.
Well, this time is different. Adoption of 3-D printing in dentistry is growing at a quickening pace, and the signs indicate that 2017 will see that growth intensify. To understand why, let’s take a look at the trends that have led us to this point, how both additive manufacturing technology and the dental industry have evolved, and what these indicators reveal about the future.
Dentistry: The Perfect Environment for 3-D Printing
With unique anatomies and clinical needs for every patient, dentistry has always been a profession in need of not only custom manufacturing, but also highly specialized, high performance devices like crowns, bridges, retainers, splints, surgical guides, and dentures. The list seems almost endless, and it’s all about mass customization.
Enter 3-D printing. The ability to cost-effectively produce high volumes of customized parts at scale makes 3-D printing the perfect solution for dental production needs. It makes sense, then, that dentistry was one of the first spaces where this technology began to take hold as a digital manufacturing solution in the 1990s.
Even clinicians to whom 3-D printing seems radically new have likely interacted with either a 3-D printed part or a part indirectly made using a 3-D printer. Surgical guides and clear aligners were 2 of the earliest applications for direct and indirect 3-D printed parts in dentistry. In fact, Invisalign is probably the largest single manufacturer of 3-D printed models in the world.
In the coming years, we expect to see 3-D printing expand across even more applications as more affordable solutions take hold. But it wasn’t always this way.
Recent Advances in 3-D Printing Driving Adoption
Even with a seemingly perfect market fit, for a long time 3-D printing failed to take off from its initial foothold in dentistry, hamstrung by costly machines, spotty reliability, limited materials, and barriers to usability. Just as hype about consumer 3-D printing failed to deliver 3-D printers in use in every household, dental 3-D printing seemed poised to remain a niche.
But massive technological advancements in recent years are completely changing the game. Professional-grade 3-D printers have been plummeting in cost while simultaneously improving in quality and reliability.
Affordable desktop 3-D printers are pushing barriers to adoption down even further. Some systems have been shown to perform at clinically acceptable levels of accuracy and even to compete with expensive, large-format systems. Desktop machines, designed with simplified user experiences and out-of-the-box precision, are making 3-D printing more intuitive and easier to use than ever before.
These advances have effectively diminished the high barriers to the adoption of 3-D printing technology to the point where it has not only become accessible to dental labs of any size, but chairside 3-D printing also is now a viable reality.
A Digital World in Search of Manufacturing Endpoints
Two other trends in the market are essential to understanding the upcoming possibilities of 3-D printing in dental: the growing adoption of intraoral and desktop optical scanning, and the growth of dental treatment and computer-aided design (CAD) software. For example, 15% to 20% of dental practices have intraoral scanners, with 40% to 50% considering adoption in the next 5 years. Adoption of desktop optical scanners in dental labs has also grown significantly.
In addition, an established set of dental software companies such as 3Shape now offer a wide range of treatment design and CAD software for a huge range of applications. This is creating a large market of dental professionals in need of manufacturing endpoints for their digital workflows.
What’s Next for 3-D Printing and Dentistry?
With a market swinging so heavily into digital workflows, whether dental 3-D printing will take off will depend on its ability to prove itself as the most cost effective, high quality, easiest to adopt manufacturing option for a wide range of dental products.
At the end of the day, what matters to any dental professional isn’t whether something is handmade, milled, or 3-D printed. What matters is the quality of that final part, the ease with which it can be made, and the cost of making it. Ironically, if 3-D printer manufacturers do their job well, 3-D printing itself will never be a selling point, and the process should fall into the background. (Even though, let’s admit it, machines with lasers are pretty cool.)
With prices for desktop dental 3-D printers already less than $5,000, cost doesn’t appear to be the barrier it once was. The key things to look for in the growth of adoption are applications and materials, reliability, and ease of use. Dental offices and labs have already adopted 3-D printing for applications like surgical guides and models, bringing prices for individual surgical guides down from hundreds of dollars to $3 to $5 per printed guide.
But this only represents a small portion of the dental market. We expect to see adoption explode across new 3-D printing applications such as splints, dentures, temporaries, and, one day, permanent restorations, as 3-D printing materials improve in mechanical properties, biocompatibility, and printability.
All signs point to a coming of age for 3-D printing technology in an industry that’s ripe for change. With several industry players sensing the opportunity and positioning themselves to drive the future of digital dentistry toward additive manufacturing, it’s going to be an exciting year!
Mr. Balloch is dental product lead at Formlabs. He holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering from McGill University.