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Could 3D printing change your mouth and dentistry altogether?

No one likes going to the dentist—even those with great dental plans.

You may even be to the point where you avoid the dentist, expecting dental care to cost more time and money than you can afford. If so, you are probably particularly leery of major restorative work, such as a new tooth or crown. Fortunately, recent advancements in the field of 3D printing will soon make these procedures much more patient-friendly.

What is 3D printing?

A regular printer transfers ink onto paper to form a two-dimensional image. It is two-dimensional because it has length and width but not depth. The printer gets its information from electronic data sent by your computer.

Where regular printers translate electronic data into words and pictures on paper, 3D printers create three-dimensional representations of electronic data using materials such as rubber or plastic. The basic principles remain the same, but the final product is different. As you might expect, the process of printing a 3D object is a bit more expensive and complex than 2D printing, but software is available to guide you through the process—and the equipment is getting cheaper all the time as more people use it.

How does 3D printing work?

First, you need to make a virtual model of whatever you want to print. A computer-assisted design can be made using 3D modeling software or, if you want to make a copy of an existing object, a 3D scanner. Once you have your model, 3D modeling software will slice the model into ultra-thin layers and save it as an STL file. This file is sent to the 3D printer, which digests each layer and seamlessly blends them together to form a single object.

Different printers use different processes, but one thing remains the same across the board. Whereas many manufacturing methods are “subtractive,” carving an object down into the desired shape, 3D printing is an additive process. The printer sprays or squeezes (or otherwise transfers) the materials being used onto a platform one layer at a time, fusing them together as it goes, until the 3D object is complete. This additive approach is capable of much more precision than subtractive methods.

Three-dimensional scanning technology is already being used by Microsoft and Google. For instance, you may be familiar with the Microsoft Kinect, which uses this technology to turn Xbox players into their own video game controllers. Similar technology soon may be available in smartphones, which would make 3D modeling as user-friendly as snapping a photo.

How can 3D printing improve dentistry?

As 3D printing becomes more widely accessible and affordable, the technology is being applied to a growing number of fields. It has been used for years by manufacturers to create prototypes more quickly. Recently, its uses have expanded to the medical, archaeological, architectural, and forensic fields.

However, the field of dentistry may be where 3D printing touches the most people in a tangible way. Some dentists are already using a subtractive milling process, known as CEREC (Chairside Economical Restoration of Esthetic Ceramics), to replace teeth, crowns, veneers, and inlays more quickly. However, 3D printing will soon be fast enough to provide a better—and, as you now know, more precise—alternative. This means that instead of enduring multiple visits, a mouthful of gunk, and a temporary fix before your mouth is back to normal, it can be done in a single sitting while you wait.

A team of scientists from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands has demonstrated how 3D technology could be used to improve orthodontics. Though longer trials and further testing would be needed for clinical use, their initial results were promising.

What makes 3D printed teeth better?

Teeth (as well as other dental fittings) made through 3D printing will be better than both traditional methods and the more modern CEREC method. The only reason 3D printing has not been incorporated into the dental field before now is the speed or lack thereof. Until very recently, 3D printing could take hours or even days, but new technology has reduced this to minutes. Once this technology makes its way to your local dentist’s office, you can experience the advantages of 3D-printed teeth firsthand. In the meantime, here’s an idea of what to expect.

First, as we mentioned earlier, your dentist will be able to make a more precise copy of your tooth using 3D scanning and printing. It can be as simple as uploading a few photos of your mouth to a 3D modeling program. Your teeth have a lot of nooks and crannies, and these tiny details can be better captured with 3D scanning than with a tray of gunk and better recreated with a 3D printer than any other method.

Second, the 3D printing process is already much faster than the traditional method, which required multiple visits and the services of an external lab. As the technology becomes faster and more affordable, dentists will be able to purchase the equipment needed to complete the entire 3D printing process in-house in a single visit. According to Joseph DeSimone, CEO of the 3D printing company Carbon3D and a professor of chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the printing process could be completed in under seven minutes.

Third, 3D printing opens the door for the use of innovative materials that can make dental fixtures last longer, cost less, or even kill bacteria. Remember that team of scientists from the Netherlands? They tested an antimicrobial plastic, hardened with an ultraviolet light and embedded with quaternary ammonium salts to kill bacteria. When tested for six days with a mixture of saliva and Streptococcus mutans, which causes tooth decay, this material killed over 99 percent of the bacteria.

For those in need of restorative dental care, the future looks bright. Overall, swapping traditional methods for 3D printing will help alleviate the high prices and hassle you associate with many dental procedures. With multiple companies racing to make the process more expedient and less expensive, you can expect to see it used at your local dentist’s office soon.

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Brought to you by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), New York, NY. Material discussed is meant for general illustration and/or informational purposes only and it is not to be construed as tax, legal, investment or medical advice.

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