The digital design of the crown is transmitted to a CNC (computer numerical control) milling machine.
By Saul Kaplan: As a tech junkie and geek wannabe I’ve been paying attention to 3D printing and the exploding maker movement. When I say paying attention, I mean reading about it, watching hackers and hobbyists make stuff, and wondering if there is more to the technology than the brightly colored plastic tchotchkes cluttering my desk. 3D printing really hasn’t affected me yet. That is until I recently chipped a tooth and had no choice but to visit my family dentist. It was the dentist’s chair that more than any article or demo converted me to the potential of 3D printing. Sometimes disruption has to hit you right in the mouth before you pay attention.
Now, I was no stranger to restorative dentistry. About seven years ago I had chipped another tooth that required a crown and didn’t remember the process fondly. It required multiple drawn out — not to mention expensive — visits to my dentist. He first had to make a physical mold of my damaged tooth. The mold was sent out to a local dental lab to manufacture a permanent crown. In the meantime, I was sent home with the inconvenience of a temporary crown made of a cured composite secured with temporary cement. Weeks later when the permanent mold was back from the lab I was summoned to the dentist for another lengthy visit to secure the new crown in place.
I wasn’t a happy camper, facing the same fate seven years later.. However, this time instead of a physical mold my dentist inserted a digital camera in my mouth and the next thing I knew a digital image of my damaged tooth immediately appeared on a computer screen positioned right next to my dental chair. My dentist knows I’m a tech junkie so he went out of his way to demonstrate his new high tech capability. I watched my damaged tooth rotating in all of its 3D glory when he ran the design software to quickly and magically fit a digital crown on top of my chipped digital tooth. Voila! He even made a few manual tweaks to the digital crown using the computer aided design software, a little bit off the side here and a little smoothing there.
It’s what happened next that blew me away and convinced me that 3D printing is a big deal. My dentist pushed send on his keyboard, then took me into another room in his dental office where he proudly pointed to a piece of equipment the size of a large microwave. The digital design of my new crown had been transmitted to a CNC (computer numerical control) milling machine. There are two basic approaches to 3D printing: printers that deposit layer after layer of materials to build an object from the ground up, and CNC milling machines which takes a block of material and carve out the desired object. I watched in awe as my crown was sculpted from a block of dental composite right before my eyes.
In about ten minutes, with my new crown in hand, it was back to the dental chair where it was expertly put in place permanently. I asked my dentist if this new capability put the dental lab that used to make routine crowns out of business. He told me he had just reviewed his budget and that he had actually increased his spending at the lab. It turns out the lab is busier than ever focusing on non-routine, higher value restorative work. At the same time, my dentist is busy delivering better value to his patients, and I got a new crown in a single visit and a life lesson in innovation.
Sometimes the most compelling use for a new technology isn’t the one that gets showed off in the expo hall or makes it onto YouTube. The plastic toys that can now be printed on demand may not matter much, but for the dentist, as for any number of other professions, the chance to design and manufacture products in house with 3D printing is already revolutionizing business.
Photo credit: Florida Today