Why 3D Printing is the Future of Dentistry

The advent of cost-effective desktop 3D printing has completely revolutionized the dental industry. Today, fabricating dental restorations and prostheses at the chairside can be completed within a few hours while ensuring superior quality, durability, and esthetics compared with the conventional techniques.

By Dr. Mehmood Asghar

Successful treatment of dental problems depends on high-quality, durable, and aesthetically pleasing restorative materials. That is why material scientists and dental experts have been striving to develop modern techniques and technologies that offer the best restorative and esthetic outcomes. Since its introduction in 1984 by Chuck Hull, 3D printers have found numerous uses in routine clinical dental practice, making restoration and prosthesis fabrication simpler, more efficient, and cosmetically superior.

Why is 3D Printing the Future of Dentistry?

Estimated to be worth $1.2 billion in 2017, a report by Grand View Research predicts the global dental 3D printing market will grow by 29.3% by the year 2025. Before 3D printing technology became available, patients had to visit the office at least two times to get their teeth restored with crowns, veneers, or bridges. And if there were any discrepancies in the fit or dimensions of the prosthesis, the entire process would have to be repeated. Thankfully, that’s now a thing of the past. Today, 3D printed prostheses can be prepared in a matter of hours, and single-day, chairside porcelain crowns and veneers have become a reality – all thanks to 3D printing and milling technology.

How has 3D Printing Revolutionized the Dental Industry?

Low-Cost Desktop 3D Printers

3D printers are no longer a luxury only hospitals and renowned dental practices can afford; they've become a necessity. According to a research report by SmarTech Analysis, 3D printers, which used to cost above $90,000, are expected to be priced as low as $7,900 by this year. This is due to the introduction of cost-effective, desktop 3D printers that are not only simple to use but are also more energy-efficient than conventionally used dental 3D printers. SmarTech also forecasts that over 9,500 new 3D printers will be shipped for dental applications this year alone.

Bulk Production of Orthodontic Aligners

With patients becoming increasingly conscious of their appearance and facial esthetics, the demand for cosmetic orthodontics using clear aligners is at an all-time high these days. The widespread use of clear aligner technology, especially during the COVID-19 era, wouldn’t have been possible without industrial-scale 3D printers allowing for rapid and bulk aligner fabrication.

Seamless Process - From Design to Printing

Intraoral scanners are an essential requirement for 3D printing in dental settings. Contemporary intraoral scanners produced digital image files that were not print-ready, implying that a separate process was involved to input the .STL image files into the 3D printer system. Thanks to the modern intraoral scanning and 3D printer systems, intraoral imaging files are print-ready, as both systems are seamlessly connected through the cloud. After making digital impressions, it’s just a matter of a click to initiate the printing process.

3D Printed Ceramics

Perhaps, the most exciting application of modern 3D printing are 3D printed ceramics. Dental ceramics are among the most commonly used dental materials for the fabrication of prostheses ranging from crowns to veneers and bridges. While limitations were faced in the fabrication of zirconia-based prostheses using CAD/CAM, the possibility of 3D printing zirconia prostheses is actively being tested, and the day is not far when it will be actualized. That will be a complete game-changer for the dental industry.

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Wider Application

3D printers are not just used for fabricating veneers and crowns. Thanks to chairside dental 3D printing technology, dentists can print implant surgical templates, design and fabricate removable dentures, implant abutments, and even zirconia implants. Besides, numerous resin and metal 3D printers are available that utilize different additive manufacturing technologies like stereolithography (SLA), powder-fusion printing (PFP), solid freeform fabrication (SFF), and laser-assisted bioprinting (LAB). Furthermore, a wide range of raw materials is now available for 3D printing of dental restorations and prostheses, mainly based on the combination of powers and binders, such as resin polymers, hydrogels, and ceramics metals. Today, numerous raw materials are available to cater to the vast dental diagnostic and therapeutic applications.

The Other Side of the Picture

Despite the excellent advancements of dental 3D printing technology, certain hurdles limit its widespread and routine use in dental offices. Most 3D printing raw materials have not yet obtained FDA clearance. Although these materials are being utilized in other dental industries, FDA approval of 3D printing materials will ensure the dentists that they are using safe and non-hazardous materials on their patients. Besides, the incorporation of 3D printing in dental practice means dentists must fork out additional money for staff training and equipment costs. Nevertheless, the 3D printing era is upon us, and there is no running away from it. The sooner dental professionals accept this, the quicker it will be to adapt to the changing scenario.

Author: Dr. Mehmood Asghar is a dentist by profession and an Assistant Professor of Dental Biomaterials at the National University of Medical Sciences, Pakistan. Dr. Asghar received his undergraduate and postgraduate dental qualifications from the National University of Science and Technology (NUST). He is also currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Restorative Dentistry from Malaysia. Apart from his hectic clinical and research activities, Dr. Asghar likes to write evidence-based, informative articles for dental professionals and patients. Dr. Asghar has published several articles in international, peer-reviewed journals.

References: Nesic, D., Schaefer, B. M., Sun, Y., Saulacic, N., & Sailer, I. (2020). 3D Printing Approach in Dentistry: The Future for Personalized Oral Soft Tissue Regeneration. Journal of clinical medicine, 9(7), 2238. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm9072238

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