The medical sector is one that has seen a great number of benefits from 3D printing in recent years. Dentistry, in particular, has had 3D printers and material developments dedicated to it, research into specialized software solutions, and a whole mountain of innovative applications such as 3D printed orthodontics and dental models.
3D printing for orthodontics and restorations
Orthodontics is a specialty within dentistry that focuses on correcting malpositioned teeth and jaws and misaligned bite patterns. 3D Printing helps orthodontic practitioners with print preparation software, printers, and automated post-processing tools that reduce costly remakes and provide an increased level of accuracy.
Of the major players in the market space, 3D printer OEM Formlabs certainly takes the lion's share. The company has a whole range of SLA-based resin printers - such as Form 2 and Form 3 - specifically for dental professionals. On top of this, it offers a wide variety of dental-specific resins for different types of restorations and orthodontic pieces.
Earlier this year, Formlabs introduced three new options to its Dental family of resins, covering all bases of a dental professional’s workflow. The first resin, Dental LT Clear V2, is fracture-resistant, discoloration-resistant, and can be polished to transparency. As a result, it’s perfect for long-term splints and occlusal guards (see-through mouth guards).
The second is aptly named Custom Tray Resin and is designed for – you guessed it – custom impression trays. It is one of Formlabs’ fastest curing resins and can be used to fabricate a tray in less than an hour, enabling higher throughput production. The direct printed trays can be used to take precise dental impressions for crowns, bridges, implants, and dentures.
The final resin is intended to extend Formlabs’ reach into the temporary restorations market. Temporary CB Resin is available in four VITA shades and can produce durable seven-unit bridges and other smaller temporary restorations lasting up to 12 months. The extensive list of options for this resin includes crowns, bridges, inlays, onlays, and veneers.
There have even been some major names outside of the industry taking a plunge into the technology. The well-established SmileDirectClub, a Nashville-based tele-dentistry company, has partnered with MJF printer manufacturer HP to ramp up production of its inexpensive, personalized clear aligners and other teeth-straightening treatments.
Together, the partners’ deployed 49 HP Jet Fusion 3D printing systems across the USA running 24/7, producing more than 50,000 unique mouth molds a day, which is an estimated 20 million molds annually.
Dental models and software
Dental models are another major application of 3D printing technology that often requires realism, including color-precision, to be effective. This is where 3D printer OEM Stratasys comes in. The company has previously launched a full-color PolyJet machine, the J720 Dental, specifically to 3D print ultra-realistic dental models in 500,000 color combinations.
The system has a large build volume of 490 x 390 x 200mm, making it suitable for multi-part builds and high-throughput production. A feature like this makes it great for an educational environment where multiple students can receive and practice on identical dental models at once. The machine also has an accuracy of up to 200 microns and can print in full-color using various materials, which can mimic the shape, texture, and color of teeth and gums.
To make dental 3D printing happen, however, software solutions are absolutely crucial. While there are several effective software packages out there, some stand head and shoulders above the rest. uLab Systems' dental aligner planning software, which allows for the same-day 3D printing of clear orthodontic appliances, is one such package. The company has had over 13,000 cases planned with its "chairside" dental movement planning software, since launching a pilot program for it in 2018.
Like many other 3D dental planning programs, the uLabs software makes use of patient-specific 3D scans to deliver precise, individualized treatments. With something as unique as a dental plan, a one size fits all approach is rarely optimal, so the combination of 3D scanning and printing is extremely potent here.
Traditionally, dental models, prosthetics, and orthodontic pieces are either machined or made using investment casting processes. However, these methods are not capable of manufacturing the highly complex shapes that 3D printing can, which is why we're seeing such a rapid rise in the adoption of the technology.
One of the major hurdles holding additive back, however, is probably the trust in technology due to its relative infancy. Ultimately, what's needed is a greater investment in regulation development, and with clearances from organizations such as the FDA, 3D printing for the dental sector could skyrocket.