About eight years ago, Stratasys, a global leader in 3D printing technology, created its first 3D printers for dentistry. The past four years have seen an explosion of innovations in this sector. Eric Erickson, Dental Business Manager for Europe at Stratasys, explained what today’s 3D dental printers can do and the challenges that remain.
MedicalExpo e-mag: What are the main 3D printing innovations in dentistry?
Eric Erickson: One of the biggest innovations is the change in the way that laboratories and dental clinics work. We’ve been moving away from doing things manually and making plaster models, toward working digitally with intraoral scanners and making models with a 3D printer. Before, when things were done manually, everything started with a model. Now, everything starts digitally and ends with a model. The 3D printer is what produces the model.
That’s not the only innovation. In the area of implantology, it’s very easy to do all the planning for a surgery digitally and to print out an implant surgical guide. This guide gives the surgeon much more precision and confidence in the way that he’s going to be drilling in the mouth. Also, there’s something called a partial framework for dentures. Instead of doing this partial framework in wax by hand, it can be done digitally, printed out on a 3D printer and then cast from the printed model.
ME e-mag: What are the advantages of using 3D printing instead of doing the work manually?
Eric Erickson: It’s much faster to work digitally with a 3D printer. It’s also much more accurate, and in the lab the productivity increases dramatically. Printers can work over the weekend or during holidays, and reliability and repeatable quality is higher than what can be achieved manually.
ME e-mag: What can’t we do today with a 3D printer?
Eric Erickson: Right now, nobody is printing permanent teeth. But it’s obviously something that Stratasys is working on very hard, because it’s fine to be able to print models, surgical guides or partial frameworks, but ideally we want to be able to print teeth.
We use inkjet technology, so we can mix different resins to get different colors, different levels of translucency, as well as different mechanical properties. This will be very good for printing teeth, and only we have this capability.
Replacement teeth today still need a manual coloring process, which is not always natural-looking. But with our technology, the teeth can come out very natural-looking because we can control each individual micro-droplet of resin. Some parts of the teeth can be slightly more flexible or slightly more rigid. These are the kinds of things you can’t do today, even if you’re milling. Only 3D printers can do that, and Stratasys has the unique technology that allows us to do that better than anyone else.
ME e-mag: When can we expect to see 3D-printed permanent teeth?
We can expect to see 3D-printed permanent teeth within the next five to ten years.
Eric Erickson: I would say within the next five to ten years. The challenge will be to make sure you get the right mechanical properties. We want those properties to be stable for the life of the tooth and for the life of the patient, for decades. It’s doable, but it’s a big challenge.
ME e-mag: What kind of material is used for the 3D-printed models?
Eric Erickson: The models themselves are made from an acrylic resin. Today, we’re not printing crowns and bridges, but in the future we will. We hope to be using resins infused with particles to give them the required mechanical properties. They will need to be biocompatible, but also to be strong enough to withstand the forces in the mouth.
ME e-mag: Who are the main buyers of 3D printers? Will their cost drop?
Eric Erickson: Our customers are mainly dental laboratories. Regarding the price, it always goes down. More customers and increased demand will lead to more supply and more competition. Like with anything else, that will drive prices down.