One of my neighbors is a dentist who does cutting-edge teeth implants. A few months ago I was chatting with him at a social gathering, about how digitalized dentistry has become. Specifically, I we were discussing 3D printing, and whether he thought he would ever be able to print teeth implants in his own office, instead of ordering them from a specialized lab. It turns out that the mechanical and durability constraints of implants make this unpractical, at least with 3D printers that are affordable enough for a practitioner.
But, he said, scanning teeth instead of using clay molds (this horrible thing patients have to gag on for several long minutes), is already happening. Not is this infinitely less disagreeable for the patient, but it also saves days of shipping, need for storage, etc.
I recently read in the Washington Post about an orthodontist lab embracing these exact technologies. Their clients (dentistry practices) scan their patients’ teeth, upload the model, and the lab does a 3D-print of it. They then use this print the same way they would use the mold, and build the appliances ordered by the dentist.
In this scheme, only one part of the process is digitalized: the input. Appliances, implants, etc. are still manufactured by skilled technicians sitting at their workbench with precision tooling and a magnifying glass. Once the artifact has been roughly built, it is fitted on the 3D print, adjusted, fitted again, etc. Then, once it’s final, it gets in the mail to the dentist, who will do the final adjustments and the fitting.
Further progress is likely to occur as 3D printing continues to progress. Today, a orthodontic lab with enough business could invest in a more sophisticated printer than the one described in the Washington Post article, and digitalize the modeling and production of the actual artifact. These printers exist – but they are very very expensive. And tomorrow, dentists themselves could take this process one step further, handle the modeling, and simply order the artifact from a general purpose 3D printing facility. This would require more training, a different skillset, but would also be an opportunity for them to regain control of more of the value chain.
And by the way, I know I am really late for my dentist routine checkup. Not something I look forward to.
(photo credit: Wikipedia, CC BY 2.0)