Your next oral surgeon might suggest 3D printing for treatment. It’s becoming a top priority in dental technology research and could potentially lead to affordable, personalized care for patients worldwide.
The engineering that goes into the development of 3D printed dentistry must be focused on solving disparities, though. This technology will only be a true success if it is accessible to everyone.
The Impact of 3D Printing in Dentistry
3D printing offers some invaluable opportunities in dentistry. Dentures, implants, caps, and other dental fixtures are extremely common. Unfortunately, they can also be expensive and frustrating to maintain. A missing tooth is often a permanent issue for people in areas with little to no access to proper dental care, not a quick trip to the dentist for a replacement.
Further, 3D printing allows dentists and engineers to develop fixtures that are completely customized for each patient. This ensures a perfect fit and natural appearance. 3D printing could also open the door to more accessible dental care.
Dentists anywhere in the world could simply print off a professionally designed artificial tooth for a patient. The wide availability of 3D printing technology would make top-notch dentures easy for anyone to get. In fact, 3D-printed crowns made from metal alloys have already been proven effective in case studies and gained popularity with patients. 3D printing could even lead to more effective fixtures using synthetic materials designed to stave off infection, gum disease, and other issues.
More R&D Is Imperative
3D printing is already revolutionizing dentistry, but it still has a long way to go. More research and development is needed to improve the technology itself and find ways to make it more accessible.
Dentists and engineers must work together to accomplish this, but a significant part of R&D goals will fall on engineers. 3D printing can create affordable, personalized dental care for people of all economic backgrounds, but this won’t be possible without significant additional development in a few key areas.
Improving 3D Printing Technology
Few can deny that 3D printing technology has made incredible strides in the last decade. However, engineers will need to keep that momentum going to develop a new generation of tech capable of meeting health care standards while remaining an affordable option. Dental 3D printers need to be reliable, consistent, precise, and easy to keep clean and sterile.
For example, suppose a patient and their dentist want to use a detailed intraoral scan to create a 3D printed prosthetic. In that case, the printer itself must be capable of precisely matching its level of detail. Intraoral scans may be complex, but they are a common tool used in dental prosthetics, so it is important for dental 3D printing to be compatible and equally precise.
Precision and reliability will be crucial in finished products, as well. A jammed extruder or choppy curve simply won’t cut it in health care 3D printing.
Bringing Prices Down
One of the main engineering challenges on the table for dental 3D printing is cost. Commercial 3D printers have become much more affordable in recent years, but the same cannot be said for medical-grade versions. This is somewhat ironic considering that the people who could benefit most from access to medical 3D printing are the same ones who struggle to afford it.
Cost-effective customization is one of the first benefits mentioned in any discussion of dental 3D printing. It is important to recognize that affordability is relative, though. The only way for dental 3D printing to genuinely accomplish its goal of cost-effective customization is to consider the least wealthy patients first. Medical 3D printing technology must be engineered to a point where it is easily affordable to health care professionals, even in the world's poorest areas. This will truly level the playing field in dental care.
Accessibility is also crucial to repairing dental disparities using 3D printing. Detailed research studies have shown that this technology is essential in improving access to quality health care in Africa, as well as nations in other parts of the world. The potential for real-world change using 3D printing is already there. The only obstacle remaining is access.
Even if technology is available and affordable, it is not always easily accessible for many patients. Manufacturers and medical retailers will need to make it easy for dental practices anywhere in the world to buy dental 3D printers to improve accessibility for patients. The models and programs required to create these dental fixtures need to be available worldwide at an easily affordable price, as well.
Innovative Dentistry for All
Image courtesy of April Miller
3D printing can change dental care for patients worldwide, particularly those in less wealthy areas. Disparities can significantly impact self-esteem, job opportunities, daily life, and long-term health issues. This technology allows dentists to make a healthy smile available to anyone, anywhere. However, this will only be possible through continuous research, development, and innovation from dentists and engineers.
April Miller is a managing editor of design technology at ReHack Magazine, as well as a contributing writer at sites such as Open Data Science and the Society of Women Engineers.