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Leveraging Industrial 3D Printing to Enhance the Dental Experience

By Ankush Venkatesh, Intrapreneur, Additive Manufacturing, Glidewell Dental Laboratories

With its ability to produce highly customized, complex parts, additive manufacturing (AM) is well suited to the rigors of the dental manufacturing process. Applications such as nightguards and dentures must be meticulously tailored to a patient's anatomy. The precision offered by industrial 3D printing allows dental labs and practitioners alike to fabricate personalized dental products with unparalleled accuracy and speed.

As a result, the dental industry has been a trailblazer with dental facilities moving swiftly to implement and utilize additive technologies. Dental laboratories were some of the earliest adopters, driven by the need for efficient, large-scale production solutions.

At Glidewell Dental Laboratories, we recently hit the milestone of receiving more digital impressions — those produced by intraoral scanners — than physical impressions. This reinforces the fit of inherently digital manufacturing technologies, such as additive, to grow its foothold on production floors.

From Laboratory to Clinic

Alongside techniques like intraoral scanning, a growing number of dentists are adopting "chairside printing," bringing part production closer to the point of care. This means additive is poised to enable distributed manufacturing at scale, notwithstanding the significantly higher volume of printed parts among various verticals and applications.

An American Dental Association (ADA) study found that 17% of dentists utilize a 3D printer within their practice. An additional 21% said they were planning to use 3D printing in the future. The reported benefits are broad. Almost 70% of those using 3D printers said it increased efficiency, and 44% said it helped them reduce costs. The advantages also extended to patients, with 20% of practitioners saying 3D printing contributed to both improved outcomes and better communication.

This is particularly relevant when the field faces critical staffing issues. The dental sector is suffering labor shortages at every level, from doctors to front-office staff. The Health Policy Institute (HPI) estimates that in 2022 these challenges have led to an 11% drop in dental practice capacity nationwide, with more than half of the dentists surveyed looking to add staff in 2022.

The same pattern is playing out in dental laboratories. Skilled technicians are increasingly hard to find, and many locations report difficulty recruiting talent. But the struggle to hire and retain staff is offset, to some degree, by technologies that enable laboratories to automate and standardize processes, reducing reliance on human labor.

A Maturing Technology

Early applications of additive technologies were limited to intermediary steps of the manufacturing process, such as producing dental models for use in fabrication of end-use appliances including retainers, aligner, nightguards, etc. However, material and hardware developments, along with lower barriers to access, have allowed dental technicians to leverage AM for direct printing.

One significant advancement was the transition from point-based technologies (such as SLA) to layer-based technologies (such as LCD or DLP). The advantage of course curing entire layers of material at once enables users to condense print cycles, making the printing process more time- and cost-efficient. As these machines have become increasingly affordable, laboratories and dental offices have continued to embrace the technology.

Similarly, material jetting, or inkjet-based AM, is on the rise and here to stay from the looks of it. Precisely controlling the deposition of UV-curable ink droplets enables multi-material and multi-colored part production. This unlocks new design freedoms and application-specific tuning for aesthetic considerations, which are key value propositions for many dental appliances.

These examples illustrate how rapidly the field is maturing — and how much is already possible, with a promise of much more to come. Further advancements in technologies such as Volumetric Printing could make them viable options for production and offer stiff competition for the incumbents in the space. As additional industries invest in AM and more companies throw their weight behind research and development, the opportunities for innovation will only grow.

Driving Product Personalization and Performance

Because the dental industry is ahead of the curve in its adoption of additive technologies, it is now in a position to lead the way for those in other sectors. In particular, advancements in mass customization will have wide-ranging implications for healthcare and consumer goods. For instance, the design freedoms unlocked by these technologies have the potential to not only fundamentally change the way products such as athletic and protective equipment are designed or produced, but also to bring the patient further into the process of designing and prescribing these products.

At RAPID + TCT 2024, I'll explore this topic in more depth in a conference presentation on digital manufacturing for sports mouthguards. In this case study, I'll share how Glidewell Dental Laboratories is shifting from traditional manufacturing methods to an AM-enabled process to refine the quality and customization of protective devices. The digitization of these standard production practices opens up new design and production workflows for the dental and sports industries. Most excitingly, though, they pave the way for future developments in product personalization and performance.

Improving Patient Care

For the additive industry, the dental sector serves as a compelling case study for early and successful adoption. While medical and dental represent a relatively small portion of global manufacturing output, dental printing accounts for close to one-third of the global AM market.

In their 2023 report, SmarTech Analysis estimated that dental printing generated $4 billion in global revenue in 2022. By 2031, they project this number will reach over $9.7 billion, increasing around 10% each year. That growth represents an opportunity for the dental sector to uncover innovative ways to boost patient outcomes.

My presentation at RAPID + TCT will be one of many that explore the latest research, data, and use cases within the dental and healthcare fields. Other sessions in the healthcare track will detail how practitioners are harnessing AM to produce resorbable medical implants and replicate natural tissue characteristics, among other topics.

The dental and healthcare industries are only beginning to unpack the possibilities of additive technologies. Already, remarkable advancements are reshaping how we approach patient care. As the field continues to evolve, so too will our ability to produce the highest quality of products that enhance the patient experience.

Ankush Venkatesh is the Intrapreneur, Additive Manufacturing at Glidewell Dental Laboratories, where he focuses on unlocking the potential of 3D printing to innovate products and business models. Prior to this, he was a Strategy Fellow at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, where he specialized in digital strategy and Industry 4.0 technologies. In addition to writing for publications such as Harvard Business Review and Forbes, he frequently speaks at the largest 3D printing events in the world. He will be presenting a conference session at RAPID + TCT 2024.