How 3-D Printing is Changing the Face of Modern Dentistry

It is a well-known fact that we are living in the Age of Big Data, a period in which humanity is collecting and recording an unprecedented amount of information, which is then analyzed by computers and in turn, used to create even more information. Many of the things that revolutionized how our species lives came from this time period, changing everything from engineering and healthcare to social norms. But one of the best and most unexpected examples involves the use of 3-D printers, state-of-the-art systems that are now being used to help dentists replace missing teeth. 

Dentistry is a subject of serious concern in the United States. Over 25% of American children aged 2 to 5 years old are affected by tooth decay, an estimated 15-25% of adults 35 to 44 years old have severe periodontal disease, and an estimated 31.3% of seniors over the age of 75 have no remaining teeth. Indeed, missing teeth is a severe problem in the United States, which not only creates an unattractive appearance and esteem issues, but can also causes problems related to eating and talking. However, because it is medically considered to be an aesthetic issue, tooth replacement is largely performed by cosmetic dentists. Originally, this issue was treated throughout history with dentures; however, as dental technology has improved, the dental industry has begun working with dental implants, permanent artificial teeth that scientific literature reports as 98% successful. However, this process is evolving even further with the addition of 3-D printing, creating a practice that is now known as “digital dentistry”. 

Three-dimensional printing uses a digital model to create an object out of a wide range of materials, but most commonly use concrete and plastic. In the past, 3-D printers have been able to create everything from car parts to artificial limbs, but dentistry uses the technology in a variety of ways. One example of the technology, called CEREC Technology from SIRONA, first uses a 3-D camera to take high-resolution image of the teeth and the gap to be filled. This image is then sent to the CEREC computer, which creates a detailed model of the tooth. The model is then adjusted to appear as natural as possible before being sent to a milling unit, which creates a crown, inlay, or onlay to replace the patient’s missing tooth. Once milled, the replacement piece can be inserted that day. 

Perhaps the most telling evidence of the impact of this new technology is the way dental professionals have responded to its addition: for example, one dentist who has invested in digital dentistry practice, belonging to Dr. A.J. Vashi, describes his CEREC system as “a breakthrough technology that allows Dr. Vashi to create perfect-fit, color-matched permanent crowns using beautiful and durable high-grade porcelain.” In other words, the technology is more effective, attractive, and beneficial to both the patient and the dentist. 

Currently, the cosmetic dental industry generates an estimated $ billion in revenue in the United States. However, despite this figure, there are only 5,847 cosmetic dental facilities in the nation, and only 10% perform dental implants, the most effective method of replacing missing teeth. Despite these relatively low statistics however, the addition of digital dental practices, such as 3-D printing, promises a number of exciting developments in dentistry yet to come.

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