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Pros and cons of dental 3D printing, from a dental tech

Dec. 13, 2022
Are you thinking about incorporating 3D printing technology into your practice? Now is the time, and this dental tech offers a realistic view of what you can expect.

3D printing is one of the greatest tools to enter dentistry in recent years. It seems that every few months something newer and faster comes along to advance dentistry—not to mention the new resins that are rapidly progressing. In some cases, 3D printing has unlocked the ability to mass-produce, greatly reducing material costs within an efficient workflow. But 3D printing has its pros and cons.

What to consider with 3D printing

Not everything mass-produced is perfect. Things break, or they don’t always work as intended. It’s critical to have a basic understanding of the problems that could occur with this technology. This isn’t to scare you if you’re looking to purchase a printer; instead, I want to create the expectation that this journey will take time and effort. Luckily, there is an unending supply of posts, videos, and groups about 3D printing to help you along the way. The print community is growing so rapidly that many problems are being addressed in manufacturers’ new designs.

Talking digital workflows and 3D printing: “Nothing has transformed dentistry this much”

Dental 3D printing: The technology of now

All of this comes at a cost. There seem to be two points of view on buying printers in certain price ranges. Are you going from a “big printer” to a “gumball printer”? Do you want to spend a few hundred, a few thousand, twenty thousand, or in some cases forty thousand for a complete printer solution? Well, it depends. If you’re willing to do the problem-solving and take the time to learn, you may be good with a printer in the middle to lower price range. It depends on your understanding of the technology. If you want practically a hands-off experience with redundancy, you’re looking at price tags on the higher end. The better the printer, redundancy, and support, the higher the cost.

Another huge factor to help determine what type of printer to buy is the available resins. Resins for models, guides, and splints are common and have been validated on most printers. This means the company has provided a print profile for that specific material on their printer. Some resins are marketed only for a particular manufacturer’s printer. A perfect example is Flexcera, a resin developed for crown, bridge, and full-mouth restorations. Flexcera 3D printing material works out of the box on their printers, but it hasn’t been mass-adopted by other printers. A few individuals are developing profiles for this resin on lower-end printers, which seems promising but may not provide predictability or much support for new users.

Keep in mind the different printer types: SLA, DLP, and LCD. SLA is slower as it traces each part of the print. DLP and LCD are similar in that they cure one layer or slice at a time. However, DLP uses a projector with mirrors, and LCD uses liquid-crystal display screens.

In most cases, 3D printers can produce multiple prints quickly. Some printers have small build plates but offer very fast print times; others have huge build plates but take a little longer to print. This is all dependent on the type of printer and resin profile you’re using.

The advantages I’ve seen with 3D printing include the ability to print multiple items at once. We can print 12–18 full-mouth arches in the time it takes to mill one arch. There is an advantage in producing working models, splints, and guides at this rate. The printer you choose should easily cover its costs if you have the proper workflows and print protocols in place.

Expect some problems, but learn from them

If you are interested in 3D printing, start the journey as soon as possible. Understand that there are additional pros and cons than what we’ve discussed here. You should have realistic expectations about this technology. If you have a misprint along the way, be prepared to create a controlled test to determine whether your workflow is at fault or it’s a machine defect. Be ready to research any problems and keep in mind that it will take time and repetition.

Remember, a cheaper printer solution means more work up front and potential problems to solve. A higher price range generally gives you a complete workflow and support system. Everyone’s journey into 3D printing is different, but this is a realistic outlook when it comes to purchasing a printer. My best advice is to expect problems and learn through them.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Through the Loupes newsletter, a publication of the Endeavor Business Media Dental Group. Read more articles and subscribe to Through the Loupes.