Digital Dentist Sees Future in 3D Printer
Economical hardware with free software lifts dental industry to new technological heights
When Dr. Baron Grutter told his colleagues that he had decided to buy a 3D printer for his dental practice, they joked and chuckled because they knew him so well. The Digital Dentist. Always the first on the block to acquire every innovation that might move dentistry into an exciting new era.
Grutter knew the gibes were all in fun. He was also confident that the last laugh would be his. He created an occlusal night guard that fit his patient perfectly—no adjustments needed—and it took only 15 minutes to model the guard with free software and less than an hour to print. Compare that to the traditional method of sending the specs to a lab and waiting at least two weeks for delivery.
" I routinely talk to them about the advantages and reduced complications. And I save them money. It makes it easier for everyone. "
Cost and quality control also motivated Grutter. An equivalent guard produced in a lab could cost up to $200. A 3D printed guard is less than $4 in materials, and he gladly shared his savings with his patients. “My patients know we’re a progressive, technological office. I routinely talk to them about the advantages and reduced complications. And I save them money. It makes it easier for everyone,” he says.
Nearly two years after purchasing his first 3D hardware, the Missouri-based dentist favors the SprintRay MoonRay 3D printer and uses NextDent Ortho Clear, a biocompatible material for night guards. Although Gutter’s interests and training expanded his ability to test digital products and develop new protocols, he says day-to-day use of the 3D printer is neither complicated nor difficult to operate.
Dentists Q&A : Questions In Mind
- "Should I postpone my purchase until a newer, more advanced printer is available?" No. Start your learning curve ascent.
- "What kinds of things can a printer make?" The list includes occlussal guards, surgical guides, and digital orthodonti models, depending on the hardware.
Even so, he estimates that only about 1 percent of American dental offices now own the innovation. He believes there are several reasons why.
“The early iterations of 3D printers ranged in price between $40,000 and $100,000, which rendered them financially unjustifiable,” he says. “Very few dental offices in the world could have justified the expenditure.” Fortunately, the price has plummeted to less than $5,000, but many dentists have not kept up with the times and changing digital landscape.
Also, two years ago it was very difficult to find training resources for dentists who wished to take the plunge. Online teachers began to fill the need as stratospheric prices for 3D printers fell to Earth. But if the outlay for a 3D printer is now reasonable, why haven’t more dentists hopped on the bandwagon?
The Digital Dentist believes a mental block developed during dental school may be a primary inhibitor. “Historically, dentists don’t want to do what they consider lab work. In school, we were ingrained with the idea that lab work was obnoxious and tedious and to be avoided,” he says. “And then there is the unknown.”
While fear of the unknown can be conquered, Grutter understands that many dentists may also be reluctant because they see the onsite 3D printer with software as just one more task to add to an already busy schedule. “Yes, it is one more thing I must do, but each appliance only takes me ten to twenty minutes. While the night guard or surgical guide is printing, I’m not standing around watching it,” he says. “I don’t mind tacking on a little bit of time because I like to be in control of the product.”
Speeding the Learning Curve
To speed the learning curve for other dentists, Grutter has embraced online instructional videos that include his insights about free user-friendly software programs, Blue Sky Plan and meshmixer. He also offers feebased
digital orthodontics courses on his website and will teach in Los Angeles and Chicago later this year.
As for the colleagues who giggled when he announced his affinity for the 3D process, Grutter welcomes their phone calls and emails. “I spend most of my free time on discussion boards answering questions,” he says. “Most dentists have similar concerns about function, training, and cost.”
Grutter also provides perspective on 3D competitors. SprintRay’s allin-one desktop MoonRay 3D printer may not have the same capacity as other larger models, but it is nearly four times faster. Also, MoonRay 3D can quickly print multiple precise dental models, surgical guides, all types ofsplints and retainers, provisional denture bases and impression trays. Another critical
factor is the wide array of resin options for printing dental devices.
“By partnering with NextDent, an innovator in digital dentistry, SprintRay offers far more diverse dental materials, more than double of some of its competitors,” he says.
Questions about cost are usually addressed privately, via email or phone, because in a group setting, dentists don’t want to sound cheap when analyzing financial consequences and advantages. For example, CAD/CAM machines that make crowns are expensive, but ROI is a simple math equation: twenty crowns per month multiplied by the fee tells the dentist how quickly payback is achieved. Other factors must be considered for the ROI of 3D printers.
On the one hand, as few as four patients can pay for a machine for digital orthodontists. On the other hand, a purely financial return is slower for dentists who intend to use the printer primarily for occlusal night guards and surgical guides. To better understand ROI, buyers must consider intangible factors, such as the superior quality of the product, timeliness, and lower aggravation and stress because remakes will be at a minimum.
“You can get a night guard made by a lab for as low as $100. Some patients may see that as economical. But the guard I can print for five dollars can be ready in about two hours, the quality is comparable to a $200 guard, as it fits perfectly,” he says. Grutter is quick to point out that he is not dismissing the skills of lab technicians. Many do good work. The issue is communication. “I can tell myself what I want a whole lot better than I can tell someone else. Sometimes we’re just bad communicators.”
Future Iterations: Fast and Multiple Colors
Improved speed will likely play a role as 3D dental printer brands compete for recognition. Speed is welcome and will help dental offices produce more devices in a timely fashion.
Yet Grutter reminds colleagues that even current printer speeds can be crucial in the rare emergency situations dentists face. One scenario is the patient who breaks a tooth and arrives at the dental office for an implant. Most dentists would also recommend that the patient wear a night guard afterward as therapy. Fortunately, a perfect fit can be had within hours, not weeks. Pain from acute temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders can also be relieved by guards. A quick fix is now available for the afflicted. What’s the next big thing in digital dentistry? Grutter’s wish list includes multiple colors in print materials. Pinks that match oral tissue, and subtle hues for matching crowns with original teeth. “If we can get a plethora of colors with improved materials, that has the potential to offer big changes in our profession.”
When it arrives, don’t be surprised if the Digital Dentist becomes an early adopter of the innovation.