My friend in Maryland was telling me about having a crown done by their dentist. They were especially impressed that their dentist had made their new tooth with a 3D printer. I listened and smiled politely. Thinking they must have misunderstood their doctor, I later googled the office website and took a look. Sure enough, 3D printed crowns were prominent on the office menu. Wondering if this was just an aberration, I googled 3D printed crowns and found offices all over the nation that were doing them. Who knew?
3D printing vs. CAD/CAM milling
I can be overly picky some times, but this just bugged me because I knew that 3D printing of crowns was an area of active research, but not on anyone’s shelf yet. Not even close. What they were calling 3D printing was actually CAD/CAM milling.
3D printing is an additive process, in which micro-layers of some material (usually a polymer) are slowly added under computer control to build up and create a desired product. CAD/CAM milling is a subtractive process, in which a computer-controlled milling unit starts with a block of some material and carves and sculpts it to create a desired product.
CAD/CAM milling coupled to digital impression systems have been around in dentistry for almost 20 years now. In the last few years, they have finally developed to the point that their speed and accuracy are now very good and costs have started to come down to make them somewhat cost-effective.
Material choices are still limited
The only real issue for each system, printing or milling, is that material choices are still limited. New development as to material choices is improving, and 3D printing is starting to make entry into commercial dental laboratories for acrylic model construction and for denture and orthodontic appliance fabrication. As to crowns, we will see. I think it is likely at some point 3D printed crowns will be an option as materials develop, speed and accuracy improve, and cost comes down from the stratosphere.
So why the 3D printing claims?
I think that the intersection of new technology with modern marketing can lead to creative claims. 3D printing as a buzzword is all the rage in the news now, and the desire to be the first on the block and to set one office apart from the next may influence word choice.
Personally, although CAD/CAM milling may not sound so glamorous, I think it’s pretty impressive nonetheless. For now, I’ll save the 3D printing for my next iPhone case.