3-D printing a smile

2016-8-22_uf_college_of_dentistry-6211Many patients at the UF College of Dentistry are getting 3-D printed smiles.

Dental implants, bridges and crowns are just a few of the things being produced with the help of 3-D printing, offering patients stunning smiles at a low cost and helping revolutionize dental manufacturing. Using X-rays and CT scans, 3-D printing software helps dentists and dental specialists to practice future surgeries and create guides for their patients’ planned surgeries.

William Martin, D.M.D., FACP, the director of the Center for Implant Dentistry and a prosthodontist in the department of oral and maxillofacial surgery, said his department uses 3-D printing for dental implant procedures, an additive manufacturing process that fabricates the surgical guides from scratch.

“We primarily use the 3-D printer to fabricate what we refer to as a template or surgical guide that is inserted into the mouth when we are placing dental implants,” he says. “They actually guide us in preparing the bone for positioning the dental implant ideally based upon a digital blueprint.”

Using special X-rays known as cone-beam CT scans, Martin said the clinic creates three-dimensional images that are imported into software where the treatment team can virtually perform the surgery.

“So we can perform the surgery in the computer before we execute it in the mouth,” Martin says.

Once the surgery is practiced on the computer and the dental implants are placed exactly where they need to be, a surgical template is designed that fits into the patient’s mouth at the time of surgery that will guide the surgeon in that exact direction, Martin said. That template design is then sent to the 3-D printer, which will print and fabricate the surgical guide so it can be inserted into the mouth during the implant surgery.

2016-8-22_uf_college_of_dentistry-6546The 3-D printer makes the process go much smoother, allowing for increased accuracy and decreased surgical and healing time, Martin said. The printing technology also acts as a beneficial tool for making educational materials to train dentists, offering the same degree of accuracy and consistency to each item printed.

“The ability to print in combination with the software technology is really opening up avenues that we didn’t have before,” he says. “It shows the kind of technology we have, where we are going and the different things we can do.”

Similar to 3-D printing, computer-aided design can also be used for a subtractive process, known as 3-D milling — a process used by Geraldine Weinstein, D.D.S., a clinical associate professor at the UF College of Dentistry.

“Instead of building something from plastic or whatever you want to print with, we are taking away from a block of porcelain and cutting it into shape and size, like a crown for a tooth,” says Weinstein.

Dental 3D PrintingThe process is completed with the help of large milling machines, but is still designed using the same process as that of 3-D printing. This method is used for restorations like crowns and bridges.

Not only does this allow the clinic to deliver these restorations at a lesser cost, the procedure can also take place in the same day.

“In years past, we used to have to send impressions of the tooth to the lab and have it made and have it come back two weeks later,” Weinstein says. “But now we get it the same day and we can provide the patient with the restoration immediately. Patients don’t have to wait — with uncomfortable temporary crowns — anymore.”

Dental students also reap some rewards from this 3-D technology. According to Weinstein, there are very few schools that teach their dental students these kinds of procedures in the clinical area.

“I think it is to our advantage that we have all the equipment here,” she says. “It adds to the prestige of the university and prepares our young dentists for the future.”

Although they have many differences, both of these printing processes are limited by the materials that are currently available for use.

“As we get more materials developed, there will be more options in types of restorations down the line,” Weinstein says.

Regardless, this technology has made its impact on dentistry and will continue to have a place within the industry, Martin said.

“If you were to say do you have a wish list of equipment that you want in your clinic, the 3-D printer would be in the top three of my wish list,” he says.

This is an excerpt from a cover story about the way that UF Health providers are using 3-D printing for patient care. The full story is in the September 2016 issue of The POST, a monthly newsletter of UF Health and you can access it here.

— Brittany Valencic