In our office, we use one of the most advanced and versatile computerized restoration systems available: CEREC. This computer-aided design / computer aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) system allows us to make dental crowns and tooth-colored fillings called inlays and onlays from hard and attractive ceramic materials.
But will this advanced system soon be replaced by an even more advanced 3D printing system in the future? It’s possible, but there are still some major challenges that 3D printing has to overcome before it’s ready to do dental work.
Potential Benefits of 3D Printing
There are some really good potential benefits of 3D printing. First, printing might be able to make more detailed and elaborate structures, which could potentially help your tooth look more natural and even improve fit of the restoration.
Printing might also offer some antibacterial benefits as researchers in the Netherlands have figured out how to incorporate antibacterial materials into a 3D printed plastic that could be used for dental fillings, dentures, and even braces.
And 3D printing might be faster than milling. With new advancements in 3D printing technology, we might be able to make a tooth in as little as 6 minutes, significantly shorter than milling a CEREC restoration, which may take as long as 20 minutes (though it could take as little as 8).
Challenges Facing 3D Printing
Although 3D printing has many applications in dentistry today, it is still not ready for use in making dental restorations, and there are several challenges the technology will have to overcome before it is ready.
Most of the materials used in 3D printing so far are not durable enough for dental applications. For example, the antibacterial plastic might be strong enough for a filling or a denture, but it isn’t as strong as the ceramics used in CEREC. It certainly wouldn’t be strong enough for a permanent crown. We also don’t know how well printed materials would resist being immersed in saliva for indefinite periods of time. Metals can be used, and these have potential applications that are already being explored, such as use in jaw replacement surgery for TMJ.
Next there’s the problem of aesthetics. Plastics aren’t as attractive as ceramics, and since dental ceramics aren’t yet being printed for restorations, we will have to wait before we know what they will look like. And for most places where the restoration will be seen, metal is not a good option.
And then we don’t know whether these benefits are really all that good. Having some extra help fighting bacteria in your mouth is good, but the resolution differences between printing and milling are unlikely to make a significant difference in the appearance, and the time savings might be minor.
So, as it looks now, it’s unlikely that 3D printing will replace the CEREC technology any time in the near future. What the far future of dentistry holds is a much harder question. Maybe by the time 3D printing is ready for dentistry, laser tooth regeneration will have all but eliminated the need for fillings.