In-office 3D Printing: Financial and Business Considerations

3D printers have made it possible for dental practitioners to produce night guards, dentures, surgical guides and more.

When it comes to 3D printing, the question isn’t solely about whether it’s good for your dental practice — it’s also about what steps are needed to successfully leverage the technology. This means understanding the printer and its capabilities, as well as your mindset around printing, and whether it makes financial sense for your business.

Many practices take full advantage of 3D printers to produce a range of items, including night guards, dentures and surgical guides, as well as permanent restorations. Doing so not only improves efficiency for the practice, but also increases patient satisfaction through faster treatment.

Low entry price point for 3D printing and increased self-sufficiency

Now may be the time to invest in 3D printing. Equipment that used to cost $20,000 - 30,000 is now available in the $6,000 - 8,000 price point. Newer systems also make it easy and very predictable to produce designs, which has been the most challenging part of being successful in 3D printing.

One benefit of 3D printing is being able to manufacture in-house, rather than outsource. For example, practices can mill restorations right in their office simply by taking digital impressions and printing from a digital file.

In general, incorporating 3D printing workflows into a practice is fairly straightforward.

Four-step workflow

There are four basic steps to 3D printing:

Capturing images of the teeth. If moving to 3D printing, it’s best to also purchase an intraoral scanner to make the most of the digital capabilities. Once you capture the images, the scanner exports the images into STL files of models. Much of the scan work for creating night guards, retainers and mock-ups can be done by hygienists, while scanning for surgical guides, denture scans and some aligners may require assistance from a dentist.

The files can be stored on a hard drive, so that if there’s a need to go back and make a device, such as a night guard or retainer for that patient, this can be done from the digital record.

Creating your design. There are two options for producing a design: Third-party design, which means sending everything out, receiving a digital file back and then printing it, or creating the design in-house. Utilizing third-party design is best for those just starting out. Some printers have a dashboard built in so that you can upload files and receive a digital design back within 48 hours.

Once staff is more comfortable with the technology, that would be the time to bring the design in-house, offering more control, as well as more convenience for patients. When doing the design in-house, devices such as crowns could be turned around in 24 hours and printed over the weekend if needed to accommodate a patient’s schedule.

Printing. Printing itself is very straightforward. The resin goes into the resin tank, and whatever is being printed attaches to the build platform and cures one layer at a time. Doctors should not be doing the print work themselves. It’s best to train a team member who takes ownership of the process.

Post-processing. A team member should be handling the processing as well, which includes three stages:

  • Washing. Keep in mind that every time something is printed, the excess resin needs to be washed out of the printer, which can be time-consuming. However, there are new systems that allow the printer to auto-clean in a 10-minute cycle with just the push of a button. That is a big timesaver for post-processing.
  • Curing. Today there are many different resins with their own profiles and characteristics. It’s important to cure each at the right times to ensure the right shrinkage is achieved from the curing process.
  • Polishing and finishing. These steps will vary depending on what is being printed. For example, models require no finishing or polishing, while dentures and aligners require more finishing and polishing.

Financial considerations for 3D printing

Two questions to ask when deciding to move forward with 3D printing are: What can I print? And, will printing these items make sense? Some practices will print everything from surgical guides to night guards and dentures, as well as shell temporaries for big veneer cases. You can scan, design and print temporaries just like you would print restorations.

The first place to start with 3D printing is models for retainers, diagnostic wax-ups or mock-ups for temporaries. There is no design step needed for models. It simply involves exporting the image from the scanner and importing it to print.

Another area to consider in the future is aligners. Currently, those are a challenge because they are time-consuming from a post-processing standpoint. They print very quickly but then require extra legwork, such as vacuum-forming models with plastic, fabricating liners, cutting out the plastic and polishing them down — all of which takes a lot of time. The decision to print these depends on how many are needed. If the practice only needs a handful at a time, it may make sense to produce these in-house. However, in larger numbers, it still makes sense to send these to a lab.

Conclusion

Many practices have found that the time is right for 3D printing. The cost of entry and the design services are affordable, and there are a plethora of options for resins. All of this combined can make this the right time to dive into 3D printing for some practices.

The key to success in printing is having a team-driven approach. This starts with strong training to get everyone working together seamlessly. It can take some time for hygienists to understand which scans to capture, for doctors to learn what to look for in scale and for team members to become comfortable with post processing as well as finishing surgical guides. Once everyone becomes familiar with their role and how they can work in concert with one another, this can streamline day-to-day operations.

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