Something that the entire 3D printing industry is frequently guilty of is building too much hype about the future. It seems like not a day goes by without someone talking about all the amazing things that 3D printing will be doing for us tomorrow, like how it might replace entire factories or how 3D printers could print brand new people (thanks to Will.i.am for that one). It’s hard not to fall into the trap. After all, amazing things really are happening every day with companies across the 3D printing sector pushing boundaries.
3D printers can do more things for more people even compared to a year ago. Moreover, for those of us who have been in the industry for a long time, we know that 3D printing has been revolutionising manufacturing processes for decades. The problem is that the more recent hype has blurred the lines for the general public between what is possible now and what might be possible in 10 years.
One area particularly prone to this is medicine and healthcare, where we love to talk about the possibility of new 3D printed organs or 3D printers carrying out surgeries to build new blood vessels in the body. Some of these ideas are already in testing phase and there’s no doubt that they are coming. However, they’re still a long way away from the average patient. Shouldn’t we instead be making time to sing the praises of how 3D printing is already being used in healthcare today, helping patients in other ways?
Take dentistry for example. A quiet 3D printing revolution is now taking place in dentist surgeries to make life a little bit easier for patients. Very few people look forward to going to the dentist, particularly when they’re going for surgery to replace or rebuild lost teeth. This particular field is known as implant dentistry, where new teeth are fixed permanently into the jaw of a patient by drilling implants.
Until very recently, the vast majority of implant surgeries were carried out freehand. By that I mean that the dentist would work out where drilling needed to take place by looking at scans and then placing the drill by eye. Most of us might find this surprising – it certainly doesn’t seem particularly high tech for an industry which usually operates at the cutting edge. In the small number of cases where drilling is not done freehand, the dentist requires a drilling guide which will hold the drill in the correct place and which must be bespoke to the patient’s mouth.
These bespoke guides have been available for a while now, but previously needed to be created away from the dentist surgery in specific manufacturing plants. They were also very expensive, costing around $350 each to create and produce. Many patients, faced with this extra cost, therefore opted not to use the guides, even where they were offered.
Now, affordable and accurate desktop 3D printing is changing this entirely. We’ve been working with Dr. Rick Ferguson of Implant Educators who, from his Florida based surgery, has been helping dentists to create their own guides in-house for a fraction of the cost. By using a Robox 3D printer in his surgery, Dr. Ferguson is now able to make drilling guides for less than $15. Furthermore, rather than having to wait days for delivery, Dr. Ferguson can scan the patient’s jaw in the morning, produce the digital file for the guide and print it during the day, and then perform the surgery that afternoon.
The total time taken to produce the guide can be cut down by 90%. The cost to the patient, in terms of both time and money, is therefore minimal while the benefits to both them and the dentist are huge, with surgery times reduced and a much higher quality, and safer, result. Dentists can spend less time in surgery and more time consulting with patients.
These kinds of new techniques in patient care are unlikely to make the front pages any time soon. After all, they don’t have the same exciting appeal as hypothetically 3D printing a new eyeball. But they are having a major impact on making dentists’ jobs more efficient and surgery for patients less uncomfortable. So when you’re next in your dentist’s waiting room, keep an eye out for a 3D printer duly working away producing simple yet high tech guides. You might just find it next to the fish tank.
Chris Elsworthy is the CEO of CEL and creator of the Robox 3D printer.