3D Printed Aligners Save Dentists Costs and Time!

3D printing is already helping dentists cut costs and be more productive in many ways. One application where it can make the largest impact for both the dentists and the patients is in 3D printed aligners. People usually have their …

Ile Kauppila

March 7, 2022

3D printing is already helping dentists cut costs and be more productive in many ways. One application where it can make the largest impact for both the dentists and the patients is in 3D printed aligners.

People usually have their misaligned teeth adjusted during childhood or in their teenage years, usually with braces or brackets. But when adults get same procedure, many find visible braces embarrassing and uncomfortable.

This has made clear aligners increasingly popular. 3D printing aligners can help you provide dental care for your patients much faster and cheaper than with traditional production methods.

Let’s find out how 3D printing aligners works and how you can start producing them at your office.

How to 3D Print Aligners …

To be honest, the term “3D printed aligner” is a tad misleading. Instead of printing the aligner itself, the most common way to use 3D printers in aligner production is to print a dental model on which to thermoform the aligner. Directly 3D printing aligners may be possible, but we’ll return to that later.

The most common 3D printers dentists use to make aligners are SLA printers, such as Formlabs Form 3B+. SLA printers use a strong laser to harden liquid resin material into a solid object.

The basic dental workflow to create a thermoformed aligner with a 3D printer is:

  1. Scan: To begin with, you need a model of the patient’s teeth. You could get a traditional dental impression, but a much faster and cheaper option is to scan the patient’s teeth with an intraoral 3D scanner.
  2. Design: After the scan, you’ll have to clean up the 3D model. There are free, dentist-oriented model editing software available that are easy to use.
  3. Print: Once you have the finished model, you can send it to your 3D printer.
  4. Post-process: SLA prints can’t be used straight out of the printer. They’ll need additional washing to remove excess resin and potentially further curing to properly harden.
  5. Thermoform: Now that you have your model, all you need to do is stretch a heated plastic sheet over it to create the thermoformed aligner.
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Why 3D Print Aligners?

The growing popularity of 3D printing aligners should already tell you something about the technology’s capabilities. Indeed, dentists simply wouldn’t use it if it didn’t make their, and their patients’, lives easier.

3D printed aligners are much faster to produce than traditionally manufactured ones, which greatly increases productivity. There’s no need to take messy, expensive, and unpleasant dental impressions. In fact, the thermoforming workflow described above can be completed in about an hour.

Producing in-house aligners can also save dentists significant amounts of money. There is an up-front cost to acquire the equipment, but once you start production, you can crate aligners at a significantly lower cost. In-house 3D printing can reduce lab fees by up to 90%.

3D printing can also make aligners more effective and comfortable to wear. 3D scanned dental impressions are more accurate than traditionally made ones, while SLA is the most accurate 3D printing technology on the market. As a result, you can produce aligners that fit the patient’s mouth perfectly.

3D technology also produces less waste, since there’s no need for impression trays or subtractive manufacturing, among other benefits. A summary of the benefits is below.

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Benefits

  • Increased productivity through faster aligner manufacture
  • Lower costs for both dentist and patient
  • More effective and comfortable aligners
  • Less waste further reduces cost and environmental impact

Considerations with Thermoformed Aligners …

3D printed and thermoformed aligners absolutely provide huge benefits to dentists and their patients. However, there are a few considerations you should be aware of if you’re considering adopting the technology.

SLA resins are toxic materials. It’s therefore crucial that any 3D printer aligner models be properly washed to avoid contaminating the aligner with resin. However, this shouldn’t be an issue to any dentist following basic hygienic and sterilization practices.

The thermoforming process has been found to negatively affect the thermoplastic materials making up the aligner. The heat used to melt the plastic can make it softer and less effective in correcting teeth alignment. Additionally, the temperature and heat of the human mouth, together with saliva, eventually degrades the plastic, reducing its effectiveness.

The good news is that the mechanical issues stem from the thermoplastic material, and not the 3D printed mould. As such, you can quickly and cheaply replace degraded aligners with new ones.

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Can you Directly 3D Print Aligners?

Another way to combat the problems mentioned above could be directly 3D printing dental aligners. This means creating the aligner in the printer itself using clear resin, without the need for additional moulding or terraforming steps.

Dentists and researchers have already tried this method using Formlabs Dental LT Clear resin. The initial tests have highlighted several advantages over thermoformed aligners, including:

  • Greater accuracy and repeatability in production
  • All 3D printed aligners will be identical, no chance for error in moulding or thermoforming
  • No need for cutting or trimming, resulting in smooth edges
  • Better fit and higher effectiveness
  • Thickness of the aligner can easily be customized to fit patient needs

So, if directly 3D printing aligners is so effective, why aren’t dentists using it? The answer lies in regulation. There is currently no clinically tested and approved clear dental resin on the market that’s suitable for direct aligner printing.

However, the concrete benefits that have been demonstrated in initial tests have piqued the interest of many dentists. They have also proven that 3D printing is technically capable of directly producing aligners. As soon as we get an approved clear dental resin for aligners — the Dental LT Clear resin already seems promising — dentists are sure to start offering truly 3D printed aligners.

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Get Started with 3D Printed Aligners …

While waiting for regulators to approve a clear dental resin for direct aligner printing, you may want to start reaping the benefits of thermoformed aligners. To begin with, you will need a high-quality SLA dental 3D printer.

Formlabs Form 3B+ is one of the most popular desktop-sized dental 3D printers. With a high detail accuracy of 25 microns and fast production speed, it can quickly produce detailed dental models. The Formlabs Wash and Cure post-processing stations complete your in-house dental workflow.

The Form 3B+ is compatible with a wide range of Formlabs dental resins, including the LT Clear resin mentioned above. The Draft resin has been specifically designed for printing thermoforming models at a fast speed.

You can also count on the Form 3B+ to be future-proof. Once the eventual direct aligner printing resins hit the market, there’s no doubt the printer will support them as well.

Simply put, 3D printing dental aligners allows dentists to provide better and cheaper care to their patients. With these printers and resins, you too can embrace the 3D future of dentistry.

Do you have additional questions about 3D printed aligners? The printer gurus at SolidPrint3D are happy to answer them. Call us on 01926 333 777 or email us at info@solidprint3d.co.uk.

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