How to Choose a 3D Printer for Your Dental Practice or Lab
Additive manufacturing is making digital dentistry a no-nonsense business choice, combining high quality and improved patient care with low unit costs and streamlined workflows.
The 3D printing market has been rapidly expanding, bringing the technology within reach for more businesses. But which technologies are relevant for dentistry? How do different printers compare in quality, accuracy, throughput, and value? Why do some cost less than $5,000, and others $80,000+?
In this guide, we’ll look at the different 3D printing technologies for dentistry and all of the attributes to evaluate before investing in a 3D printer.
- Dental 3D Printing Technologies
- How to Evaluate 3D Printing Solutions
- Get Started with Dental 3D Printing
New to digital dentistry? Find out more about the difference between analog and digital workflows, and learn what’s involved in integrating 3D printing into your business.
Today, three 3D printing technologies are common in dentistry: stereolithography (SLA), digital light processing (DLP), and material jetting. Each technology can deliver the precision and accuracy needed for dental applications, but quality can vary among different machines and systems. Spend the time to understand each technology, but remember that it’s more important to evaluate specific equipment and judge based on part quality, ease of use, reliability, and cost.
In stereolithography, a vat of liquid resin is selectively exposed to a laser beam across the print area, solidifying resin in specific areas. Stereolithography is highly accurate and has the best surface finish of the three technologies. SLA printers offer large build volumes and a wide range of materials for various applications. Switching materials is as easy as swapping the resin tank and cartridge. The combination of small footprint, simple workflow, and low price make desktop SLA printers well-suited for both dental labs and practices.
Digital Light Processing (DLP)
Digital light processing operates with the same chemical process as SLA, but uses a digital projector as a light source to solidify the resin, rather than a laser. DLP printers have a small footprint, simple workflow, and wide range of material options, but at a substantially higher cost than desktop SLA printers. DLP parts also tend to show voxel lines—layers formed by small rectangular bricks due to digital screen—and have a generally lower quality surface finish.
Material jetting (PolyJet and MultiJet Modeling) 3D printers work similarly to inkjet printing, but instead of jetting drops of ink onto paper, they jet layers of liquid resin onto a build tray and cure them instantly using light. Material jetting technologies were the most common in the dental industry a few years ago, but expansion was limited by their high cost and the large size of the machines. They require extensive post-processing and the surface finish of parts produced with this technology is generally inferior to SLA or DLP. Material jetting systems have high throughput, but can only be used for a limited range of applications due to the costly, proprietary materials.
Comparison of Dental 3D Printing Technologies
|Stereolithography (SLA)||Digital Light Processing (DLP)||Material Jetting (MJP, PolyJet)|
Wide range of materials
Easy to use
Wide range of materials
Easy to use
|Cons||Speed (single part)||Expensive machinery
Small build volume
Limited material options
|Price||Starting at $3,500||Starting at $12,000||Starting at $35,000|
For more in-depth insight into the different 3D printing technologies and digital workflows for dentistry, we recommend watching this webinar on digital dentistry by Michael Scherer DMD, MS, APC.
Accuracy and Precision
Guaranteeing high-quality final parts is the most important concern for a dental practice or lab. The three best measures to take to protect yourself from buying inaccurate equipment are:
- Be skeptical: don’t trust what companies say.
- Judge accuracy benchmarked on final 3D printed models, not on technical specifications.
- Order sample parts and judge accuracy and precision for yourself.
Manufacturers may try to confuse prospective customers with misleading statements and technical specifications. Most commonly, they masquerade layer height, laser spot size, or pixel size as “accuracy,” even though these specifications do not have a direct impact on accuracy of final parts. While most companies refer to a single number for accuracy (e.g., 50 microns or 75 microns), these are typically marketing gimmicks, and most commonly represent the limit of resolution of the printer.
Fundamentally, a printer’s accuracy and precision are defined by how well calibrated all of its systems are, so a system can only be judged on its final printed parts. Desktop optical scanning allows for the comparison of the organic shapes of printed dental prosthetics to the STL that was sent to the machine. Scans of printed models are scored in terms of the percent of points within a given distance from the nominal point on the STL (e.g., 80 percent of points within ±50 microns).
Always demand accuracy studies with real scan data of printed parts. Even better, ask for a free sample part or a custom sample of your own design that you can measure yourself against the original design, and judge the quality using free comparison software.
For more information on accuracy and precision, we recommend reading this white paper about dental model production with 3D printing, and independent studies (1, 2) comparing the accuracy of popular dental 3D printers.
Ease of Use and Reliability
How easy a 3D printer is to use, and how reliable it will be in production are also important considerations. After all, your team is going to have to learn how to use the equipment and maintain it on a daily basis. Try to get a sense of the learning curve that will come with a new 3D printer by watching videos online, visiting a trade show, contacting sales, or asking colleagues about their experience.
Think carefully about the equipment’s setup requirements. Some newer printers are designed intuitively enough to start printing straight out of the box. Other more complicated machines require a service technician to be present during setup.
Pay close attention to the types of everyday interactions and maintenance the printer will need once it is up and running. Automatic resin dispensing, available on select SLA machines and material jetting printers, can make a big difference in keeping a clean, low-maintenance production environment, and also allows for quick switching between materials.
Early 3D printers had an infamous reputation for spending half of their life in service, with many failed prints even when they were online. Fortunately, the latest generation of printers are pushing beyond this. For example, users of the Form 2 3D printer reported a success rate of over 95 percent on millions of prints across tens of thousands of machines. Dig deep into published reliability information, and make sure that a manufacturer has appropriate warranties and service offerings to ensure you’ll be taken care of if service is needed.
Costs and Return on Investment
Adopting new technology needs to simply make sense for your business. Remember to consider:
- Upfront costs, including not just the machine cost, but also training and setup for larger-format machines, as well as, potentially, software.
- Running costs, best estimated with per-unit material costs.
- Servicing and maintenance costs, which can sometimes include compulsory service contracts and cost as much as 20 percent of the upfront cost of the printer annually.
All of these factors have a direct impact on how fast you can make a return on investing in 3D printing technology. The good news is that with smaller-format, low-cost machines that offer high-output quality, it’s now possible for dental labs and practices to achieve positive ROI within months.
Materials and Applications
Professional 3D printers are some of the most versatile tools found today in dental labs and practices, and the key to their versatility is dedicated materials.
The material selection varies by printer model. Some basic 3D printers can only produce orthodontic models, while more advanced models can manufacture highly accurate crown and bridge models, surgical guides, castable/pressable restorations, and long-term and biocompatible dental products like splints, retainers, or dentures.
Some 3D printers work only with proprietary materials, which means your options are limited to the offerings of the printer manufacturer. Others have an open system, meaning that they can use materials made by third party manufacturers. In the case of these third party materials, it’s important to make sure that the results achieve clinically acceptable quality and accuracy.
Manufacturers release new materials on a regular basis, so there’s a good chance that the printer you buy today will become capable of creating an increasing variety of dental products in the near future.
Throughput and Scalability
Transitioning to digital dentistry should be a gradual process, starting with a single application, and scaling up to multiple applications and workflows step by step.
The number of dental products a 3D printer can produce depends highly on the specific model and the application. For example, a DLP printer’s projector exposes layers to light all at once, whereas in SLA printers, the laser has to draw out each part. This leads to an increase in speed for large, fully dense prints. However, the resolution of the projector limits the build volume, so the overall throughput is similar. Inquire with the manufacturer for specific data on multiple applications and scenarios.
Throughput and Cost of Dental Products with 3D Printing on a Form 2 Desktop SLA 3D Printer
|Printing on the Form 2||Quad with Dies||Full Arch with Dies||Splints and Retainers||Full Arch Surgical Guides||Quarter Arch Surgical Guides|
|Parts per build||16 quadrants and dies||4 arches and dies||7 splints||12 guides||18 guides|
|Time||2 quads / 3 hours
16 quads / 8.5 hours
|2 arches / 5.5 hours
4 arches / 8 hours
|1 splint / 50 minutes
7 splints / 2 hours
|1 guide / 1.5 hours
8 guides / 7 hours
|1 guide / 1.5 hours
18 guides / 4.5 hours
|Cost per part||$1.5 / quadrant||$3–5 / arch||$4–6 / splint||$3–5 / guide||$2–3 / guide|
Production with multi-machine print cells often reduces upfront costs compared to larger-format machines. By buying one low-cost machine at first, businesses can test out production methods before ultimately scaling up production with demand. This provides the opportunity to pay for production only when it is needed, rather than making large long-term investments in a rapidly-evolving market.
Print cells reduce risk through redundancy. If one machine needs servicing, production can be balanced across the rest of the print cell.
Much has changed since the first desktop 3D printers became available for the dental industry. While a few years ago 3D printers were only affordable to the largest dental labs, now they are a common sight in labs and practices of any size.
Consider the factors discussed above and the needs of your lab and practice—different solutions might suit some business better than others. Digital dentistry is developing rapidly, and new desktop solutions can produce dental products with similar or even better quality and accuracy traditional large-format 3D printers. Make sure to do your research, evaluate actual parts, and avoid paying a hefty premium.