Moving from Analog to Digital Workflows in Dentistry
There’s no way around it: the future of dentistry is inevitably digital. With cutting-edge digital solutions for impression scanning, treatment planning, and digital manufacturing, what was once prohibitively expensive is rapidly becoming accessible, already transforming thousands of dental labs and practices worldwide. As CAD/CAM continues to replace traditional workflows and become the standard of care, digital solutions have become a necessary consideration for any dental business.
What are the benefits of going digital? How are the workflows different from analog processes? What are the best strategies for getting started? Find answers in our guide to digital dentistry.
- Why Go Digital?
- The Digital Dentistry Workflow
- How to Implement Digital Workflows in a Dental Lab or Practice
- Get Started with Digital Dentistry
High Quality and Precision
No two dental cases are the same. Our bodies are unique, and each treatment is tailored, enabled by a long history of artisanal custom, human-centric craftsmanship. But, as with any trade, quality is dependent on the skills of a given dentist, assistant, or technician. Plus, achieving consistent, high-quality, affordable dental products with so many potential sources of error is incredibly difficult.
Digital dentistry reduces the risks and uncertainties introduced by human factors, providing higher consistency, accuracy, and precision at every stage of the workflow. Intraoral digital impression scanning removes many of the variables associated with taking a traditional impression, giving technicians more accurate data to use for designs. Dental CAD software tools provide visual interfaces similar to traditional workflows, with the added benefits of being able to automate certain steps, as well as easily identify and fix mistakes. Digital manufacturing equipment such as 3D printers or milling machines deliver a range of high-quality custom products and appliances with superior fit and repeatable results.
All of this makes for dental products with better fit, function, and clinical acceptance by the patient, with fewer errors and adjustments along the way.
Improved Efficiency: Time and Cost Savings
Digital dentistry can be a no-nonsense business choice, improving efficiency in dental procedures and streamlining workflows, benefiting both the dental practice and dental lab.
In a dental practice, saving time on menial tasks means shorter appointments, increased throughput, and happier patients. Easy impression taking with intraoral scanners reduces chair time, and cuts out the cost of impression materials, or the need to ship impressions to the lab. There’s instant feedback, and no manual errors like voids, bubbles, or tears, eliminating the need for retakes. Practices can bring production in-house for simple applications using 3D printers, saving both time and costs.
In the dental lab, digital design and manufacturing increase technician productivity, and reduce hands-on work, leading to more precise production, fewer reworks, and less time per unit. CAD software now includes tooth and implant libraries, and application-specific suites simplify the design and planning of any restoration or appliance. Milling machines and 3D printers can batch jobs together, operate unattended, and are now so affordably priced that dental labs of any size can take advantage.
Better Patient Experience and Outcomes
One of the most significant benefits of digital technologies is improved patient experience and comfort. A satisfied patient is more likely to come back and refer others, contributing to the long-term success of all dental businesses.
Digital technologies improve the workflow from diagnosis to planning to treatment. Intraoral scanning is faster and substantially more comfortable than regular impressions, while CBCT scanning adds a new dataset to assist planning. Virtual treatment planning and appliance design enable less invasive treatments and prosthetics with a better fit.
Digital dentistry makes for faster treatments, fewer visits, and higher prosthetic acceptance rates with measurably better clinical outcomes.
With a wide range of digital dental specialties, from general dentistry to orthodontics and implantology, the design of different treatments and prostheses varies somewhat by specialty and application, but they all follow the same basic digital workflow: 1. Scan, 2. Design, and 3. Manufacture.
Like traditional dental product fabrication, digital production starts with the patient’s individual anatomy. Intraoral scanners can be used in the dental practice to capture scans directly from the patient, replacing manual impressions with fast and accurate digital impressions. Alternatively, desktop optical scanners in dental labs can be used to scan traditional alginate and PVS impressions or plaster models. For treatments and applications that require patient osteotomy, such as surgical guides for implants, an additional dataset needs to be collected using CBCT scanners.
Requirements: Intraoral scanner or desktop optical scanner, CBCT scanner (optional)
After scanning, patient anatomical data is imported into dental CAD software, where treatments can be planned and prosthetics designed. Most software packages use design processes very similar to traditional workflows, employing highly visual interfaces with features like virtual articulators that are familiar to all technicians. Digital design results in easier, more precise treatments and simplified communication. After the treatments are designed, models can be exported for manufacturing. If a rework is needed, the same digital design can be reused without additional effort.
Requirements: Dental CAD software
To physically realize a digital model of a dental product, 3D models are uploaded to a digital manufacturing endpoint, such as a 3D printer or a milling machine. 3D printers are suitable for both labs and practices, and can produce a variety of products, including dental models, surgical guides, splints, retainers, wax-ups, castable prosthetics, and dentures. 3D printers work by solidifying parts layer by layer to form the shape of the dental appliances and models with digital precision. Milling machines are more common in dental labs, but also have some limited applicability to the dental practice as well. These can be used to create prosthetics and final restorations by subtracting from a solid block of material, such as zirconia.
Depending on the particular product, assembly with prefabricated accessories might be necessary. Professional machinery and advanced materials are essential to manufacture dental products with a smooth surface finish, fine details, and high precision.
Requirements: 3D printer or milling machine
Pick an Application
Transitioning to digital dentistry is best done gradually, shifting application by application to avoid unnecessary risks. First, choose an application where digital dentistry makes the most sense for your business. Consider a workflow that’s currently inefficient, unreliable, or expensive—or perhaps a product that you aren’t currently able to offer to customers.
For dental practices, in-house 3D printing can cut costs and lead times, or enable the use of certain types of treatments such as guided surgery. Dental models, surgical guides, and splints all have easy workflows that an assistant can be trained to carry out. Some milling machines also offer in-practice single-unit crown production, albeit at high upfront cost. Whatever you choose, start with a single use case and extend to multiple applications, while continuing to rely on labs for complex cases and milled final restorations.
For dental labs, 3D printers and milling machines offer a variety of digital workflows. Professional 3D printers are incredibly versatile: it’s possible to manufacture a wide range of products, including restorative models, surgical guides, splints, ortho models, aligners, digital wax-ups, castable prosthetics, and dentures, on the same machine, just by switching materials. Milling machines offer solutions for crowns and bridges, splints, full or partial dentures, and more. Each fabrication method should be considered based on quality and cost-efficiency.
Define and Test a Digital Workflow
When you have a specific application in mind, piece together the complete step-by-step digital workflow for that application to make sure you understand all the pieces needed for scanning, designing, and manufacturing.
For scanning equipment, consider whether your practice will be using intraoral scanners, your customers will be sending you scan files digitally, or your lab will need a desktop optical scanner to scan stone models or PVS impressions.
Make sure to get a demonstration of the workflow of any design software to understand the step-by-step process before adopting it. Then, select a software package compatible with the scanning and manufacturing equipment of your choice. The easiest way to do this is to stick with software that allows open importing of scan files, and open STL export for manufacturing.
When considering manufacturing equipment such as milling machines or 3D printers, always source samples before buying equipment. Technical data and marketing specs can be misleading and hard to decipher. Instead of comparing sales brochures, compare actual parts—don’t hesitate to ask for a physical sample of a milled crown, a 3D printed splint, or whatever you’re considering. There’s no better way to compare quality between two machines than holding the final product in your hand.
Start Small and Scale Up
Once you’re ready to start, trial the workflow for a few weeks before going to full production, leaving time to learn each step and iron out any wrinkles. As you get comfortable with the results, it’s time to switch the workflow fully to digital, and start scaling up.
In digital workflows, scaling up is a simple matter of adding scanning, design, or production capacity, depending on where bottlenecks appear. The recent advent of industrial-grade desktop 3D printers offers more production flexibility than ever before, with small affordable machines enabling labs and practices to add capacity as needed. Having multiple machines brings the added benefit of fault redundancy, a significant advantage over larger systems.
Offering a new product or service doesn’t have to be a difficult decision with a long-term return on investment. With digital, businesses can start small, see faster returns on investment, and scale up over time.
With thousands of dental practices and dental labs already adopting digital dentistry, there’s never been a better time to start exploring how to take advantage of new technology in your business.
To start diving in, consider reaching out to a colleague who has undergone a digital transition, or to equipment manufacturers for more information on their products.
Contact our dental experts for more information on the digital workflow and Formlabs dental products.
Already considering manufacturing? 3D printers are highly versatile tools for producing a range of dental products cost-effectively and with high precision. Learn more about workflows for specific dental applications and find out how to choose a 3D printer for your lab or practice.