3D printing expanding through the industrial world vertical by vertical – now dental crowns

By November 8, 2012 One Comment

If software is eating the world then 3D printing is atomising its factories and production centres. The 3D printing trend is less advanced than the software trend, but it’s coming. I’m writing this today having just read that one in ten dentists (I assume in the US) are 3D printing replacement crowns for their patients on-site while they wait. This is how it works (from SingularityHub):

Instead of making a mold and sending it to a lab for scanning, dentists are now using a small camera to scan the misshapen teeth directly. The digitized scan is then sent to an on-site milling machine that carves the crown from a block of porcelain – in about an hour. After about 15 minutes of preparation the crown is ready to be implanted. …. Normally getting a crown, a restorative ceramic cap that is cemented atop a damaged tooth, begins with the dentist drilling into the damaged tooth for a good fit. After drilling, a mold is made of the tooth, and the mold is sent to an outside lab where its 3D structure is scanned and digitized. That digitized image is then sent back to the dentist who makes modifications as needed, and once again it’s back to the lab where the crown is finally made. The entire process normally takes about two weeks. In the meantime, the dentist implants a temporary filling to protect the drilled tooth.

The article doesn’t comment on whether the 3D printed crowns are cheaper than traditional alternatives, but with 3D printing costs halving each year if it isn’t now it soon will be. Then before long all dentists will be using a system like this and an entire mini-vertical will have been transformed.

This isn’t the first, that was rapid proto-typing, which has been slowly adopting 3D printing over the last twenty years. The second vertical to go was hearing aids where I’ve heard up to 90% of high end hearing aids are now 3D printed. Patients ears are scanned and a high resolution 3D printer makes a hearing aid that fits them perfectly and has audio channels that work more effectively than is possible with traditional manufacturing.

As the price of 3D printing falls and the resolution and ranges of materials increases other verticals will drop, starting with small sized objects like teeth and hearing aids. A company called Sirona sells the machines dentists use to 3D print crowns. That’s a $914m revenue business now and well past the stage of venture capital investment. I’m on the lookout for equivalent companies that are just beginning to disupt other markets.