How to Choose a 3D Printer for Your Dental Practice or Lab
Additive manufacturing is the latest piece of the workflow in digital dentistry that has become a logical business choice for dental practices and labs, combining high quality with low costs and streamlined workflows. The market has been expanding rapidly, bringing this technology within reach for more businesses.
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 dental 3D printer.
New to digital dentistry? Check out our guide to find out more about the difference between analog and digital workflows, and learn what’s involved in integrating 3D printing into your business.
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Dental and Orthodontic 3D Printing Technologies
Today, two 3D printing technologies are common in dental and orthodontic practices and labs: stereolithography (SLA) and digital light processing (DLP).
In stereolithography, a vat of liquid resin is selectively exposed to a laser beam across the print area, solidifying resin in specific areas. Low Force Stereolithography (LFS) technology, used by Formlabs’ Form 3B 3D printer, is the next phase in SLA 3D printing that reduces the strain created on a part when peeling it from the resin tank between layers, producing parts with unmatched surface finish, clarity, and accuracy.
Digital Light Processing operates with the same chemical process as SLA and LFS, but uses a digital projector as a light source to solidify the resin, rather than a laser.
Low Force Stereolithography (LFS)
Digital Light Processing (DLP)
The most common orthodontic and dental 3D printers work by selectively exposing liquid resin to a light source—SLA and LFS a laser, DLP a projector—to form very thin solid layers of plastic that stack up to create a solid object.
The way SLA, LFS, and DLP 3D printers work is similar—the differences in print quality, workflow, available materials, costs, and other factors are bigger from machine to machine more than technology to technology.
How to Evaluate Dental 3D Printers
Accuracy and Precision
Guaranteeing high-quality, accurate, final parts is the most important concern for any dental practice and lab. Unfortunately, not all 3D printers marketed for dentistry or orthodontics can deliver the quality, precision, and accuracy needed for orthodontic applications. Additionally, comparing different dental 3D printers goes beyond looking at technical spec sheets.
Some 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 the accuracy of final parts. While most companies refer to a single number for accuracy (i.e. 50 microns or 75 microns), these are typically marketing gimmicks, and most commonly represent the limit of resolution of the printer.
Fundamentally, accuracy and precision depend on many different factors: the quality of the 3D printer, the 3D printing technology, materials, software settings, post-processing, and how well-calibrated all of these systems are, so a 3D printer can only be judged on its final dental parts.
Always evaluate 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 to check the fit or measure yourself against the original design.
Ease of Use
Another important consideration is how easy it is to use a 3D printer. After all, you and your team are 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 teams, or asking colleagues about their experience.
Consider the types of everyday interactions and maintenance the printer will need once it is up and running. For example, automatic resin dispensing on Formlabs SLA and LFS 3D printers means that you never need to worry about running out of material.
Some printers come with proprietary software to prepare 3D models for printing, such as PreForm for Formlabs 3D printers, while other manufacturers offer off-the-shelf solutions. Features differ by software tool, for example, PreForm offers a one-click print setup, powerful manual controls to optimize support density and size, adaptive layer thickness, or functions to save material and time.
Curious to see how it works? Download PreFrom for free to test features.
Parts printed with SLA, LFS, and DLP technologies require post-processing after printing.
First, the parts need to be washed in a solvent to remove excess resin. Biocompatible dental parts also require post-curing. For SLA and LFS 3D printers, Formlabs offers solutions to automate these steps, saving time and effort, and making a big difference in keeping a clean, low-maintenance production environment.
Lastly, depending on the design, some parts need to be cleared of support structures. To simplify this step, Formlabs’ Form 3B offers light touch supports that greatly reduce the need for finishing and costly labor.
Early 3D printers had an infamous reputation for spending half of their lives in service, with many failed prints even when they were online. Fortunately, the latest generation of printers delivers greatly improved reliability. For example, users of the Formlabs 3D printer reported a success rate of over 95% 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.
Cost and Return on Investment
When you consider adopting a new technology, it needs to make sense for your business. The cost of dental 3D printers has dropped significantly since the early days and the systems on the market today offer the lowest costs for many applications.
For example, a practice or lab printing surgical guides or dental models to produce thermoformed aligners in-house can often reduce costs by 75-95% for each part compared to outsourcing to labs or service providers—enough to pay for a 3D printer in a few weeks and save many times its price tag over the years.
When comparing different dental 3D printing solutions, remember to consider:
Upfront costs, including not just the machine cost, but also training, setup, and potentially software.
Running costs, best estimated with per-unit material costs.
Servicing and maintenance costs. Beware of compulsory service contracts that can cost as much as 20% of the upfront cost of the printer annually.
Materials and Applications
Professional 3D printers are some of the most versatile tools found today in dental and orthodontic practices and labs, and the key to their versatility is dedicated materials.
The material selection varies by printer model. Some basic 3D printers can only produce diagnostic models, while more advanced systems can manufacture highly accurate crown and bridge models, surgical guides, and castable/pressable restorations; long-term and biocompatible dental products like splints, retainers, or digital dentures, as well as orthodontic appliances such as clear aligners and Hawley retainers by thermoforming over 3D printed models.
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.
However, when using third-party materials, it’s important to make sure that the results achieved clinically acceptable quality and accuracy. Furthermore, using biocompatible materials on non-validated 3D printers that claim to be “open” breaks the usage requirements and thus will produce non-biocompatible appliances. Be careful that you know what risks your business takes by using not validated 3D printers and materials.
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.
Speed and Throughput
When thinking about speed in 3D printing, it’s important to consider not just raw print speed, but also throughput.
Raw print speed for SLA, LFS, and DLP 3D printers is comparable in general. As the projector exposes each entire layer all at once, print speed in DLP 3D printing is uniform and depends only on the height of the parts, whereas, SLA and LFS 3D printers draw out each part with a laser. As a rule of thumb, this results in SLA and LFS 3D printers being comparable or faster when printing a single part or smaller parts, while DLP 3D printers are faster to print multiple parts that fill up much of the platform.
However, there’s a trade-off between resolution and build volume for DLP printers. A small DLP 3D printer might be able to print fast, but you can only fit a few models on the build platform. A different machine with a larger build volume might be able to print more parts, but only at a lower resolution, which means that it might not be accurate enough for printing restorative models or surgical guides that require higher accuracy.
SLA and LFS 3D printers can produce all of these options in one machine and offer practices and labs the freedom to decide whether they want to optimize for resolution, speed, or throughput, depending on the case.
For example, the Form 3B LFS 3D printer can produce a single orthodontic model in about 20 minutes with Draft Resin and 8 models per print in ~1 hour, while the large build volume of the printer also allows you to produce up to 18 models at once for overnight “lights out” production. The Form 3BL, Formlabs’ large-format dental and orthodontic 3D printer can produce up to 52 models per print.
Total possible daily production = the number of possible prints in an eight-hour workday + one print overnight
A small build platform DLP 3D printer can quickly produce at most a handful of models at once. As you need to prepare the printer, set up the print in software, and post-process the parts for each print, which results in much higher labor costs per part to fully utilize its production capabilities.
Throughput and Cost of Dental and Orthodontic Products with 3D Printing on a Form 3B Dental 3D Printer
Another important consideration, especially for labs is whether to fulfill capacity with a single machine or multiple units. Production with multi-machine print cells often reduces upfront costs compared to larger-format machines. By buying one low-cost machine at first, labs 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 with multiple printers also empower you to create multiple different indications at once and reduce risk through redundancy. If one machine needs servicing, production can be balanced across the rest of the print cell.
Alternatively, large format dental 3D printers, like the Form 3BL, can maximize throughput for every print job and reduce labor needs by requiring minimal operator intervention.
Get Started with Digital Dentistry and 3D Printing
While a few years ago, 3D printers were only affordable to the largest dental labs and milling centers, now they are a common sight in many dental and orthodontic practices and labs.
Consider the factors discussed above and the needs of your business—different solutions might suit some dental businesses better than others. Make sure to do your research, evaluate actual parts, and avoid paying a hefty premium.
Explore Formlabs dental resources for free guides, step-by-step tutorials, white papers, webinars to learn how you can integrate 3D printing into your lab or practice.
Curious to see the quality firsthand? Pick a material and we'll ship you a free sample part 3D printed on the Form 3B to evaluate.Request a Free Sample Part