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How to Move from Analog to Digital Dentistry

There’s no way around it: the future of dentistry is inevitably digital. With cutting-edge digital dental technologies for impressions, treatment planning, design, and 3D printing, what was once prohibitively expensive is rapidly becoming accessible, already transforming thousands of dental practices and labs worldwide. As CAD/CAM continues to replace traditional workflows and become the standard of dental 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.

Looking for a dental 3D printer? Check out our guide where we walk you through the different 3D printing technologies for dentistry and all of the attributes to evaluate before investing in a dental 3D printer.


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Why Go Digital?

High Quality and Precision

No two dental cases are the same. Patient anatomy is 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, and 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. 3D intraoral scanning removes many of the variables associated with taking a traditional impression, giving dental technicians more accurate data to design from. Dental CAD software tools provide visual interfaces similar to traditional workflows, with the added benefit 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, prosthetics, and appliances with superior fit and repeatable results, increasing clinical acceptance by dental practices and by the patient, and resulting in fewer errors and adjustments while lowering costs.

Improved Efficiency: Time and Cost Savings

Digital dentistry can be a no-nonsense business choice, improving efficiency in dental procedures and streamlining workflows.

In a dental practice, saving time on menial tasks means shorter appointments, increased throughput, and increased patient satisfaction. Easy impression taking with 3D intraoral scanners reduces chair time and reduces labor, and cuts out the cost of materials and the need to ship impressions to the dental laboratory. There’s instant feedback, and no manual errors like voids, bubbles, or tears, eliminating the need for retakes. 

Intraoral scanners help reduce chair time and labor, cut out the cost of materials and the need to ship impressions to the dental laboratory.

With chairside 3D printing, practices can bring production in-house for simple applications like diagnostic models, surgical guides, splints, or smile design, saving both time and costs.

In a dental lab, digital design and manufacturing increase technician productivity, and reduce hands-on work, leading to streamlined production, fewer remakes, and less time per unit. Dental CAD software tools are incredibly powerful application-specific that enable dental technicians to design and plan a variety of restorations and appliances. 

Milling machines and 3D printers can batch jobs together, operate unattended and even overnight, adding an extra shift to a lab’s workforce at no extra cost. The latest professional systems are now so cost-effective 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 return and recommend a clinic to others, contributing to the long-term success of any dental practice.

Digital technologies improve the workflow from diagnosis to planning to treatment. Intraoral scanning is faster and substantially more comfortable than regular impressions, while CBCT (Cone Beam Computed Tomography) scanning adds a new dataset to assist planning for implant surgery. Virtual treatment planning and appliance design enable less invasive treatments and prosthetics with a better fit. Digital tools also simplify communications between the dentist and patient, and the practice and lab.

As a result, digital dentistry makes for faster treatments, fewer visits, and higher prosthetic acceptance rates with measurably better clinical outcomes.

3D printed surgical guides enable quick and high-precision implant placement for just $2-6 per guide.

New Business Opportunity

The dental industry is going through rapid change. Labs who delay adopting new technologies risk falling behind their competition or an over-reliance of milling centers and outsource providers. 

3D printed removable die models are similar to traditional made models used for fit checking final restorations.

A survey of 300 dental labs in the US by The Key Group in 2018 found that 36% of dental laboratories in the United States have 3D printing technology and 49% are planning or considering purchasing a 3D printer in the next 12 months. The technology adoption is partly driven by the need to cater to dentists: On average, 15% of their client dentists are sending digital files, but in some regions their share has already reached more than 35% and is increasing every year. 

But those labs that embrace change and react fast can turn it into a competitive advantage. Accepting digital impressions cuts out the lengthy shipping time for physical impressions. As a result, digital labs can service clients in a wider geographical area or specialize in certain products. 

Sample Part

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The Digital Dentistry Workflow

With a wide range of dental specialties from general dentistry to implantology, prosthodontics, and orthodontics, the design of different treatments and prostheses varies somewhat by specialty and application, but they all follow the same basic workflow. 

1. Scan

Like traditional dental product fabrication, digital production starts with the patient’s individual anatomy. 3D intraoral scanners can be used in the dental practice to capture scans digitally from the patient, replacing manual impressions with fast and accurate impressions. Alternately, desktop optical scanners in dental labs can be used to scan traditional impressions or plaster models. For treatments and applications that require patient osteotomy, such as surgical guides for implant placement, an additional dataset needs to be collected using CBCT scanners.

Recommended tools 

  • For a dental practice: 3D intraoral scanner, CBCT scanner (optional)

  • For a dental lab: desktop optical scanner


2. Plan and Design

After scanning, patient anatomical data is imported into dental CAD software for planning treatments and designing prosthetics, mock-ups, and models. Most dental software packages use design processes very similar to traditional methods, employing highly visual interfaces with features like virtual articulators that are familiar to 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 remake is needed, the same digital design can be reused without additional effort.

Recommended tools for both dental practices and labs: Dental CAD software


3. Manufacture

To physically realize a digital model of a dental product, 3D models are uploaded to the CAM or nesting software and then sent to a 3D printer or a milling machine. 3D printers are common in both labs and practices and can produce a variety of products, including dental models, surgical guides, splints, retainers, wax-ups, castable patterns, and dentures. 3D printers work by solidifying parts layer by layer to form the shape of the dental appliances and models with digital precision. To create orthodontic appliances like clear aligners or retainers, manufacture them over the 3D printed models using existing workflows and tools such as thermoforming.

Milling machines are more common in dental labs, but also have some limited applicability to the dental practice as well. These are typically used to create final restorations by subtracting from a solid block of material, such as zirconia. 

Recommended tools 

  • For a dental practice: 3D printer

  • For a dental lab: 3D printer, milling machine

Workflow Between Lab and Practice

With the traditional workflow, the practice takes a physical impression of the patient, ships it to a dental laboratory that creates the required models, restorations or other indication(s), which the lab then ships back to the practice for the treatment. 

In digital workflows, the individual steps can alternate easily between lab and practice, depending on the complexity of the case, the indication, the tools available at a practice, and other conditions. 

For example, a dental practice can take a digital impression or send a manual impression for scanning at the lab. With the digital impression, a practice can also design the models, restorations, and other indications in-house in CAD software or outsource design to a lab. With chairside 3D printing, a practice can then produce manufacture simple indications like surgical guides or splints in-house and rely on a lab for complex parts such as all-ceramic restorations. Labs can manufacture parts in-house with 3D printing or milling or offer design as a service and send the design files to their customer for chairside 3D printing in the dental practice. 

Overall, digital technologies simplify the workflow between practice and lab, offering unlimited freedom to optimize for speed, ease of use, or cost, depending on the case.

The digital dentistry workflow can move back and forth between dental practice and lab, increasing efficiency and collaboration.

How to Implement Digital Workflows in a Dental Practice or Lab

1. Pick an Application

Transitioning to digital dentistry is best done gradually, shifting application by application to avoid unnecessary risks. First, choose an application that 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 your patients.

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. Whatever you choose, start with a single use case and extend to multiple applications, while continuing to rely on labs for complex cases and 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 digital solutions for crowns and bridges, splints, full or partial dentures, and more. Each fabrication method should be considered based on quality and cost-efficiency. For example, a dental milling machine is best used for milling all-ceramic restorations not low yield products like diagnostic wax-ups or custom impression trays.

2. 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, design, and manufacturing. 

In a dental practice, consider whether it makes sense to invest in an intraoral scanner or you will be sending stone models or physical impressions to your lab for scanning. If you’re running a lab, consider whether you’ll only receive digital impressions from dentists or you’ll need a desktop optical scanner to scan stone models or physical impressions.

If you’re planning to design parts in-house, 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 dental 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 file export, which ensures compatibility with all 3D printing solutions.

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.

3. 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. Desktop 3D printers offer more production flexibility than ever before and affordable machines enabling you to add capacity as needed. Having multiple machines brings the added benefit of fault redundancy, a significant advantage over larger, more expensive systems.

Offering a new product or service doesn’t have to be a difficult decision with a long-term return on investment. With digital dentistry, practices can start small, see faster returns on investment, and scale up over time.

Get Started with Digital Dentistry and 3D Printing

With thousands of dental practices and labs already adopting digital workflows, there’s never been a better time to start exploring how to take advantage of new technology in your business.

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