Often dubbed "The Disneyland of the Dental Industry," this year's International Dental Show (IDS) in Cologne, Germany, March 20-24 did not disappoint. Over 1,700 exhibitors played host to nearly 100,000 attendees from around the world who turned out to see the latest in dentistry and dental technology. The buzz? Automation is everywhere. From CAD/CAM milling units to rapid prototyping, the focus is on streamlining, simplifying and improving processes through digitization.
"I'm convinced that laboratories of the future will not only be more efficient and productive but, once we're all digital, we all could become master digital technicians," says Jerry Ragle, CDT, owner of Ragle Dental Lab, Champaign, Illinois, who attended the show with Nick Ragle, manager-fixed.
CAD/CAM technologies—including milling systems, 3-D printers, stand-alone scanners and software—dominated the laboratory-oriented exhibits, with open systems as a notable trend. "The movement is definitely towards open architecture for scanners and milling systems," says attendee Danny Wong, president, Americus Dental Lab, Jamaica, New York. "In the very near future, I think you'll be able to connect any scanner system to the milling system of your choice."
Manufacturers are also making strides in terms of boosting equipment efficiency and capabilities. "Milling times are getting shorter, enabling more units to be produced in a day, and software enhancements are allowing users to produce a coping and a full contour waxup from the same data file. This waxup can then be used for press to zirconia," says Billy Drake, CDT, owner, Drake Precision Dental Laboratory, Charlotte, North Carolina.
For the first time, removable labs also have the opportunity to digitally automate processes. One company, 3d Lab Service, offers an automated method for placing denture teeth into acrylic using CAD software and a rapid prototyping unit. Here's how it works:
An edentulous model is scanned, programmed into the software's virtual articulation program, and virtual teeth are selected from a library and set. A 3-D printer then prints an incisal/occlusal matrix out of plastic which fits into a functional articulator with the use of a mounting plate. The selected teeth and mold used in the virtual setup are pulled from physical tooth stock inventory and placed into the matrix, and the complete setup is ready for final waxing. The system is in the prototype stage and beta testing in Germany begins later this year.
It's not clear how much time the system will save laboratories that already have an experienced setup technician, but Ragle wonders if it will help with the skilled labor shortage. "Will it allow experienced technicians to virtually set the teeth and non-technical personnel to set the teeth in the matrix? Only time will tell, but the implication to me reinforces the rapid movement toward the all-digital lab," says Ragle.
Another manufacturer, SensAble Technologies, featured a system for designing virtual partial frameworks that are output in resin and/or wax via a 3-D printer, then sprued and invested using conventional techniques. "The cool thing about this system is the touch-enabled 3-D mouse," says Ragle. "A handheld device called the Phantom® Desktop™ allowed me to actually feel the model and edge of the framework as I designed—that was awesome."
Implant companies also had a huge presence at the IDS, and Nobel Biocare created a stir amongst attendees with live patient surgeries—right on the exhibit floor—demonstrating its NobelGuide process. Inside a glass booth, 10 patients received various implant solutions and—with the help of several cameras—the procedures were broadcast on screens mounted on the outside of the booth.
"The live implant surgeries were amazing," says Eric Nunnally, Derby Dental Laboratory, Louisville, Kentucky, who attended the show with several other members of the TEREC group, an alliance of 13 full service laboratories across the country whose members research, develop and evaluate current and emerging technologies and processes. "I had never observed an implant surgery before the IDS and it was interesting to see the entire process because there are several steps that, as a laboratory, we never see."
Editor's Note: Special thanks to Jerry and Nick Ragle; Carl Panzera, chief scientific officer at Pentron Ceramics, Inc.; Eric Nunnally and all attending members of the TEREC Group for sharing their valuable time—and input—during the show.
IDS 2009 will be held in Cologne on March 24-28.