The Tooth Printer

Yesterday, I went to the dentist to have a cavity filled and a crown replaced. I haven’t gone under the drill in a little over 9 years. About that time, I got caught up with all the work I’d lacked in my 20s, so I had cavities filled, roots drilled, and crowns attached.

It wasn’t a bad visit as far as it goes. I was a bit apprehensive, just a tad. Back in the olden days, the aforementioned series of trips a decade ago, I was in the dentist chair every month for a couple hours, so I got used to it. This time, my apprehensiveness melted pretty quickly. I even quipped to the doctor as his drill smoked cutting through porcelain and tooth material that it reminded me that I had an etching bit for my rotary tool that I haven’t tried out yet. I said I was going to go home and try it on a random ceramic tile. He laughed so hard he pierced my cheek for me. Well, not quite. I’m not that funny, although with only half a mouth working, I sure sounded funny.

But the most interesting part of the visit was getting the new crown. In the olden days of 2002, the doctor took an impression of the crown to replace and shipped it off to a lab for milling. I got a temporary cap and, three weeks later, I came back to have the cap cemented on with the special UV penlight.

Fewer than 10 years later, the dentist wheeled in a computer on a cart with some elaborate CAD software on it. He stuck a funny camera in my mouth and snapped a couple digital images. The software plotted my ha’tooth next to the adjacent teeth, and the doctor moused some lines in. He compared the shape of the tooth he was fixing to the bite pattern and smoothed some where the tooth would impact the top tooth. Then he sent it wirelessly to the tooth printer.

It’s not really a printer, but close enough. In a little cubby at the back of the office, he has a computer-assisted milling machine. You plug in a block of ceramic, and two diamond-tipped drill bits carve the crown out of it in about 7 minutes. During the process, one of the bits became dull, so the technician opened the machine and swapped it out just like she was changing the toner. A couple minutes later, the tooth dropped from the remainder of the block, and after some cleanup and firing, they affixed it into my mouth.

In 10 years, we’ve gone from precision lab millwork to an in-office computer peripheral. Frankly, I am amazed and pleased.

And sad that the pace of change is probably going to change once the commissars handle medicine and dentistry for us poor little helpless children in the citizenry.