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Digital fuel—what is propelling the markets for 3D printers and other CAD/CAM devices?

Some of the factors that are fuelling growth in digital dentistry include the increasing use of dental prostheses in an ageing population, the expansion of DSOs and the demand for improvement in the patient experience. (Image: Eduard Tanga/Shutterstock)

BURNABY, British Columbia, Canada: Digital fabrication in dentistry encompasses new and old technologies—3D printing being in its early stages of development and other CAD/CAM systems having reached the ripe old age of 50. Given the tremendous shift towards digitisation that is taking place in dentistry, these technologies are expected to capture a broader swathe of dental prosthesis markets in the coming years. This article considers the factors that will fuel growth in the US markets for CAD/CAM devices, including 3D printers.

Over the past decade, the dental industry has undergone significant evolution, marked by the integration of the processes and workflows of digital dentistry. Continuous innovation in CAD/CAM materials and devices, including the emergence of 3D printers, coupled with the widespread availability of 3D-printing materials cleared by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has collectively transformed the market dynamics. Digital fabrication currently only represents a small percentage of dental prosthesis production and is largely limited to certain segments;1 however, given the ongoing advancements in digital dentistry and the steady shift toward digitisation, it is only a matter of time before digital manufacturing captures a sizeable portion of the market. 

Ageing population spurring growth of dental prosthesis markets

In 2020, nearly 17% of the US population were aged 65 years or older. This demographic is expected to grow by 22% by 2040.2 Furthermore, it is estimated that 20% of US adults aged 65 years or older are completely edentulous.3 Dental services are in high demand in this demographic, and an ageing population will increase the demand for dental prostheses. As demand for restorations such as crowns, partial and complete dentures, inlays and onlays increases, the potential for leveraging digital fabrication techniques will increase correspondingly. 

Dental support organisations

Although the majority of dental laboratories have incorporated CAD/CAM milling devices and 3D printers in their workflows, there is still room for growth and expansion. In 2023, 77% of dental laboratories in the US had incorporated 3D printing in their production.2 Conversely, dental practices still present untapped potential in the adoption of these technologies. It is estimated that there are over 200,000 dentists practising in the US, and in 2022, 13% of US dentists were already affiliated with a dental support organisation (DSO).4 This represents a more than 10% increase compared with the situation in 2019.4 Moreover, according to the American Dental Association Health Policy Institute, younger dentists are now more likely to work in group practices than in solo practices, and this trend is expected to continue.4 

The expansion of DSOs is playing a vital role in the adoption of digital dentistry. DSOs can negotiate costs with vendors5 and thus mitigate the factor of cost for dentists looking to incorporate CAD/CAM workflows. Most DSOs also provide continuing education for the dentists affiliated with them,5 making it easier for clinicians to transition to digital workflows. Moreover, DSOs typically provide access to financial resources and can thus drive the demand for CAD/CAM in the chairside market. 

Improving the patient experience

Traditional dentures and other restorations often require multiple patient visits, and the former, in particular, are known for requiring as many as five visits to the dental office.6 Digital dentures, which can be produced using a fully digital workflow, involving milling, 3D-printing technology or a combination of the two, offer a low-cost solution that can be provided in just three patient visits or even fewer.7 3D printing also allows for the production of same-day provisional restorations. This is especially crucial for conventional loading protocols in implant dentistry to allow for osseointegration over a three- to six-month healing period after implant placement.8 This improves the patient experience and allows dentists to see more patients, thus increasing the demand for digitally produced prostheses. 

Technological innovations are propelling growth in the CAD/CAM device market by enhancing both material quality and system efficiency for restorations.

Technological innovations and development of new materials

Technological innovations are propelling growth in the CAD/CAM device market by enhancing both material quality and system efficiency for restorations, and even some older clinical practices are being superseded. Advancements in near-infrared imaging (NIRI) technology, for example, have resulted in fewer dentists applying powder to patients’ mouths before intra-oral scanning.9 NIRI technology is a non-ionising imaging technology that leverages differences in infrared light scattering and absorption depending on the degree of mineralisation.10 Moreover, when equipped with NIRI technology, intra-oral scanners can be used for caries detection.11 Beyond the core function of intra-oral scanners, recent innovations and upgrades are bolstering market demand. Examples of this are the transition from powder-based to powder-free, the ongoing shift from wired to wireless, the progression from closed to open systems and the integration of supplementary features such as artificial intelligence and cloud connectivity, combined with sleeker and more compact designs. 

Within the 3D printer market, compact digital light processing, stereolithography and liquid crystal display printers designed for dental clinics and small to medium-sized laboratories continue to strongly influence the market, and the introduction of a mid-range PolyJet 3D printer is expected to have a notable impact in the US. The expansion of applications enabled by new FDA-cleared materials, particularly for 3D-printed partial and complete dentures, as well as crowns, has led to an increase in demand for 3D printers. This momentum is being further augmented by the introduction of ceramic-filled and ceramic-fused resins, which are paving the way to attaining the target aesthetics. Major leaders in the CAD/CAM device market have integrated 3D printers into their product portfolios, and the expansion of FDA-cleared 3D-printing materials and collaborative initiatives among competitors in the 3D printer market, bolstered by the continuous release of improved products, have yielded advantages for all. 

The revolution will take time

Overall, despite the significant progress being made in the field of digital dentistry, it will take time for full market saturation and the complete digitisation of modern dentistry to become realities. Until then, the factors that are fuelling growth in digital industry, such as the increasing use of dental prostheses in an ageing population, the rising number and expansion of DSOs, the demand for improvement in the patient experience and the continuous development of technological innovations, will continue to propel the market valuation for CAD/CAM devices, including 3D printers. 

Editorial note:

A list of references can be found here. This article was published in digital—international magazine of digital dentistry vol. 5, issue 1/2024.

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