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The Future of Dental Labs

Looking inside the full digital lab.

Dentistry is advancing into the digital era faster than most had anticipated. During just the last year, digital crown production has grown explosively, driven primarily by full Zirconia and glass-ceramics. Among those who follow the industry, not many can venture to doubt that these trends will only accelerate in the future. We believe that the age of the Full Digital Lab is almost upon us. This is what we see…

New scanners push plaster models into extinction
Recent scanning technology advancements, especially in terms of speed and accuracy, have made the use of intraoral scanners increasingly attractive for dentists, and we expect that the application of digital impression-taking in clinics will truly boom. Labs that are directly connected to dental clinics that have such solutions will be able to receive digital impressions immediately and start designing right away without casting a model. Naturally, the use of physical impressions will continue in some clinics or in specific situations that merit it. However, even with such cases, rather than using the impression to cast a model, labs will employ sophisticated Impression Scanners that can accurately scan the physical impression directly.

Model production goes digital
Digital model-making is surging forward rapidly as better digital impression systems, new CAD software, and manufacturing technologies provide model-making solutions at lower costs, with higher accuracy and increased efficiency. More and more models will be created directly from digital impressions using CAD model design software and CAM model-making machines.

The new era of model-free crown
More and more labs will produce crowns and simple cases without models because accurate virtual articulators in the CAD software let them validate and adjust dynamic articulation using the intraoral scan or impression scan as input. Currently, most model-free crown production focuses on single crowns. However moving forward, model-free workflows will spread to more complex restorations such as bridges, and more advanced restoration types.

crystal ball abutment

Full digital crowns
Around two-and-a-half years ago, visionary market observers started speaking about full digital crowns, and many listeners were skeptical. Today, we can already see that this concept has advanced much faster than most had expected – largely driven by new materials such as full Zirconia and max. We expect that this trend can only widen as new monolithic materials emerge. Full digital products will no longer be limited to copings alone. The combination of new materials and digital processing enhances accuracy and additionally enables labs to design full digital crowns for manufacturing in one or two materials without the time-consuming hand-veneering step.

Customized abutments will replace stock abutments
Generally, we will see increased market penetration of implant cases, largely due to lower costs of implants and restorative components, and increased use of CAD/CAM technologies. Naturally, in terms of optimal treatment, customized abutments represent the best choice for almost all abutment cases. Customized abutments allow better fits, perfect emergence profiles, and generally represent a better clinical solution for the customer. As digital design processes improve, the price of customized abutments will eventually become comparable to, and perhaps even lower, than those of stock abutments – a development that is already emerging in some markets. Labs with CAD/CAM are today saving costs, space and logistics by removing the need to store stock abutments.  For technicians already engaged in a CAD workflow, adding the steps for customizing the abutment to the specific case follows easily.  Industry experts predict that stock abutments will eventually disappear from the market.

There will be a complete lab software package
In the future, the leading CAD software systems will provide digital workflows covering the total spectrum of lab work. Software potentially can be developed to design any indication, and even combinations of indications, all in one go! In short, the software is not an obstacle. The challenge is to manufacture all software-produced CAD designs in the right materials in terms of sufficient quality, lower costs, and acceptable milling/printing times.  We already see more and more manufacturing methods, cheaper manufacturing machines, and new materials – such as monolithic ceramics and affordable 3D printers that directly support the production of CAD designs for a wide range of indications. Driven by such developments and industry needs, the introductions of complete laboratory design software are not far away.

Increased planning services
Digital technologies help simplify case communication and provide tools for accomplishing complete case planning that is faster and more accurate than through traditional methods. Already seen today, some CAD systems allow labs to design digital diagnostic wax-ups that are easily sent online to the dentist for 3D viewing in the clinic and, potentially, for discussion with the patient. Furthermore, CAD systems can bring together implant planning, prosthetics, and production of surgical guides, enabling labs to provide full restorative packages before surgery.

Complete digital workflow integration
More and more areas of dentistry are being touched by digital technologies, and we expect that soon all workflows will be integrated digitally, starting at the clinic, through the lab, on to manufacturing, and ending with final treatment. Today, open intra-oral scanning solutions kick off the digital workflow by enabling dentists to take digital impressions and send all digital case data directly to the lab using digital order forms. Administration systems for both practice management and lab management are being integrated, thereby improving communication, logistics, and workflows between all parties.

The digital technician
The future dental technician will spend more time at the computer rather than at the workbench. However, they will still need all their technical and artistic skills because CAD software, no matter how intelligent, must still be guided by a professional and human touch when creating optimally aesthetic and functional restorations. The CAD software is a toolbox containing a wide range of methods that help improve quality and workflows. Furthermore, the efficiency and productivity this toolbox bring to labs will allow the digital dental technician more room to focus on providing services to dentists rather than restoration production alone. We will enlarge on this topic further in the next release in our “The Future of Dental Labs” article series.