Imagine breaking a crown, rushing to the dentist and getting a new one printed out and cemented in place right there and then. Furturistic, right?
Actually the technology already exists. But only 10 percent of dentists are using it, mainly because the equipment has been so expensive -- until now, according to Parag Kachalia, a professor at the University of the Pacific Dental School in San Francisco.
Fifteen years ago, when the digital equipment first became available, the price tag was over $115,000. While dentists make a healthy income (the average is around $200,000 a year) that was too much for most of them to bite off at once.
But at the annual meeting of the American Dental Association in San Francisco on Thursday, 3M is selling for the first time a $11,995 scanner that makes three-dimensional images of your mouth. Here's a video of the scanner.
The 3M scanner doesn't get you all the way to a new tooth. The image has to be sent to a lab which has equipment to carve the tooth out of a block.
Even this has some advantages because you don't get the goopy material in your mouth that dentists would otherwise use to make a model of the tooth that need repair.
"We're able to go around the mouth without having to gag the patient," Kachalia told me.
The technology uses light, not radiation, so you don't have to worry about being bombarded with x-ray beams.
Those dentists who have plunged all the way into the new technology can also make the crowns while you wait. The machines they use don't actually print the teeth, though it seems that way. Instead they use tiny saws similar to dentists' drills to carve the tooth out of a block of ceramic.
Here's a look at a mill in action:
Some of these are then fired in a kiln.
All this has gotten faster and more accurate, so that the crowns made this way are every bit as good as the ones made in laboratories, at least as far as their function goes, said Kachalia.
How good they look depends on the artistry of the dentist or someone else in the office, who uses stains and glazes to give it a color as close as possible to your natural teeth.