As of 2022, the dental 3D printer market is flourishing, and a growing number of different models are becoming available, making it very difficult for customers to differentiate between one printer and the next printers. The author works with dozens of printers and post-curing units during validation processes, which allows for a unique perspective on the printer market. In order to accurately compare and analyze these 3D printers, it has become necessary to break them down into categories. There are printers on the market that are very affordably priced at $5,000 and well below, while most range between $5,000 and $50,000, and very high-end selections can cost well over $50,000. The challenge is knowing how to assess these printers in the dental space, and then determining what is worth the investment. Most printers can be classified into one of three buckets.
High-Volume 3D Printers for Laboratory Use
High-volume printers from established manufacturers may come at high costs, but if the volume capability of the printer meets the laboratory's high demand, the result can be improved production, large profits, and a quick return on investment. Well-established, high-volume dental laboratories became the early adopters for these high-end printers because they understood the potential increase in workflow efficiency from transitioning to digital 3D manufacturing, resulting in exponential business growth. With high-volume manufacturing and a correspondingly high price point comes an expectation for printer reliability and technical support from the manufacturer. These high-end printers must deliver excellent print speed and precision, high quality, and consistent reliability in order to continue expanding in the dental market.
Desktop/Mid- to High-Cost 3D Printers for Clinical or Laboratory Use
Most dental 3D printers fall into this range, priced at $5,000 to $50,000, and offer different workflow packages and services in an attempt to gain a competitive edge. This is the range where people are most often uncertain about making a purchase. When determining which printer fits a laboratory's needs, several factors must be considered: the applications for which the printer is intended, the volume of printing expected, and what aspects are most important for the laboratory's particular situation (material availability, printer speed/quality, technical support, user interface, workflow compatibility, etc). Each printer has its advantages and disadvantages, and determining what is most important will help drive the eventual decisions. For those who are new to dental 3D printing, material availability and technical support are two very important aspects to keep in mind.
An open-source 3D printer gives users the ability to print with whichever material they choose, while others may restrict choices somewhat but still offer compatibility with multiple validated resins. If considering a closed-system 3D printer, it is important to determine just how restrictive the system may be.
Comprehensive customer support helps to ease new users along the learning curve of 3D printing, and solid technical support is essential when hardware needs to be fixed or replaced. An intuitive user interface and good controls also help with overcoming the learning curve, as well as minimize hiccups in daily operations. Finally, for those who are tech-savvy, there are some mechanical differences across different printers to keep in mind, including vat design and peeling mechanisms, which work to minimize printing peel force, optimize surface quality, and increase resin dynamic flow during printing. The printer companies that succeed in all of these aspects will ultimately thrive.
Desktop/Low-Cost 3D Printers for Clinical Use
Most inexpensive LCD printers and small desktop printers fall into this bucket. This bucket should not be considered "inaccurate" or "bad," but users should keep in mind that you get what you pay for. The quality of these printers meets and sometimes even exceeds the level of printing quality provided by some higher value desktop printers, but there are tradeoffs to consider. Some of these printers can take 20% to 30% longer to print a device. If printing speed is not of concern, then most of these printers provide very high value to low-volume users. Beginners with low volume requests who choose this route will likely learn about 3D printing through experience, since some of these companies do not offer extensive support services, if any at all. Once users become skilled and confident, they can transition into the next category to ramp up their output. It is also worthwhile to consider that inexpensive hardware often leads to frequent upgrades or component fixes, including resin trays, build plates, and LCD screens.
Material Choice and Manufacturer Validations
The number of 3D printing materials on the market has exploded and may seem overwhelming when initially entering the dental 3D printing space. The type of printer—open or closed source—and the type of job will help narrow down the available materials to the best choices. The material chosen for the job will in turn drive the choice of curing unit down the road, as different types of curing units may be more effective for certain materials. Material validations from the resin's manufacturer provide essential information regarding the printing method, the material settings, and the post-curing and post-processing method combination that will achieve the intended material performance properties. All of this information can be found in the resin manufacturer's Instructions for Use (IFU).