Automation in Dental Technology
Daniel Alter, MSc, MDT, CD
This year's International Dental Show (IDS) in Cologne, Germany, was bursting with positive and re-energized liveliness for both the clinical and laboratory sides. Among the many impressive innovations presented, there was certainly a perceptible element of automation in the fabrication protocols of dental technology. I believe that the next IDS will have a significantly greater element of innovative automation that will change the way we fabricate restorative prostheses in the future.
The progression of migrating from a manual dexterous fabrication process to a machined process is not unique to dentistry or dental technology, and often times, one can examine history in an attempt to predict their own future. In "How Industrial Automation Is Changing Manufacturing," STEM writer Megan Ray Nichols assesses the benefits of automation in manufacturing. She identifies the benefits of automation, which include labor shortage solutions, increase in workers safety, less chance of human error, and reduced costs while increasing production.1 These are all challenges that dental laboratories throughout the world are contending with and to which they are adamantly seeking solutions.
In multiple conversations with leading principals and influencers, I have realized that as we've migrated from a manually dexterous method of waxing, casting, and building-up of materials to more machined methods of fabrication, processes became "leaner" and production has increased. However, what was discovered through the process is that considerable time and labor are being allocated to support those same machines, whether it be loading and reloading blanks and tools, maintaining and cleaning the machines, and more. Some have alluded to this consequence as becoming "slaves to those machines," because at times supporting them has necessitated qualified technicians to be removed from performing dental technology in order to operate and maintain these machines. Automation can conceivably be the solution to this predicament, and we've seen several manufacturers address this issue head on.
There is still an emotional element that persists in dental technology surrounding machines and the perception of the elimination of artistry. However, it is my belief that artistry is very much at play and is indispensable in our field. Machines can accomplish a great deal of repeatable accuracies and dimensionally stable outcomes, but the final esthetic results are in the hands of the artistic and knowledgeable dental technician. Automated processes could do almost everything systematically without the need for human intervention, whereby the mechanization will change materials internally, post-process, maintain and cleanse itself, and provide the unfinished product. But that is where the dental technician is necessary to add their artistic human touch and bring the restoration to life. The automation process would truly bring together the best of both worlds, where technology and artistry combined will provide for restorative processes and prostheses of the highest quality.
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