With the help of Albright College's 3D printer, aspiring dentist Milca Mendez-Ceballos '15 is spending the summer exploring how 3D printing can be used in dentistry.
By Hilary Bentman
'15 conducted an ACRE on how 3D printing can be used in dentistry.
'15 pops the lid on the small black box, reaches her hand inside, and pulls out
an anatomically correct central incisor tooth, propped up by a small,
three-legged stand. Next, she extracts a set of top teeth – her teeth, to be
These are not her
dentures; Mendez-Ceballos has a fully-intact, all-natural smile. And this isn't
some kind of macabre Halloween prank. Instead, these teeth are replicas,
printed on Albright College's three-dimensional printer and part of
Mendez-Ceballos' summer research project.
Working with assistant
professor of digital media Jocelyn Kolb (Albright's resident 3D printing
expert), Mendez-Ceballos is doing an Albright Creative
Research Experience (ACRE) project that explores how 3D printing can be
used in dentistry, comparing it to the more traditional techniques for making
impressions or fitting patients with dental or orthodontic apparatuses.
For Mendez-Ceballos, an
aspiring dentist, it's a project she can really sink her teeth in to – literally.
"It's been great,
and I've learned a lot about 3D printing in any field, especially in
dentistry," said the biology/Spanish major on the pre-dental track.
Since 3D printing is
becoming more common in dentistry, the summer ACRE is providing Mendez-Ceballos
with foundational, hands-on knowledge that should serve her well in dental
school and beyond.
"It gives me a
better chance to come up with something new and innovative," said Mendez-Ceballos,
who is blogging about her experience.
The ACRE is actually a
synthesis of science and art. Mendez-Ceballos knew nothing about 3D printing
prior to starting. But after taking a computer graphics course with Kolb, the
instructor suggested she explore the intersections of these fields.
A collection of the dental models used by Mendez-Ceballos while researching her ACRE.
"She really is an
amazing student, always with a smile on her face," said Kolb. "She
has a great attitude and a great work ethic."
printing involves using CAD/CAM (computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing) technology. Computer
images are relayed to the printer, which, layer-by-layer, reproduces the image
using a type of resin. CAD/CAM has become so popular in dentistry that some
dental schools suggest students take design and 3D imaging courses, said
Albright's 3D printer
is housed in Alumni Hall and is about the size of a large, stainless steel
backyard grill. The printer is used by students and faculty from across the
disciplines, and has spit out everything from chess pieces to jewelry. Some
reproductions can take hours to complete.
Jewelry made with a 3D
printer is Kolb's specialty, and Mendez-Ceballos is creating her own
dental-inspired bling to wear to her dental school interviews. She is designing
circular earrings that incorporate those top teeth of hers.
printing can be faster, more accurate and less painful than traditional
dentistry techniques, especially in the fields of orthodontics and restorative
In the past, for
instance, an orthodontist would make an impression for a patient using a
gelatinous, cake batter-type substance called alginate. The impression would be
plastered, creating the cast to fit the patient with braces or other dental
equipment. The orthodontist would be careful not to drop the impression as it
could easily shatter.
With 3D printing,
practitioners can simply scan a person's mouth, send the schematics to a
computer and, with a few adjustments, print a 3D version.
A computer image of the 3D-printed earring Mendez-Ceballos designed using impressions of her top teeth.
Orthodontists can then
use the 3D version to more easily apply braces via indirect bonding. Instead of
propping open a patient's mouth for hours to place brackets on one tooth at a
time, indirect bonding allows the orthodontist to position the braces on the 3D
model, create a custom tray, and transfer all the braces to the patient's teeth
in one fell swoop.
Despite its obvious
advantages, a major reason 3D printing is not more pervasive is the cost. As
part of her ACRE, Mendez-Ceballos has been analyzing the cost differences
between the newer and more traditional methods. A 3D printer, depending on
size, can cost tens of thousands of dollars, plus the cost of re-stocking the
resin, she said.
Some smaller dental
practices are opting to farm out their work to 3D printing laboratories, such
as one Mendez-Ceballos visited in New Jersey as part of her research.
been learning about other dentistry techniques that employ CAD/CAM technology.
She has been shadowing dentist and Albright alumnus Brian Schwab '02, who uses a
CEREC (Chairside Economical Restoration of Esthetic
Ceramics) machine in his practice in Blandon, Pa.
3D printer, which is additive manufacturing (producing something from nothing),
the CEREC is subtractive. Used for restorative items like crowns, the dentist
scans a patient's mouth and sends the data to the device. The CEREC then mills
the crown from a block of porcelain, while the patient waits.
"I am curious to
see how long it will take to transition to all 3D," said Mendez-Ceballos.
The daughter of a
dentist, Mendez-Ceballos came to the conclusion that this was her calling all
on her own. Post-Albright, she hopes to attend dental school. While conducting
her ACRE, Mendez-Ceballos is taking the dental admission test and preparing for
dental school interviews.
Over the January
Interim term between the fall 2014 and spring 2015 semesters, Mendez-Ceballos
will spend 10 days in Nicaragua with Vida Volunteer, an organization that
provides medical services to underserved communities.
will set up temporary dental clinics in Nicaragua, where dental practitioners
and dental students will treat locals, many of whom rarely, if ever, receive
"It's a great way
to help out," said Mendez-Ceballos, flashing a smile worthy of a future
To read more about
Mendez-Ceballos' ACRE project: