If necessity is the mother of invention, then you might say that aesthetics is the fairy godmother of technology. At least that’s the case when it comes to dentures. Throughout history, the progress of smile-enhancing dentures (otherwise known asor false teeth) has always gone hand in hand with whatever technology happened to be the “latest and greatest” of the time. From animal horn, to hardened rubber, to today’s photopolymer materials, prosthetic devices that replace missing or lost teeth have come a long way, and show no signs of slowing down.
How dentures earned their chops
Dentures are certainly not a modern invention. As early as the 7th century BC, Etruscans living in northern Italy made partial dentures out of human or animal teeth attached together with gold bands, a method that was borrowed by the Romans in the 5th century BC.
Almost ten centuries later, the Japanese took the practice a step further and created wooden dentures. A mold of the patient’s mouth was made using soft beeswax, and then filled with harder beeswax. Wooden dentures were then very finely carved based on this model. Later Japanese versions used pagodite (a soft soapstone), ivory or other types of animal horn to create the teeth.
Then, in 1791, the first British patent to make porcelain dentures was granted to Nicholas Dubois De Chemant. He began manufacturing them in 1792, with porcelain paste supplied by Wedgewood (yes, that Wedgewood, the crafter of fine bone china). One of the most famous denture wearers of this era was George Washington, who had some of the highest quality false teeth available at this time, made from carved hippopotamus ivory into which human teeth were fitted.
From the 1850s onwards, dentures were made of Vulcanite, a form of hardened rubber into which porcelain teeth were set. And then, during the 20th century, acrylic resin and other plastics became the most popular materials for the purpose.
Seeing the future of dentures...in 3D
So what’s in store for the future of false teeth, or dental prosthetics? Those in the know are looking to 3D printing. Though the field is still in its infancy, 3D printing firms have already printed realistic teeth, gums and even nerves. The printer uses methyl methacrylate (a material typically used for prosthetics) to produce items that are the same color and texture as real teeth and gums. Traditionally made dentures can make teeth look a bit too good to be true, due to the evenness of the finish, but 3D dentures are much more realistic because they can have variations in tooth shade. By making every voxel – the 3D printing equivalent of a pixel – different in color and transparency, 3D printers will be able to produce teeth that are almost indistinguishable from the real thing.
Hot off the printer?
While the technology is advancing quickly, it hasn’t advanced quite far enough for 3D printed dentures to be readily available. More than one company has received approval from the FDA to print the dentures. Resin dentures will be made directly from 3D models instead of using casts, meaning that the companies can automate the manufacturing process and create dentures much faster than if using traditional methods.
Another complication lies in the cost. While 3D printers are getting more affordable and the standard of what they produce is getting better, it’s still a relatively new type of technology, and therefore still quite expensive to buy. As described above, specialist printers can produce a set of dentures but, with printers costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, the cost of buying a set for yourself is prohibitively high.
Even though full sets of 3D printed dentures are far from something you see every day, single teeth, crowns and veneers are becoming more commonplace. In fact, many dentists are already using 3D imaging technology to create an exact image of a tooth, if it has not broken below the gum line. The image is then sent to a 3D printer that creates a porcelain crown to those exact specifications, which the dentist then immediately fits, with the whole process taking about an hour. So even though you may not see a 3D printer on your dentist’s desk just yet, it’s clear that 3D printing will be important to the future of prosthodontics -- and has come a long way since the days of animal horn and beeswax.