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My 3D printed tooth

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I was excited to share the story of my custom 3D body part on a recent trip to Goa, where I had been asked to speak about affordable accessibility design thinking at the DesignYatra conference. The body part I spoke of is now a permanent part of me.

The world of 3D printing and making continues to accelerate, opening doors to new avenues of design. For example, students at Carleton University are creating new types of custom prosthetics using the university’s 3D printers. Medical uses for custom 3D “making” are already taking hold and promising a brighter, more accessible future for many.

Breakthroughs such as the Jaipur Foot (and Jaipur Knee) have meant affordable prosthetics for tens of thousands of people. A Jaipur Foot, while lacking in aesthetics and customization, costs less than $50, compared to a leading-edge prosthetic that would be installed in Ontario for perhaps $15,000.

Such 3D technologies are the harbingers of all manner of customizable, affordable, potentially life-altering solutions for millions of people, especially in the developing world. With these, we can dramatically improve the quality of life, globally.

My 3D printed body part was made right here in Ottawa, Canada. It’s a custom tooth, replacing one I broke in a basketball game. Rather than lamenting the cost and inconvenience of getting a crown, I followed up with a friend who told me she recently had a custom-made tooth implanted instead of a conventional crown. My regular dentist knew about the process but wasn’t set up for it yet, so I located a dentist in Ottawa who was, and soon enough we were talking tooth in his office.

Image showing David’s “tooth designer” works out the kinks (left and centre); then the milling process begins (right)

David’s “tooth designer” works out the kinks (left and centre); then the milling process begins (right)

After some elaborate scanning and molding of the negative space in my mouth, I found myself in the dentist chair craning my neck to watch the dental assistant next to me working away at the program she uses to perfect the design before the milling process begins. She told me she went to college to become a dental technician, but hadn’t anticipated one day designing teeth with this amazing software. We chatted about whether she ever imagined herself a “tooth designer,” as she rounded off a virtual hill in the corner of my virtual tooth to make it look more like “me.” She said she’d never heard that term before, but agreed that indeed she was! We certainly live in an age where everyone’s a designer, but neither of us saw this one coming.

After we agreed on the tooth design, we enjoyed watching the milling process (they proudly have the machine behind glass in the waiting room) — it took under ten minutes, and then the dental team promptly installed it in my jaw.

I walked out of the dentist office that day confident that we live in a time where the medical successes of the rich will be more and more easily replicated for those who are not so wealthy.

Whether you’re a print designer, a Web designer, an industrial designer, or a tooth designer, we owe it to ourselves to embrace what becomes possible when 3D making becomes increasingly ubiquitous.

The early victories of 3D printing will certainly be about driving down the cost of making and delivering things we already know. Certainly Gutenberg (TIME magazine’s Person of the Millenium) wasn’t trying to start a revolution when he invented moveable type; he was just trying to make money by producing cheaper Bibles. Indeed, for the first 50 years of Gutenberg’s press, while over 7,000 titles came off his invention, they were all simply cheaper replicas of what already existed. . .all works of biblical non-fiction. It wasn’t until the 16th century that Martin Luther would design a new kind of Bible that truly embraced the idea that everyone could afford to read, or Machiavelli would create the first fiction No. 1 bestseller.

Computers similarly started creeping toward affordability in the 1950s. IBM and American Airlines drove down the cost of booking and printing airline tickets and many companies have replicated similar efficiencies since, but it took three more decades before we started doing things that had never been dreamed of before with the technology. . .such as the Internet.

And so it will be with 3D printing: yes, we’ll produce dental crowns faster and cheaper, but soon these replicators will be overwhelmed by objects and customizations and localizations never before dreamed of. Why not put a Bluetooth microphone inside that custom tooth? Re-arrange molecules to create new tooth materials that have never existed before? Could my tooth someday tell my Fitbit what I just ate?

Maybe the possibilities are more than you want to chew on today (a Google search of 3D innovations can easily overwhelm), however 3D making could indeed become the greatest opportunity that designers have ever bitten off. What will you create?

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Reviewed March 19, 2015


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