SIOUX CITY | About a year ago Dr. Daniel Kaler equipped his practice with a high-tech scanner that makes detailed digital impressions of his patients' teeth.
Stainless steel dental trays filled with chalky mint or cherry-flavored alginate -- a gooey substance that often makes patients gag -- will soon become a thing of the past at most orthodontic practices, he believes.
"It is the coming thing. If you go to the national orthodontic or dental meetings, these people who make these cameras have the big booths," he said. "That's the big push right now."
Kaler, a self-described computer guru, purchased a $20,000 True Definition Scanner made by 3M. The system consists of a lightweight, hand-held scanning wand that is attached to a touch-screen display and central processing unit mounted onto a rolling cart.
Orthodontic assistants spray a tasteless reflective powder -- the edible substance Kaler said is used to coat M&Ms -- into a patient's mouth before scanning with the wand. It takes about 20 minutes to complete a scan, which is digitally stored in 3M's technology center. The scans can be downloaded directly to computers in Kaler's office, 4224 Sergeant Road, at any time.
Once Kaler gets a 3D printer, braces, retainers, expanders and other dental appliances will be produced on site in a couple of hours.
"We can use that scan to actually look and view and diagnose," he said. "We can send it to a dental lab, which has a 3D printer. They print the model out."
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SCANNING OFFERS COMFORT, CONVENIENCE
With traditional impressions, it takes a couple of minutes for the alginate to firm up. After the impression is removed from the mouth, Kaler pours plaster into it.
"When the plaster hardens, we have a model of somebody's teeth," he said. "Because of the time factor, some would rather still do it the old fashioned way because you could have an impression in two minutes. Most people seem to think it's cool because they can look at the screen and see a digital model of their teeth."
Brenda Dick, an orthodontist who practice with Kaler, said the scanning process is more comfortable for patients and more convenient for orthodontists. If a portion of the impression is missing, she said the problem can be fixed easily without having to start from scratch, as is the case with traditional impressions.
"You can just go back, realign the wand and it will take that part that was missing," she said. "When we have impressions, especially for Invisalign (clear braces), we have to retake the whole thing because you cannot really add or take from it. It's so much easier with the scanning."
Missy Alcorn, who has been working as an orthodontic assistant for 16 years, said scanning can be "very tricky," but she said she likes the challenge of it.
Camille Bryce, also an orthodontic assistant for Kaler and Dick, described the technology as "exciting."
"Once you've done the impressions so long, it's second nature," she said. "The patients like it a lot to see their teeth after we're done."