At the age of nine, I became the first kid in my elementary school class to get braces. They did their job, but by the time I left college, I’d lost my retainers and my teeth had drifted back into disarray. Imagine the feeling of kinship, then, when I saw this blog post by a college student who 3D-printed his own braces.
Amos Dudley is a 3-D artist and student at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Having gone through a similar experience of suffering through braces and then giving up on the retainer, he figured out how to create his own Invisalign clear braces using a 3D scanner and additive manufacturing. It’s a clever trick, but be forewarned, DIY dentistry is a dangerous game. More on that in a second.
As Dudley explained in his post, he was an unusual but perfect candidate for an experiment like this. As a college student, he’s both dead broke and in close proximity to expensive 3-D printing equipment. Dudley said he initially visited a dentist who told him he was a good candidate for Invisalign, but after coming across a photo that showed an aligner with what looked like layer striations from 3-D printing, he decided to do some research.
“Cost was a factor in the sense that I didn’t want to pay for braces again,” Dudley said. “The idea of spending thousands again just to fix something I had screwed up seemed perverse. The idea that I could do it myself, immediately, for virtually free, was the main motivator.”
Dudley explained that the research was the most difficult part—not to mention the fact that he’s a college student who is presumably busy doing other college student-y things. He also had to make sure to “conclude that [he] couldn’t take any shortcuts,” which was probably smart.
Dudley began by taking a mold of his teeth, which was done using alginate powder. (“You can get this from Amazon or an art supply store,” he told us helpfully.) He then placed the mold in an upside-down yogurt container and filled it with PermaStone, which produced a casting.
After scanning the casting, he was able to create a digital model for a number of different aligners, each with differently positioned teeth. He printed the models using a 3-D printer and, with the help of a vacuum form machine, later created plastic aligners that fit the models. He told us he used the same plastic retainer material that they use in an orthodontist’s office which is “totally biologically inert [and] doesn’t leach toxic chemicals into your mouth or break down over time.”
The vacuum form machine is important, he said, because 3-D printing the actual aligners wouldn’t work.
“Aside from being non-transparent and uncomfortably textured, [that plastic] is quite porous and would be very bad for oral hygiene because of bacterial growth,” he said. “I bought the stuff on eBay. The sale of dental supplies really aren’t tightly controlled—who wants them other than dentists?”
He’s been wearing the aligners for 16 weeks, and so far, they appear to be working.
“I’ve heard from a few orthodontists and orthodontic technicians that I basically replicated the commercial process pretty closely,” Dudley said. “[But] I’d advise against making your own aligners.”
Of course, most do-it-yourself projects that involve teeth are risky, dangerous, and often quite dumb. Practicing orthodontist Brent Larson, an associate professor of orthodontics at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, sounded very wary of Dudley’s escapades when I contacted him.
“I’m impressed with the way [he] was able to use the scanning and printing technology that he had available to engineer and produce his own aligners but a little frightened that he would actually use them to treat himself without a professional assessment of the health and function of the teeth.” The dental professional added, “In fact, when looking at the images of the DIYer’s teeth, there are specific areas of tooth wear visible that indicate unbalanced function and possible nighttime grinding.”
The American Association of Orthodontists has taken a hardline approach to DIY dentistry, warning that the practice is stupid, dangerous, and not worth it.
“DIY solutions are always tempting because of the possibility of saving money,” Larson explained. “But this isn’t like home remodeling where if you get into trouble you can always call in a professional later ... [the] damage could result in loss of the supporting tooth root, gum recession, or, in the worst case, loss of teeth.”
Whatever, Dr. Larson. Let me revel in my dream of cheap orthodontics until they become detached and ruin my entire jaw. Or maybe not.