The Maplewood company delivered a “far superior” 3-D camera for dental exams.
3M’s new 3-D camera may look like a pen destined for a shirt pocket, but it’s actually targeted for your mouth.
The Maplewood company introduced the $15,000 gadget at a dentist conference in Minneapolis earlier this month to grand applause and even whistles.
That’s because the new 3M True Definition is a digital scanner that takes exacting 3-D images of a patient’s teeth, gums and palate. The digital images allow crowns, bridges and braces to be made quickly without having to take physical molds of the patient’s teeth.
“With this, the goopy, old impression trays that gagged our patients are a thing of the past. It’s amazing,” said Dr. Jeff Olson with Oak Ridge Dental in Burnsville. He tested the product a few weeks ago and liked what he saw. 3M begins delivery in the fall and Olson said he wants one.
“It’s all digital, so there is no cross contamination. And the image is as accurate as a fingerprint scanner,” he said. “On a scale of one to 10, I’m an 11.”
That’s the reaction 3M craves as it rolls out the new technology at dental trade shows around the country.
“Fewer than 25 percent of all dentists have this technology,” so there is great room for growth, said David Frazee, general manager of 3M Digital Oral Care. The digital dental-device market “is $2 billion to $4 billion and is growing 15 to 20 percent a year.” So 3M is poised to grab more market share, he said.
If successful, the product could bolster 3M’s health care division sales, which grew 4 percent last year to $5.1 billion.
At the recent trade show inside the Gale Mansion in south Minneapolis, eight 3M dental experts demonstrated the new digital technology as 60 dentists crowded around each of the demonstration stations placed along the long exhibit hall.
As dentists swiped the 3-D camera wand over the teeth, the live image appeared on an adjacent computer. In the real world, the patient and the dentist would be able to see problem spots in real time. But dentists at the show said they liked the new product because it’s smaller and faster to use than previous products. With the push of a button, 3-D pictures instantly download to a tooth-milling center that uses computer-assisted design software and 3-D printers to mill precise crowns, bridges or braces in hours instead of months or weeks.
The product took 3M several million dollars and a team of 30 engineers and designers from Maplewood, Germany, Spain and India to bring the sleek scanner to fruition, Frazee said.
One design team member was the optical-lens scientist who created 3M’s micro projector a decade ago. Building upon that “smaller-cameras-are-best” mind-set, 3M invented its dental camera wand. The new wand is five times lighter and 75 percent thinner than 3M’s first attempt at a digital dental camera in 2008.
“In this modern age of very small cameras, [we thought] wouldn’t it be better to make it smaller so we could take high-resolution images of your mouth and send that to the lab to make that crown?” Frazee asked. “It’s better than [putting] goopy materials in your mouth that have to harden in your mouth with gagging and saliva. I don’t know anyone who enjoys that.”
3M thinks it one-upped the competition because its digital scanner is half the cost of rival products. After scouring the country for a way to upgrade his dental office to digital, Olson found scanners that cost $30,000 and $40,000 — too expensive to buy on the heels of his office remodel. Then he learned of 3M’s new digital camera that was half the cost. A few weeks ago, 3M dental experts had the equipment in his office for a day.
“This is far superior to what we have now,” Olson said. “This is extremely accurate.”
The images and crowns that result from the 3-D camera are accurate to within 50 microns or 0.05 of a millimeter. Because of that, crowns fit snugly and it doesn’t take an hour to retrofit inexact molds to the patient’s mouth, Olson said. He added, “This is way faster than the old technology. We’re excited.”