As an innovation junkie and geek wannabe I’ve been paying attention to 3D printing and the exploding maker movement. When I say paying attention, I mean reading about it, watching hackers and hobbyists make stuff, and wondering if there is more to the technology than the brightly colored plastic tchotchkes cluttering my desk. 3D printing really hasn’t affected me yet. That is until I recently chipped a tooth and with the bothersome pea-sized chip in hand had no choice but to visit our family friend and dentist, Dr. Robert Serinsky. Sometimes disruption has to hit you right in the mouth before you pay attention.
Now, I was no stranger to restorative dentistry. About seven years ago I had chipped another tooth that required a crown and don’t remember the process fondly. It required multiple, drawn out, not to mention expensive, visits to Dr. Serinsky. He first had to make a physical mold of my damaged tooth. The mold was then sent out to a local dental lab to cast a permanent crown while I was sent home with the inconvenience of a temporary crown made of a cured composite secured with temporary cement. Not pleasant! Weeks later, when my newly manufactured crown was back from the lab, I was summoned to the office for yet another lengthy dentist visit to secure it in place.
So you understand why I wasn’t a happy camper, facing the same fate again seven years later, while heading toward my dentist’s office with a similar sized chunk of tooth in hand. However, times have changed. This time instead of a physical mold that had to be shipped out to a lab for casting Dr. Serinsky inserted a digital camera in my mouth and the next thing I knew a digital image of my damaged tooth immediately appeared on a computer screen positioned right next to my dental chair. Dr. Serinsky knows I’m an innovation junkie so he went out of his way to demonstrate his new high tech capability. I watched my damaged tooth rotating in all of its 3D glory while he ran the design software to quickly and magically fit a digital crown on top of my chipped digital tooth. Voila! He even made a few manual tweaks to the digital crown using the computer aided design software, a little bit off the side here and a little smoothing there. I think the software had designed the perfect crown and he was just showing off in front of me!
It’s what happened next that blew me away and convinced me that 3D printing is a capability that will truly change the world, democratizing design and manufacuring. Dr. Serinsky pushed send on the computer keyboard and said come with me. He took me into another room in his dental office where he proudly pointed to a piece of equipment the size of a large microwave. The digital design of my new crown had been transmitted to a CNC (computer numerical control) milling machine. I have come to learn the difference between a 3D printer which deposits layers of material building up to form an object and a CNC milling machine which takes a block of material and carves out the desired object. I watched in awe as my crown was sculpted from a block of dental composite right before my eyes.
In about ten minutes, with my new crown in hand, it was back to the dental chair where it was expertly put in place permanently. Well, I hope permanently! I asked Dr. Serinsky if this new capability put the dental lab that he had routinely used to make crowns out of business. He told me he had just reviewed his budget and that his spending at the lab had actually increased. It turns out the lab is busier than ever focusing on non-routine higher value restorative work, it’s hard to get an appointment with Dr. Serinsky who is delivering better value to his patients, and I got a new crown in a single visit and a life lesson in disruptive innovation. Talk about a win-win-win! Disruption doesn’t have to have winners and losers if we get better faster at reinventing ourselves, and our business models.
I saw first hand the disruptive power of 3D printing. It enabled my dentist to be both a designer and a manufacturer. It has the potential to turn all of us into designers and manufacturers. It will change the world and create enormous economic value when we realize that design and manufacturing aren’t industry sectors, they are capabilities. Capabilities that when combined and recombined to create exciting new business models will unleash unlimited adjacent possibilities and enable us to co-create a better future. Sometimes disruption has to hit you right in the mouth before you pay attention.