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Norbert Sparrow

March 18, 2016

3 Min Read
Student makes DIY plastic tooth-alignment device for $60

Yep, you read the headline right. A 23-year-old digital design student at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) used 3D printing technology to make a set of clear braces to straighten his teeth for about $60. Conventional braces can cost as much as $8000. But before you get any ideas, keep reading: You may not want to try this at home.

Amos Dudley came to the realization last year that he wasn’t smiling, “and it was because I was unhappy with my teeth,” he writes on his blog, where he has carefully documented his journey in “Orthoprint, or how I open-sourced my face.

The proverbial struggling student, Dudley had no disposable income, but he did have access to high-end 3D-printing equipment at NJIT, where he was an undergrad. “I took a mold of my teeth with some cheap alginate powder and a 3D-printed impression tray to get a picture of what was really going on,” writes Dudley. In the course of his research, he came across a picture of a popular brand of clear dental braces and saw what looked like the “layer striations from a 3D print.” It was the a-ha moment: “What is to stop someone [from 3D-printing] their own orthodontic aligners?” he wondered.

Well, you do need knowledge of the principles of orthodontic alignment, which Dudley set about to learn, and some rather sophisticated equipment, much of which was at his disposal at the school. While he had a personal 3D printer, he needed a machine with better dimensional accuracy. “NJIT has a digital fabrication lab with a Stratasys Dimension 1200es,” writes Dudley. “I tested the machine, and found it could give me x and y accuracy under 0.1 mm, which was close enough. Vertical print resolution didn’t matter much—the direction of motion was in x and y, not z. The same lab also has a vacuum forming machine, and some NextEngine laser scanners,” adds Dudley.

The vacuum-formed aligners are made from a copolyester Dudley found on ebay.

He sourced an inert copolyester on ebay suitable for this application, made molds of his teeth, laser scanned the casting, made digital models for several aligners (each with differently positioned teeth), and used a vacuum form machine to fabricate plastic aligners that fit the models. The vacuum form machine is important, Dudley said to Gizmodo during an interview, 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,” Dudley told Gizmodo. Instead, he used the aforementioned copolyester. “The sale of dental supplies really aren’t tightly controlled—who wants them other than dentists?” said Dudley.

After wearing the DIY aligners for 16 weeks, Dudley saw a noticeable improvement, as the images below attest. Still, Dudley advises against making your own aligners.

A practicing orthodontist interviewed by Gizmodo, while impressed by Dudley’s initiative and technological smarts, was a “little frightened that he would actually use them to treat himself without a professional assessment of the health and function of the teeth.” Brent Larson, Associate Professor of orthodontics at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry told Gizmodo, “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.”

Yes, some things are best left to professionals. Still, there is a vast chasm between $60 and $8000, and you have to wonder if it is entirely justified. Dudley, for one, is skeptical. “It’s clear that people are frustrated with the state of the orthodontic appliance industry. There’s not enough competition, and prices are very high,” Dudley told BuzzFeed.

Dudley's teeth before using the DIY aligners.

Dudley's teeth after using the DIY aligners.

About the Author(s)

Norbert Sparrow

Editor in chief of PlasticsToday since 2015, Norbert Sparrow has more than 30 years of editorial experience in business-to-business media. He studied journalism at the Centre Universitaire d'Etudes du Journalisme in Strasbourg, France, where he earned a master's degree.

www.linkedin.com/in/norbertsparrow

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