Open wide please for aerospace technology

Aerospace engineering technology is being used to develop a ‘virtual mouth’ to help dentists accurately measure and treat teeth.

Aerospace engineers at the Georgia Technology Research Institute (GTRI) in the US have been working with dentist Dr Randy Muecke and orthodontist Dr David Leever to develop technology to help specialists more accurately design and make treatments for teeth.

Measurements made from at least three X-rays or scans are fed into a computer equipped with software that generates a precise 3D digital image of the patient’s mouth. Using this image, dentists can design a complete treatment plan outlining exactly how the teeth should be moved or restored, said Dr Muecke.

Dentists are then able to test their treatments virtually, to produce false teeth, fillings or braces that are accurate and fit correctly the first time.

‘Clinicians face fewer complications and get better results in a shorter space of time, and the patient has a better experience all round,’ he said.

The technology has already halved the length of time patients spend in surgery for jaw-restructuring operations, and can be applied to any area of medicine that requires detailed information on the structure of a person’s face, said Muecke.

‘If someone has a depressed fracture of their cheekbone, surgeons currently have to use a series of disks to build up the face until they reach the same level as the other side. Using this technology they could take an image, morph it into 3D and get an exact measurement before starting surgery.’

The clinicians could also email these measurements to the prosthesis manufacturers, reducing waste and lead times, he said.

Jeffrey Sitterle, GTRI’s chief scientist and an expert in sensing and computer simulation, is now developing further dental technologies based on aerospace engineering, including an air abrasion instrument capable of eroding minor tooth decay.

The instrument would use the force of air to remove small spots of decay, then shoot in a spray of sealant, and could be used in to help children who do not regularly visit a dentist.

The research team is also considering a sensor that can detect oral cancer, as well as stronger, sleeker and quieter dental instruments and more ergonomic dentists’ chairs.