TSUKUBA, Ibaraki Prefecture--Scientists here have developed technology to create metal denture frames with a 3-D printer, a breakthrough that could mean false teeth will be provided more cheaply and quickly than with current methods.

Researchers from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) said under their new method the oral structure is measured with a special scanner to make high-quality dentures at less than half the cost of conventional techniques.

They are looking to make the technology eligible to be covered by public health insurance within two years, enabling the innovative method to become widespread among patients.

Chikahiro Okubo, a dentistry professor at Tsurumi University’s School of Dental Medicine in Yokohama, began offering dentures made with the new technology to his patients in the spring.

“A denture currently costs as much as hundreds of thousands of yen (thousands of dollars), but the price will drop drastically if the new method is covered by public health insurance and becomes common,” Okubo said. “The technology is essential, as the number of dental technicians is on the decline.”

Yoshimitsu Okazaki, a chief senior researcher at the AIST’s Biomaterials Research Group, worked with Tokyo-based dental alloy maker Ids Co. to 3-D-print denture frames by applying laser light to heat and dissolve powdered cobalt-chromium alloy for printing.

Dentures are completed by adding ceramic teeth and resin gums to the frames.

The scientists obtained government approval for use of the powdered alloy in April.

To produce conventional cast denture frames, dental technicians first make prototype models based on gypsum molds of the oral cavity and metal is then poured into the models.

As the processes require much manual work, it is difficult to create accurate dentures. Because of that, only skilled technicians can produce precise artificial teeth under existing methods.

In contrast, the new technique can automatically create accurate frames based on measured data with a 3-D printer.

While conventional technologies require nearly two weeks to finish a frame, denture frames can be completed within several days under the newly developed method. Materials costs can be more than halved as well, according to the researchers.