Crowning Glory

VCU students create dental appliances in cutting-edge digital lab.

Photo credit Kevin Morley / VCU

Dr. Sompop Bencharit with students in VCU’s new digital dentistry lab.

Dr. Sompop Bencharit with students in VCU’s new digital dentistry lab.

In VCU School of Dentistry’s new digital lab, two fourth-year dental students look at a computer screen to review a 3D model of the dentures they are planning. They will later print a set of try-ins for the patient using the PrograMill PM7, an air pump-driven machine that huffs and puffs in a nearby room. “Only a few dental schools have it,” says Dr. Sompop Bencharit, the school’s first director of digital dentistry. 

The lab initially opened in 2016, when Bencharit arrived. Last May, it underwent an extensive renovation, tripling its space and adding $3 million in new technology, including four milling machines and porcelain furnaces for baking handpainted colors onto crowns. The space includes a teaching and training room, clinical labs, and research space. “It’s been pretty awesome,” says Bencharit. “The students love it.” 

In the space, students use oral scans and CADCAM technology to design and mill dentures, crowns (same-day and for implants), veneers, inlays and onlays, occlusal guards, orthodontic appliances, plastic aligners, etc.

The patients who receive the dental appliances at VCU’s clinic appreciate both the technology and the discounted prices—a crown can cost about $480, which is significantly less than private practice prices. Last year, more than 1,000 crowns were made in the lab. “Patients usually come to dental school thinking they will get a reduced fee, which is true, but in the past, it would take a lot of time. … It would take a dental student about 79 days to make a crown,” he says. “So, when the patient shows up and we get everything done in one day and the crown fits really well and looks beautiful, their response is phenomenal.”

The experience gives VCU students a competitive edge. According to Bencharit, employers often ask students, “Do you know anything about digital dentistry? Have you done CADCAM? Do you know how to do 3D printing?” He notes that his students learn these digital processes, starting in year one. “Along the mid-Atlantic area,” he says, “we are probably one of the most advanced labs.” Dentistry.VCU.edu

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