Technological progress is usually as visible as plants growing in a garden. That is, growth happens to everything, but so continuously and gradually incremental it can’t be observed as it occurs. Just the results get noticed from time to time. Yet occasionally there are dramatic moments where something new bursts forth like an unexpected sprout from the soil, and affects all around it.

Recently, as I have been a few times before, I was privileged to witness just as such a breaking point, a technological leap that vividly illustrates the way the world is going. It was a demonstration of the nature of progress at this time in history, and a harbinger of things to come.

A tale of two crowns

Last month, a tooth fell apart and I had to go in for a new dental crown. The procedure was the same as it had been the several times I had it done before. Flexible molds were made of the tooth from which a temporary crown was cast right there. Another mold was sent to a laboratory, which made a plaster cast which was then used to create the permanent crown. So back I come for another visit.

Yet my dentist is a true perfectionist, and wasn’t satisfied with how it fit next to the remaining teeth, so he sent it back to the lab to be redone.  So a temp crown had been put in, taken out, and then put back in yet again. The whole thing took three visits and a month to get done, costing me $450. Not bad.

During the course of all this, the dentist discovered another crown that he’d put in a year or so before had developed decay underneath. It needed to be redone, so the day after Labor Day (ironically enough), I was back in the chair. But this time he used his brand-new dental milling machine. And the process was different from the start. First, the dentist stuck a scanner in my mouth that beeped until it had built a 3D model of the affected tooth and the ones flanking it.

Then a dental technician came in, and she turned the onscreen model of the tooth into one of top of the crown while I watched her work. After the old crown was jack-hammered out of my head, the dentist rescanned the stump. This was mated with the previous scan to create a virtual crown. The dentist then adjusted it himself so it would match his preferences and allow enough room for flossing, and pushed the button.

In the backroom, two rotating cutters in a desk-sized device milled a half-inch cube of plastic for 10 minutes to make the actual crown. Installed, hey presto. And to top it off, the whole thing was free.

My dentist said he felt bad that such a new crown had gone bad, but I think it was also that I was their first guinea pig. Fine with me. The fact that he could even afford to make such a generous offer says something about the technology. The only money he actually lost was for his and his assistant’s time and materials, but it was all in-house. Having the machine right there meant he did not have to pay an outside lab for their services also.

Now the machine is not cheap – around $175K, I believe. It’s been available 8 years, he said, but he waited until the interface was made simple enough for a dental technician to work without much training.

But the advantages are stunningly obvious. The resulting product is cheap, quick, and accurate, and with far less trouble all around. But there goes a whole industry, with skilled and likely well-paid sculptors and decades of built up craft knowledge, right out the window.

I was reminded of my first run in with computers taking jobs. There was a time when all printing was done by highly-trained professionals also, including typesetters and designers. I was one, graduating from art school in 1983, the year the Mac came out. Within five years, they had taken over. And now, thirty years later, though a high-end printing industry remains, most desktop printing is done by secretaries.

That’s where the world is going, folks. If it hasn’t reached your business yet, just wait. It’s coming.