Sompop Bencharit, D.D.S., Ph.D., and a dental student discuss a 3D-printed dental model that was printed in Dr. Bencharit’s lab. Photo by Allen Jones, VCU University Marketing

Digital Dentistry: Bringing Cutting Edge Technology to the Classroom and the Clinic

On a Wednesday morning this summer, Sompop Bencharit, D.D.S., Ph.D., was showing visitors around his lab. He held in his hand the exact model of a 16-year-old girl’s bottom jaw bone, which was bulging and asymmetrical on the left side.

One of Dr. Bencharit’s students at the VCU School of Dentistry had just made the model using a dental imaging scanner and the lab’s 3D printer. It showed the symptoms of fibrous dysplasia, a bone disorder in which tissue develops in place of a normal bone and causes it to deform or fracture.

In just a few hours, Dr. Bencharit said, he would pass along the model to the girl’s oral surgeon, who would then be able to practice the procedure — shaving down the bone to a normal size and shape — on a model identical to what she would see in the operating room.

The digital process and tools used to make the model, and the fact that a student created it, are reasons David Sarrett, D.M.D., dean of the School of Dentistry, recruited Dr. Bencharit last year to come to the MCV Campus.

“Digital dentistry is here and is changing almost everything we are doing to restore and replace teeth,” Dr. Sarrett said. “We needed a person to drive change and adoption of this technology, and Dr. Bencharit was a perfect fit — he is a leader in digital dentistry application and a great teacher and mentor for students and the faculty.”

Dr. Sarrett hired Dr. Bencharit in 2016 as the school’s first-ever director of digital dentistry, a position that allows Dr. Bencharit to explore and teach emerging technology in the classroom and apply the best new tools and procedures in the clinic.

A Home for Digital Dentistry

A student and instructor in Dr. Bencharit's lab.
A student and instructor work at an on-site mill in Dr. Bencharit's lab.

As Dr. Bencharit builds the school’s digital dentistry curriculum and clinical support, administrators are planning to give his lab a permanent home. They’re exploring options in an upcoming MCV Campus expansion project, which could include a dedicated space alongside pre-doctoral, residency and faculty dental clinics. Establishing a digital dentistry lab directly next to these clinics will enable Dr. Bencharit, his team and his students to work alongside other dentists to deliver the most advanced care available today, which is less invasive, faster and more precise.

The school is seeking help to plan, develop and support the future space by offering many opportunities to name labs and other areas in return for gifts. These gifts will help ensure innovative dental care, research and education continues on the MCV Campus for many years to come.

Digital Dentistry in Action

The curriculum Dr. Bencharit is shaping and the tools he’s introduced are already creating less invasive experiences for patients and more accurate work on the part of dentists and surgeons.

For example, Dr. Bencharit has implemented intraoral scanning and digital impressions in the clinic and in the first- and second-year dental curriculum. As opposed to traditional impressions that require a material to be mixed, sit in a patient’s mouth and then harden, digital impressions take roughly five minutes and are made using a handheld scanner. The scanner Dr. Bencharit and his students use takes 1,400 to 1,500 pictures and creates an exact digital model that can be examined on screen or 3D printed in the lab.

“The 3D impressions are easier for the patient and easier for the dentist,” Dr. Bencharit said. “They also make you a better dentist because they’re more accurate and easier to see, allowing you to check your own work. You can go to the screen and magnify them, and if they don’t look right, you can make adjustments and scan again.”

Digital impressions on their own aid dentists in making crowns, bridges, orthodontic treatments and mouth guards. When additional technology is used, dental surgery and implant procedures are drastically improved. Cone beam computed tomography, or CBCT, is technology used to produce 3D images of soft tissues, nerve pathways and bone in a single scan — it’s what Dr. Bencharit’s student used to create the model of the girl’s jaw bone who suffered from fibrous dysplasia.

Surgical implant guide designed and printed in Dr. Bencharit's lab. Photo by Dr. Sompop Bencharit, VCU Health.
Surgical implant guide designed and printed in Dr. Bencharit's lab. Photo by Dr. Sompop Bencharit, VCU Health.

When CBCT information is combined with the precise intraoral digital impressions, a complete and detailed model of the jaw and teeth emerges that shows the relationship between soft tissue, teeth and bone.

With this complete model, Dr. Bencharit is able to design and 3D print customized surgical implant guides that fit into a patient’s mouth. The guides cover surrounding teeth and include a tube that directs screw access, angulation of the implant in relation to the bone and vertical position of the implant.

This fall, the School of Dentistry is offering one of the first courses in the country focused on this type of computer-assisted implant planning and guided surgery. Fourth-year students will pair with oral surgeons to complete intraoral and CBCT scans of patients, plan a surgery using the digital information they’ve gathered, 3D print surgical guides and place an implant.

Dr. Bencharit with dental students in a simulation. Photo by Allen Jones, VCU University Marketing.
Dr. Bencharit with dental students in a simulation. Photo by Allen Jones, VCU University Marketing.

The new techniques that students are learning on the MCV Campus are creating new standards in dental care, one of which is a drastically reduced time commitment for patients and dentists. Placing crowns, for example, previously has required conventional impressions to be made and then sent to a lab for one to two weeks, then the crown is sent back to the dentist who has the patient return for crown placement. Using the technology in Dr. Bencharit’s lab, digital impressions can be made and analyzed in the lab, and then a crown can be fabricated in an onsite mill all in one day.

“Dentistry constantly changes, but there are a few things in the past that were milestones. Roughly 30 years ago, the milestones were adhesive dentistry and modern implants,” Dr. Bencharit said. “The next breakthrough, what we’re going through right now, is digital dentistry. Even though digital has been around for a long time, the technology of the scanner and the computer design of the crown have not caught up until now. I came here because the school had the vision to integrate digital dentistry into the dental student and resident curriculum, and I want to be part of the new wave.”

Supporting Dr. Bencharit’s new lab space through the naming opportunities referenced earlier is how you too can be part of delivering and teaching the newest innovations in dental care. For more information about providing that support, contact Gloria Callihan at 804-828-8101 or

To learn about all of the ways to give, including through tributes and memorials, named endowed funds, planned giving and major gifts, visit our giving page.

3D-printed mouth guards (center), 3D printer (right) and an in-production 3D-printed surgical guide (left), all from Dr. Bencharit’s lab. Photos by Dr. Sompop Bencharit, VCU Health.
An in-production 3D-printed surgical guide (left), 3D-printed mouth guards (center) and a 3D printer (right), all from Dr. Bencharit’s lab. Photos by Dr. Sompop Bencharit, VCU Health.