Handpieces: The Next Generation

Dec. 1, 1999
Technology may have updated your camera, your car, and your computer, but amazing things are also happening in the world of handpieces.

Technology may have updated your camera, your car, and your computer, but amazing things are also happening in the world of handpieces.

Patrick Murphy

Handpiece maintenance can be a major, if often unrecognized cost in running a dental practice. The typical dental office, like that of Wayne Wong of La Mirada, Calif., does an average of 15 to 20 procedures a day using a high-speed handpiece.

OWhen you spend three to four minutes cleaning and lubing each handpiece, you?re talking about almost 400 hours each year cleaning handpieces,O said Wong, a fellow of the Academy of Dentistry International. OAnd, considering the cost of cleaners and lubes ? which is about $35 a set ? plus what my assistants make an hour, it really starts to add up.

OI would much rather spend my time focusing on patient care, rather than concentrating on whether or not I used enough oil on my handpiece. It just isn?t time- or cost-effective for me or my assistants.O

According to Desiree Gradilla, RDA, one of Wong?s assistants, OCleaning and lubricating handpieces is a time-consuming and messy process. First, I spray cleaner before I autoclave. After autoclaving, I use a lubricant and, even though I follow the manufacturer?s instructions, it seems that I still don?t get the best results. With these new maintenance-free products, I can spend my time assisting patients instead of doing handpiece maintenance.O

Bearing failure always has been a potential problem with handpieces that operate at speeds of up to 400,000 rpm ? the highest speeds found in any ball-bearing application, including jet engines. In comparison, a car engine typically turns over at less than 7,000 rpm, even if you put your foot to the floor. Without properly lubricating the handpiece after each use, performance can degrade rapidly.

The combination of high speeds, oil build-up, repeated sterilization, and contamination from harmful debris can degrade ball-bearing performance, causing a handpiece to vibrate, operate below designed speed, and ultimately fail.

A number of new developments in bearing technology have led to the development of maintenance-free handpieces that don?t have to be lubricated after each use.

Leading handpiece manufacturers and repair companies now are offering Omaintenance-freeO products that feature OlifetimeO lubrication and promise substantial savings to dentists. Plus, they can greatly reduce or eliminate the lubricant expelled.

One of the keys to maintenance-free handpieces is the development of lifetime-lube turbine bearings that can be installed when a handpiece is serviced. The cages ? the material that separates and holds the tiny ball bearings ? in many of these bearings are made from a proprietary material that has been treated with special lubricants and additives. These additives nearly double the wear resistance of what has been, until now, the most commonly used cage material in dental bearings. This new material will maintain its self-lubricating properties even when the handpiece is repeatedly autoclaved with high-pressure steam at temperatures of up to 135 degrees Celsius.

At the same time, new bearing designs prevent contaminants from entering the bearing. One of the new designs includes a shield that is an integral part of the outer ring. This provides a far tighter tolerance than older designs, where the shield is held in place with a wire clip. The integral shield acts as a virtual seal, keeping contaminants away from frictional bearing surfaces.

Self-lubricating bearings now are being used by manufacturers who are introducing handpiece models that do not require lubrication or cleaning before sterilization.

If the cost of buying a new handpiece is an issue, upgrading your current handpiece to be maintenance-free is a good option. Some handpiece-repair companies offer to replace your handpiece?s worn-out turbine (or bearings) with maintenance-free components as part of the maintenance service performed. Even before figuring in the cost of cleaners and lubricants, the time saved without having to lubricate and clean a handpiece before sterilizing could more than pay for the cost of this service.

Dr. Thomas Kalniz, a 30-year practitioner, has another dentist and three full-time hygienists in his Toledo, Ohio, practice. He?s excited about the new economic outlook technology has brought to handpiece maintenance.

OBefore we went the maintenance-free route, we were buying cleaners and lubricants by the case,O said Kalniz, who is a member of the Academy of General Dentistry. OWe figure we were spending more than $50 each month on that alone.O

Another important issue facing dentists is cleaners and lubricants that are expelled from the handpiece during a procedure, even when cleaning and lubricating have been properly performed. If these agents are deposited during cutting, it can reduce the efficacy of etching and compromise bond strength.

OSince retrofitting my handpieces with maintenance-free bearings, I?ve definitely seen fewer binding failures,O Kalniz added. OUsing maintenance-free products in conjunction with higher-end bonding agents only can result in procedures that are more efficient and longer-lasting.O

Self-lubricating cages are only a part of the new technology story. One dental-bearing manufacturer also is using a new stainless-steel alloy made through a special process that ensures a uniform, fine carbide distribution throughout the alloy. This new steel is harder and more corrosion-resistant than the 440C steel used in many conventional handpiece bearings. As the accompanying graphs show (see above), this gives these new steel bearings a superior raceway finish to provide smoother operation.

The development of maintenance-free handpiece components represent one of the most significant advances in dental technology since the introduction of the OBorden Airotor,O the first air turbine dental handpiece created in the 1950s. Maintenance-free handpieces promise substantial savings for the dentist while freeing the hygienist or dental assistant from the time-consuming task of cleaning and lubricating handpieces after use.