Handpieces Then, Now, and Tomorrow

The highspeed dental handpiece has been a work in progress since it was first introduced several decades ago. I was a young man when my dentist got his first Borden Highspeed handpiece. It was a shiny steel box with a black cord and slim handpiece that mounted to the tray arm of his Ritter (Gas Pump Style) dental delivery system. Up to this point my cavities had all been excavated with the belt drive slow speed handpiece that hung off the top of the Ritter. When the belt drive hand piece was applied to my tooth my whole head would vibrate. Even at the age of ten I was interested in machines so my dentist explained the operation of the highspeed to me. I was intrigued by the technology but most impressed that my head no longer vibrated when he cut out a cavity.

Since my first introduction to the highspeed handpiece nearly 50 years ago no radical improvement in the basic technology has occurred. This is not to say that we have not seen improvements. The mechanism for holding the bur has gone from a friction fit in a plastic sleeve to a spring loaded push button chuck. The water spray has gone from a single hole to multiple spray jets with internal anti retraction. The mounting adapter has improved from a 2 hole screw on coupler to a 4 hole 360 degree swivel bayonet with a built in power optic light source. Finally the handpiece has gone from the dark to having a head light to shine on the prep area. Unfortunately no one has been able to come up with a better idea for spinning the bur than using compressed air and a small turbine.

We have seen other ideas like the laser and the air abrasion machines but their costs and side effects have kept them from going main stream. Even the recent advent of the operatory electric handpiece with a highspeed head has failed to capture the market because of the cost and size problems. Each approach seems to have as many nuisance side effects as it has benefits. There is not a single one of you who could not write the specifications for a perfect highspeed handpiece. So why, if we can contemplate putting men on Mars, can’t we produce what each of us can so easily imagine. The fact of the matter is that the technology to build the perfect dental handpiece is probably tougher than putting men on Mars.

Let’s for the fun of it take a quick look at what may or may not be possible in the near future. I believe that an external metal alloy will be found that doesn’t look bad after only a year or two. Some of the newer bodies are already approaching this. We will see very bright LED lights in the front of the handpieces to replace the fiber optics. I believe that the technology exists to power these LEDs off the spin of the turbine. This would not only eliminate the fiber optics but also bulbs and wires and all the things that fail and cost lots of money. I believe that a lubrication free chuck mechanism can be built and used in conjunction with the already fantastic lubrication free bearings. This would eliminate the need to lubricate the chuck of your lube free handpiece. It will be possible to make the handpiece cord and adapter lighter as well as the handpiece itself. This will lower hand and wrist strain. The head size of the handpiece is likely to stay about the size they are now. The side effects of smaller size are poor performance and reduce life expectancy. I believe that the competition for improved performance and durability will keep the heads from getting smaller than they currently are.

It is exciting to watch the major players in handpiece design struggle to approach the ideal handpiece. The W&H company currently is introducing a handpiece with LED lights. The Midwest people have something new called ATC ( Automatic Torque Control) which is billed as an electric / air hybrid. Each new design and new idea moves the art closer to our perfect design.

I want to finish here with some ideas for you when you go shopping for handpieces and are tempted to try some of these new innovations. In many cases there is a trade off between a very desirable trait and a nuisance side effect. The quiet and high torque of the electrics are a good example. While these very desirable features have been worth the extra size and weight that comes with the package for almost everyone there have been some instances where the weight has proved too much to adapt to. The point is to be aware of the downsides and not to over look them when making your decision. My own nature tends to be fairly conservative. It took many years for my boys to pry my conventional screwdriver from my hand and force me to try a new fangled electric one. Unless you are the adventuresome type it doesn’t usually hurt to wait and see what the market has to say about the new innovation in a year. If you are watching your budget it is good to know about the maintenance costs in advance. It is a good idea to find out how often the new handpieces will break down and how much it will cost to fix them. Finally, feel free to give us a call if you have questions. We repair many handpieces each month and though we may not know which is exactly right for you we will be glad to tell you what we have seen and learned.

– John Wiltrout