3D printing fashion is the industry's next trend. How does this technology work and how will it benefit the fashion industry?
‘[3D printing] will revolutionise society,’ has said the American musician and artist, Will.i.am. ‘In 10 years, everyone will have a 3D printer in their house. Your friend will say, “Let’s go, hurry up” and you’ll go, “Wait, my shoes haven’t finished printing yet.”’
Whilst this scene might seem unthinkable at the moment, the expectations for 3D printing technologies are running high amongst futurists. There has been a lot of talk in the media around this technique and its potential for the future, offering us the possibility to print ready to wear shoes, necklaces and even complete garments. According to Gartner, 3D printer shipments will more than double every year between 2015 and 2018, by which time shipments are forecast to reach more than 2.3 million worldwide. The technology is here to stay, but considering that we could make our own DIY fashion at home with sewers and we don’t, will the print-it-yourself expectation become a reality?
Lucky for us, the technology is real and doesn’t require much handy work to begin with. Basically, to create a 3D printed object one needs to have some knowledge of a 3D software program or a scanner, a printer and printing materials like nylon, ceramic and precious metals. The actual concept of 3D printing technologies involves different methods, which use either a heating source to fuse, sinter or melt thin slices of materials to create an object layer by layer from the button up. The whole process can take from a couple of minutes to several days, depending on the complexity of the printed object, but the end result can become potentially anything. And by anything we mean, buttons, shoe soles, necklaces, glasses frames, zippers, bikinis, heels, rings, collars, belts and so on. If it can’t be printed now, there is a good chance that sometime in the future it will be possible.
Since its creation around 1980’s, 3D printing technologies – or Additive Manufacturing- had been mainly used for rapid prototyping within different industries, but in recent years this technology has really started to shake up the fashion world. From magnificent looking shoes to intricate designs, 3D printed fashion made its first appearance in the form innovative projects in 2010 and hasn’t stopped since. Up until the American brand Continuum launched its line, some of the world’s earliest pieces were womenswear shoes produced as explorative models for museums. ‘We are still the first company to actually sell 3D printed shoes,’ explains Mary Huang, co-founder of Continuum. ‘We have two designs that you can actually buy and you can actually wear.’ The company was one of the first to introduce a 3D printed piece of clothing: a bikini made from tiny interlocking panels of nylon. ‘3D printing can’t exactly print fabric, but you can use flexible fabric-ish materials’ says Huang. ‘If for example you print nylon in specific shapes and design, it is very flexible. Though isn’t fabric, it still feels soft.’
As the technology evolved more 3D printed pieces like Continuum’s bikini have started to appear in the media, some of the most impressive ones being Nervous System’s flowy Kinematics dress or Francis Bitonti’s beatitful Dita Van Teese’s gown. Oh, and let's not forget the iconic moment when Victoria's Secret angel Lindsay Ellingson walked down the runway with her 3D printed wings. When the biggest lingerie brand in the world is taking note, you really want to listen.
Though Additive Manufacturing techniques are still at an early stage, the new generation of designers is inspired to explore them because of their undeniable benefits. ‘One of the most prominent advantages of 3D printing technology is that it allows for rapid prototyping. You can test out any number of ideas, and have physical models of these ideas 3D printed within hours,’ explains Alexis Walsh, an American fashion designer who blends this technology with handmade designs. ‘3D printing also allows for the creation of shapes and forms that would be entirely impossible to produce through any other means of fabrication.’
The attraction to 3D printing however is not just about beautiful design. Oddly enough, Additive Manufacturing technologies have also been praised for being more sustainable than traditional methods. ‘The emerging technology […] leaves behind virtually no waste. Its localized production and one-size-fits-all approach also racks up markedly fewer travel miles, requires less labour, and compresses fabrication time to a matter of hours, rather than weeks or months,’ declared the sustainability editor Jasmin Malik Chua for Ecouterre in 2010. Using 3D printing in manufacturing will not mean only zero wasted materials, but also clothes could also be potentially recycled at home.
Also, 3D printing will allow the end consumer to have a customizable product, as the files will be able to be adapted according to the user’s preferences. But even though the emerging technology seems very positive in many aspects, it is expected to face some challenges once it goes mainstream. Among its many issues, there is the undeniable problem of costs. From £20 a ring made out of plastic nylon with a slight grainy feel to over £2,000 pounds a pair of Haute Couture shoes, the prices for 3D printed pieces can vary greatly according to the complexity of the design and the materials used. Once the technology evolves the cost will decrease, some people believe, and when this happen 3D printing will have to face an even more serious issue.
‘There are concerns that 3D printing technology will facilitate the production of counterfeit goods’ writes Catherine Ferrity, an associate in the Trade Marks and Copyrights group at Taylor Wessing. ‘While we are a long way off from being able to 3D print fabric, in its current form, 3D printing technology allows items such as jewellery, eyewear or belt buckles, which carry distinctive designs and trade marks, to be copied quickly, cheaply and easily. It will also make it much more difficult to tell the difference between the real thing and the counterfeit as counterfeiters will have the ability to 3D scan an item and product an identical replica. Currently the ability to mass-produce 3D products is limited, but as the technology develops, this is something that brand owners need to be aware of’.
Not only might there be legal issues, but Additive Manufacturing could also endanger craftsmanship and affect the livelihood of many employees who work in manufacturing within the fashion industry. This will depend directly with the way this emerging tech will integrate with traditional fashion methods. ‘There is a quality about handcrafted work that mechanically-produced work will never have. If anything, 3D printing will only make handcraft more valuable and even more of a luxury than it already is' says Alexis Walsh. 'I think that the future of 3D printing for fashion design lies in the integration of handcraft techniques with digital technology.’
This will all be in the future though. For now, brands are working around the clock to bring the 3D printed vision to consumers. Studios like Continuum have created an open source digital platform where every user can create 3D designs of clothing, and some companies are already working with a system that allows anybody to buy a file of a specific 3D printable item to print it at home or at a local 3D printing shop. This is 3D Hubs’ strategy, an Amsterdam and New York based company that connects 3D printing spots from around the world. ‘[…] With 3D Hubs, fashion consumers can have items custom made, very fast and on demand,’explains Lize de Vries-Hong, public relations manager of the brand. ‘Designers can sell digital designs (instead of physical objects) that consumers can produce at any near 3D Hubs printer location within just a matter of days. Consumers can customize items, while choosing from different materials and colours. Almost anything will be possible.’
Indeed, with 3D printing almost anything will be possible.
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