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3D Printing: The Next Frontier in Fashion?

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Rob Walker Bio

Tired of wearing clothes that don’t really fit properly even though they are supposed to be in your size? Imagine walking into a clothes store, getting your body scanned for its geometric measurements and then walking away with something that fits you perfectly. Yes, perfectly.

How? By entering your unique geometric code (a sort of sartorial DNA) into a multi-material 3D printer. Next, choose your textile, design and colour scheme and, hey presto, you’re a click away from a made-to-measure outfit.

If this all sounds a bit futuristic, that’s because it is. But, advances in 3D printing technology are now moving so fast that this type of bespoke fashion – a bridge, if you like, between Haute Couture and the mass ready-to-wear market – is not as pie in the sky as you might think. There are already 3D printable materials available that are flexible yet hardy enough to be worn. They can even be thrown into the washing machine along with the rest of your laundry.

3D natural fabrics would be the game-changer

3D dress.jpgThis lace-like black dress (pictured), developed by fashion designer Iris van Harpen and architect Julia Koemer, has been made using 3D laser printing. The material is a form of plastic but it’s flexible and robust enough to be worn.

The process to make it (done in collaboration with Belgium company Materialise) uses laser technology to fuse small particles together, in effect printing continuous surfaces without seams.

How long before 3D printing is able to use cotton and other natural fibres? That’s the big question. After all, it’s already possible to make 3D printable food using fresh ingredients (that’s actual food you can eat). 3D printable natural fabrics, with the potential for low production costs, could revolutionise the apparel industry and bring bespoke fashion to the masses. Consumers could even start downloading designs from the Internet and printing off customised clothing at home.

From nothing to something

3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) has been around since the 1980s. The reason most people in the apparel industry have not been getting over excited about it is, firstly, because the printers are pricey and, secondly, because there are limitations in terms of the materials that can be used.

There has been significant technological innovation over the last two years, though. And 3D printing costs have come down to boot. As a result, the fashion industry is sitting up and paying more attention. Iris vsn Harpen, in particular, wowed audiences with her Voltage line of 3D printed dresses at Paris Fashion Week last year.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of 3D printing is that it turns conventional manufacturing on its head. Instead of starting with a piece of material and removing bits to create a desired shape and design, 3D printing starts with nothing. Rather, it adds material as the production process unfolds – and only material that is essential. This is one of its biggest attractions for manufacturers as it can cut down on potentially vast amounts of waste.

The ultimate running shoe

It is not only clothing designers that are eyeing up the possibilities of 3D printing. Sportswear manufacturers are starting to assess the technique as a means of making the perfect running shoe. In theory, by mapping footwear to a user’s biomechanics, the fit of a shoe could be so perfect that it would be like wearing a second layer of skin.

Last year, the London based designer Shamees Aden piloted a 3D printed running shoe that was programmed to perform differently depending on its exposure to heat, light and pressure (it was made from a synthetic biological material). Such innovation could be a game-changer in the global sports footwear market, which was valued at US$93 billion last year, according to data from Euromonitor International.

Fashion accessories are a potential target segment for 3D printing too. Australia-based XYZ Workshop, for example, has already created 3D printable clutch bags that can be downloaded and printed out at home (if you happen to have a 3D printer). There is a growing sense, indeed, that the fashion portfolio possibilities of 3D technology are boundless.

The future in 3D

To be clear, we are still some way from 3D printing turning into something that can be applied to mass production. Indeed, sceptics believe that 3D printing technology is incompatible with the mass market and will only ever be relevant for low volume, highly customised products. On the flipside, advocates believe that one day every home will have a 3D printer, with consumers printing out everything from chocolate bars to swimming trunks.

It is a very difficult concept for most of us to get our heads around. Think about it. Toys, groceries, jeans, trainers/sneakers, mechanical parts for our cars – all printed out, and possibly from the comfort of our own living room. Surely, none of this is going to be possible in our lifetime. Or is it?

What we can say with some certainty is that investment in 3D printing technology is going to soar over the coming years. The potential cost savings on waste are a huge incentive in a world of ever dwindling resources. Added to that, there are big potential savings on capital expenditure – with manufacturers, in theory, able to print out products on demand rather than stock piling inventory.

The heavy investors over the short-term will probably be in automotive and aerospace industries. It is now possible to print out complex shapes from metals such as titanium, for example, which opens up new possibilities for lightweight, highly sophisticated machinery parts. This matters for the apparel industry because as the technology attracts investment, so the speed of the process, the quality of the finished product and the range of materials on offer will all improve, and become more cost-effective too.

If the technology shifts from the prototype and design studio to the factory floor, then we will be looking at the possibility of mass production. From there, it is only a small step to that seemingly futuristic notion of walking into your local Top Shop or Burberry outlet, getting your body shape scanned and printing out your dream outfit.

3D coffee, anyone?


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