Is 3D Printing the Future of Fashion?

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As 3D-printing develops, fashion could be the next industry to benefit from this new technology. This will revolutionise fashion design in both a creative and sustainable way.

In modern life, technology is everywhere. Human dependence on this technology grows every day. 3D-printing is a technological innovation that has been gaining traction in recent years. The techniques of 3D-printing are now being used by a variety of industries.

The process of 3D printing (also known as additive manufacture) involves creating a physical product from a digital three-dimensional model. This digital model acts as a blueprint. The object’s construction is a layer-bylayer process. It is additive because thin layers of material are slowly built up to form the 3D object.

3D printing is part of a bigger group of digital manufacturing technologies that are powering the fourth industrial revolution – also known as Industry 4.0. Direct digital manufacturing and smart production are the key drivers of the fourth industrial Revolution. These include artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), advanced robotics, intelligent devices, and 3-D printing.

The concept of 3D printing was first envisioned in Japan in the 1980s by Dr. Hideo Kodama, who developed a way of ‘rapid prototyping’. He developed a process for creating solid objects using layers of material that can be polymerised by UV light. This was an important breakthrough for product design and gave a glimpse at the future of manufacturing.

This technology has been around since the 1990s, but interest in it has only recently begun to increase. This growing interest may be due to the introduction of new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things networked sensors that both improve the speed and reliability of print. The advantages that 3D printing can provide businesses include flexibility, cost-efficiency, quick designing, and minimal waste.

3D printed houses, foods and organs are now commonplace.

The global market for 3D printers is growing quickly, with the growth being driven by applications in a wide range of industries including aerospace, healthcare, automotive, and defense.

3D Printing Fashion

The fashion industry has experimented with 3D printers for over a decade. Fashion designers are always looking to innovate and 3D printers give them the tools they need to create the most daring designs. This advancing technology allows many designers and brands to design things they would have never imagined.

3D-printing was previously limited to art or haute couture in the fashion industry. Designers and artists created complex and unique geometric shapes that could only be seen on catwalks and art exhibitions. This limitation is slowly changing, as 3D printers become more accessible and capable. Designers and inventors are now realizing the potential behind this advancing technology.

The first designer to experiment with 3D printing in fashion is fashion pioneer, researcher and designer, Danit Peleg, who made headlines in 2015 for being “the first designer in the world to create an entire collection using desktop 3D home printers for her graduate project at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design.”1 Her collection’s breakthrough was due to the use FilaFlex filament, a new type of filament which is both flexible and strong. Peleg’s first 3D-printed collection took over 2,000 hours to print and around 400 hours per outfit. Peleg’s passion for 3D printing has been recognised globally as she pushes to revolutionise fashion design and manufacturing and give birth to a new wave of sustainable fashion.

Since Peleg’s discovery, brands and designers globally have been experimenting with 3D printers, with designers now equipped with the tools to create the most challenging design concepts. Fashion designers and architects are collaborating with engineers, researchers, and architects to reshape fashion’s future.

Iris Van Herpen is a Dutch designer and pioneer of 3D fashion print. She exhibited 3D-printed designs at the Met Gala 2022. Teyana Taylor wore them, as did Winnie Harlow and Fredrik Robertsson. Van Herpen’s 3D printed designs have also been featured on the catwalks for Paris, where she teamed up with premium ice cream brand Magnum to design a vegan-inspired 3D printed haute couture dress. Both Van Herpen and Peleg are pushing the boundaries for 3D printing in fashion and are even looking at smaller printing machines that could be used in people’s homes.

Major fashion brands have also begun to experiment with the 3D-printing technology. In 2018, Nike developed the world’s first running shoe with 3D-printed uppers, worn by athlete Eliud Kipchoge in the London Marathon. Adidas and vegan fashion designer Stella McCartney have also shown interest, having partnered with 3D manufacturing specialist Carbon to produce their limited edition Stella McCartney x Adidas Alphaedge 4D shoe, which featured a 3D printed midsole, printed with Carbon’s Digital Light Synthesis (DLS) 3D printer.

How could 3D-printed fashion look in the future??

Imagine a guest invited to a party but unable to find something to wear. In the current age, it would be easy to buy the latest fashion in a shop. However, this guest owns a 3D Printer. They browse the web to find the outfits they want, download patterns, and then print them out at home.

The garment would be created from a variety of raw materials, including plastics such as ABS (or PLA), which can be continuously melted back down after each use. The 3D Printer would be a small device that could sit easily on a desktop. Price of these printers is likely to be high at first (complex 3D printing can cost as much as $500,000). However, with time and the normalisation of this technology, printers like these should become more affordable.  

Fashion, sustainability and the benefits of 3D printing

Fashion industry profits seem to be the primary concern, and fast fashion is the worst offender. Fast fashion retailers and brands are obsessed with mass-production, producing clothes at an unprecedented pace. They lack the infrastructure necessary to deal with textile waste. Fashion’s current model is a serious threat to the future and stability of the planet. This could be changed by 3D printing, which can mitigate some of the polluting practices of industries and allow fashion to coexist with more sustainable methods.

The 3D-printing process is a futuristic technology that could reduce bulk orders online, textile waste and overproduction. It could offer a more sustainable alternative to the world fashion, and a completely disruptive approach.

Sustainability benefits of 3D printing

Reduces waste material and cuts offs

Around 10-20% of textiles is wasted in garment manufacturing2. This ‘pre-consumer waste’ is generated through painting/ weaving, colour and prototyping errors, cutting room scraps and leftover materials. This is an enormous amount of waste generated, especially considering that it takes around 2,700 litres to make a T-shirt.3. The precision of 3D technology allows for less waste to be generated compared to conventional manufacturing. Clothing can be manufactured with a specified amount of material, without uncertainty about the quantity of resources or the volume required.

Son of a Tailor is a Danish clothing brand that is using 3D technology in order to reduce production waste. The brand created a 3D-knitted made-to order pullover that uses 3D technology. This eliminates pre-consumer wastage by personalising the order and allowing the customer to choose the colour.

Encourages upcycling of material

Currently, technology is not advanced enough to continuously recycle textile fibres, with a 2022 McKinsey Report stating, “less than one per cent of textile waste is fibre-to-fibre recycled due to several barriers to scale that need to be overcome.” One of these barriers surrounds the problem of recycling garments that are made from more than one material source.

Material that is recyclable and biodegradable could be used to make 3D-printed clothing. After use, the clothing could be printed again and the material used for the next outfit. Although this futuristic concept is still in its infancy, Julia Koerner from JK Design GmbH (a company that specializes digital design for 3D printing) believes it may be attainable in the future.4.

Reduces raw Materials

The process of sourcing raw materials to make garments is harmful for the environment. 3D-printing could potentially save up to 90% of natural resources5It is a great way to help the environment. Plastic bottle waste could be used to create materials. For example, the American brand Ministry of Supply converted 1.2 million bottles of water into 3D filaments. This prevented them from being disposed of in landfills, and saved 21 tonnes of CO2.2 From being emitted in the atmosphere.

The Benefits of 3D Printing

Personalisation & Customisation

Customisation is one of the many benefits that 3D printing offers. The fact that each brand uses a different size chart means that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution. 3D printing poses the perfect solution for this as clothes can be personalised and designed for each consumer, adapting them to the individual customers’ needs. This would also mean that brands wouldn’t have to mass-produce items, as they could be created as the orders are received. Customers would also not be affected by products running out of stock because they can be produced after an order has been placed.

Creative Exploration & Fabric Innovation

3D printing makes impossible things possible. This technology gives designers the freedom to be creative and create products which would otherwise have been impossible or too expensive. The 3D printer allows designers to create clothing with intricate patterns and detailed details.

Challenges Of 3D Printing

3D printing has its own challenges. One of them is the limited materials compatible with 3D printers. Materials compatible with printers currently include a lot of plastics that can be harmful to the environment and even affect human health when vapourised.

The material used for clothing is not comfortable and flexible, so it’s not suitable to wear casually. But researchers and innovators have been working hard to find comfortable, flexible fabrics that are easy to produce.

The entire fashion industry paradigm must change before 3D-printed garments can take off. It takes time for the fashion industry to move from mass production, mass consumption and towards customisable and recyclable products.

You can also read our conclusion.

3D printing provides the fashion industry with a feasible, efficient and sustainable way to produce clothes that mitigates many flaws of the industry’s intense production line. 3D-printed clothing is just beginning its journey. As more designers learn about the amazing opportunity 3D printers provide, 3D printed clothes will become more mainstream. Fashion industry must transform as the world moves its priorities towards sustainability and circularity. 3D printing can play a key role in this transformation.

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