Where is the Future of 3D Printing Heading in Textile?

By Seth Pychewicz, CTO, ZIP Fit Denim

Seth Pychewicz, CTO, ZIP Fit Denim

We live in an age where the trendy reality of skinny jeans won’t die out anytime soon; and, the reality of purchasing apparel online is a growing trend. Technological innovation has and will continue to change the way consumers purchase, socialize, communicate, work and live. How consumers conceptualize what constitutes fashion, the way they shop for it, and the method by which it is made, are three areas in the apparel industry that are experiencing exceptional technological growth and will most likely continue to grow in the coming years.

"While the fashion industry has seemingly embraced the integration of tech, they may not be comfortable with the idea of open source technology"

Even our technology gadgets, which have historically been grounded solely in the functional nature of devices, are swiftly evolving into wearable fashion accessories with increased aesthetic appeal. Google is a great example of a company that has paid heed to consumer’s desire for both the functional and fashionable. More specifically, they recently joined forces with Luxottica, the makers of Ray Bans, to help design and develop Google’s new look for Glass.

With respect to the shopping experience, body scanners, interactive virtual dressing rooms, and the like are now at customers’ disposal to lessen the time, energy, and shame of asking the clothing store sales associate to bring you a size 14 in those skinny jeans. What’s more, those skinny jeans are starting to be manufactured in novel ways. For example, the creation of 3D printing or additive manufacturing has brought both sides closer than ever before melding the technophile and fashionista. While the 3D process has been previously applied in a variety of industries like engineering, medical, biotech, architecture and automotive, fashion can now be layered into the fold.

Using elastic and flexible printing materials jewelry, eyewear, hats and yes, even underwear; have been constructed from 3D CAD models. Continuum—a technology and fashion based lab used nylon to print bikini tops. Nervous System, a generative design studio, constructed a tessellated mesh dress. Fashion designers Iris Van Herpen and Kimberly Ovitz have revealed 3D-printed garments on the runway.

On a wider scale, commercial production has begun through apparel leaders in shoe wear like Nike and New Balance. New Balance has offered consumers the ability to create individual personalized fits. Mink is a desktop printer that allows you to print cosmetics. Electroloom has expanded the paradigm even further by using synthetic material to create fabric.

3D printing gives rise to a range of potential benefits such as reducing overstock by providing on-demand manufacturing and reduced lead-times. Products can be customized and personalized by individuals and sold online through digital files. It allows for smaller independent designers to create samples through rapid prototyping. It could eventually lead to a re-emergence of American manufacturing by reducing cost and overhead. This is not to say 3D printing will not have its drawbacks as well. Issues with quality and strength of the product as well as speed to manufacture are still a concern. Natural fibers like cotton are too fragile to survive the printing process. Licensing and permission issues will undoubtedly arise.

There has been a push for open source in the space as well. It opens the industry to collaboration, social and resource sharing rather than competition. 3D user-created models are already being shared openly through online sources like Thingiverse. Openknit is an open source knitting machine that can fashion clothing using yarn and an Adruino microcontroller. Yes but can a 3D printer, print 3D printers? Well, yes actually. RepRap is a self-replicating open design machine capable of printing its own parts. It’s Science.

While the fashion industry has seemingly embraced the integration of tech, they may not be particularly comfortable with the idea of open source technology very similar to the way the music industry dealt with p2p music file sharing through companies like Napster.

With all that said, where is the future of 3D printing heading and can we predict its trajectory? Ray Kurzweil of Google foresees 3D printing of clothing to be common by 2020. Kurzweil has predicted such inventions as E-books, facial and speech recognition software and nanotechnology in the past and is somewhat of a tech prediction genius. Roughly, 86 percent of the 147 technological development predictions have come to fruition. Currently, he predicts that replacing meaningful portions of textile manufacturing is still about five years away. The next step in 3D printing, according to Kurzweil, is constructing molecules through a molecular assembler. And by constructing objects at the molecular level, the skies are limitless with respect to apparel construction. The day may never come when the Cubs win another world series, but being able to print out the latest Gucci bomber jacket or a nostalgic piano necktie from our living rooms may be a reality in the future.

In present day, digital fabrication of products is still in the beginning stages of the adoption lifecycle. Many early adopters have been hobbyists and hi-tech enthusiasts. The ability to assemble a physical object from a digital model blurs the line between the consumer, designer and even manufacturer allowing for a person to become all three. Social influences, decreased pricing, increase in usable materials will bring 3D printing into the everyday home. It is only a matter of time before computer systems are able to do a wide variety of things we couldn’t fathom even a decade ago. Indeed, Kurzweil believes that by 2029 human beings will have built a computer system capable of understanding natural language and human emotion. It will be able to do all the things that humans do, only better. I, for one, will welcome our new robotic overlords, but remain skeptical that they will be able to do absolutely everything better than humans because no one, not even robots, look good in skinny jeans.

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