By Decreasing Waste and Easing Access, 3D Printing Poised to Change Fashion Production

3d scanner on display at Robot and Makers Milano Show. Stefano Tinti /

During the annual International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada in January, exhibitors showcased the evolving capabilities of 3D printing. On display was designer Iris van Herpen’s “Ice Dress” that was featured during her 2014 runway show in Paris. The transparent polymer-based garment was designed in collaboration with 3D Systems, which helped print the pattern with a high-resolution 3D printer in a process that took around 81 hours.

Herpen’s dress is just one example of the elaborate garments that can be created with 3D technology. In recent years, several 3D printed pieces have made their way down the runway, from dresses to shoes to accessories. The adoption of this additive manufacturing process has already added increased benefits to manufacturing, providing a more sustainable alternative to current production practices and creating a quick and customizable experience.

“I think what it [3D printing] is doing is changing the whole eco-structure of production,” says Sandra Markus, an associate professor of Fashion Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. “Production is an individual process now and allows people to produce themselves rather than mass-producing. It is moving away from that into a much more personalized and individuated design process.”

As of now, the production of garments is an extensive process. Designers and retailers often rely on outside factories and warehouses to manufacture and distribute their products. Fast fashion giants like Zara processes 1 million garments per day using South American factories. But, 3D printing has the capability to allow consumers to select the clothing they want produced and print it themselves.

“I think it is a whole different way of manufacturing and selling. I think for designers it is an amazing tool,” says Markus. “We did a big summer camp for professors last summer on the Maker Movement and had a ton of designers, one being Lucas Plus, a jewelry designer. He sends his files to Shapeways and you actually buy it on their website.”

In recent years, companies like Shapeways have been providing 3D printing services for consumers and designers. Since 2008, the New York-based startup has allowed others to upload their designs or purchase pre existing ones, like belts and bracelets, to be printed on demand in various materials like metals and elasto-plastic.

“This is going to be the primary means of production in the future.

The reason I feel that way is because it is something very special,” says Brooklyn-based designer Francis Bitonti. “It makes it possible to manipulate materials as if they were information. A textile can be encoded into a set of instructions and that is really huge.”

Bitonti gained recognition when he collaborated with Shapeways to design a 3D printed dress for burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese in 2013, proving that 3D printing was a possibility for clothing. Bitonti has been using additive manufacturing for his namesake line that produces accessories, bags and fine jewelry that launched in 2014.

The ability to produce only what consumers request also results in the decrease of waste. In 2012 in the U.S. almost 14.3 million tons of textile waste was generated, with Americans throwing away more than 68 pounds of clothing per person each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Factory minimums, unsold stock and excess fabric are contributing factors to the excess, but with on-demand production, these could be reduced or even eliminated.

The printing process also cuts down on manufacturing time, making the process of getting a designer’s product into the hands of consumer much shorter.

According to designer Kimberly Ovitz in a piece by Mashable, “Consumer demands are changing, and people want everything at the click of a button and this technology and innovation helps to feed that. People were able to order it off the runway and get it in two weeks after my show, which is kind of unheard of. “

In addition, 3D printing could reduce the detrimental carbon footprint created by the textile industry. In the United Kingdom, a report done by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural, reported that in 2009 the UK clothing and textile production produces 3.1m tonnes (approximately 6.83433 pounds) of carbon dioxide.

Several companies are developing ways to reuse recyclable materials to produce printing fibers. EKOCYCLE, which is working on the Cube 3D printer for home production, can reuse discarded plastic soda bottles. Last year, Biome Bioplastics launched a new plant and oil-based filament for printing and Michigan Technological University also discovered a way to make a substance for printing using plastic milk jugs.

While many of these green materials might not be the basis for the future of 3D printing fashion, it shows the industry’s move to make a more green future for production.

“You’d be surprised at how many companies own 3D printers right now, but they don’t own them for mass-producing,” says Lily Su, a 3D printing designer. “They can use them as a device to help them create buttons or a logo that is raised, any kind of hardware. So 3D printing is being used in the process it just isn’t being used in the end product.”

One of the biggest challenges for eventually bringing 3D printed fashion to the mass market will be creating a fabric that is reminiscent of organic materials like cotton.
The early products made through the 3D process were created with a plastic or resin material, making them more like art than everyday pieces. Accessories like the nylon or metal-printed jewelry designed by Su are popular items, but the process for printing clothing is still evolving.

As Su explains, many of the products we have seen are printed like chainmail, with a solid round piece intertwined with another, like the process used by Shapeways and Butonti, giving it a very inorganic appearance. But, in the past year, new advancements have developed, making the opportunity for various 3D textiles more tangible.

One company that is working towards making 3D textiles similar to organic material is the Georgia-based company Electroloom. Aaron Rowley, the creator of the company, is working on a product that would allow the printing of items like t-shirts and knit hats. Unlike the thick plastics used in previous 3D fashion designs, Electroloom is working on a cotton-like textile. So far its created a thin light material resembling silk. Unfortunately, at the moment the newly developed characteristics make the material too weak for everyday wear.

Bitonti has been using additive manufacturing for his namesake line that produces accessories, bags and fine jewelry that launched in 2014. Photo Courtesy Francis Bitonti

Bitonti has been using additive manufacturing for his namesake line that produces accessories, bags and fine jewelry that launched in 2014. Photo Courtesy Francis Bitonti

“The better way to look at it is what satisfies the design requirements that textiles are satisfying right now and textiles satisfy that they breathe, they are flexible, and they don’t absorb moisture. So I think the way we have to approach the problem is not ‘how am I going to get something that is like a fabric,’” says Butonti, who currently prints with thermoplastic. “It might be something new to us, but it can achieve all of those criteria.”

Beyond production and textiles, 3D printing allows a new array of people to become fashion designers. A basic understanding of the software used to create the patterns would allow anyone to make a garment.

As Markus shares, “Lucas said, ‘The thing is I don’t actually know how to make jewelry. I know how to use the software. I have never taken a jewelry design class.’ So it is very different, people are making things without the hands-on experience. It is a different way of designing.”

The Juniper Research firm estimated that 3D printer sales for home-use will exceed one million globally by 2018. In 2014, there were only an estimated 44,000 consumer sales.

“There are not a lot of machines in the world. I think the biggest barrier to that is adoption. The more people who buy machines, the more content, the more reason there is to buy a machine, and they will start to show up everywhere,” says Butonti.

While 3D printing has come a long way, the ability for the general public to produce their own wardrobe isn’t going to happen too soon. In most instances, the cost of printing is still very high, with items like the “Ice Dress” costing thousands of dollars to reproduce. But, 3D printing capabilities are trickling down from tech companies to independent retailers and eventually into homes.

“I think this will become a viable production channel. But, at the moment it’s not. The retailers who I have seen using them, use their store as the production location and I think the idea of a micro-factory is going to be the first step before we see production in a living room.”