A parade of elaborate, geometric, and structured clothes marched down the Jewish Museum in New York City in 2013 as the group of designers threeASFOUR debuted their first 3D-printed clothes collection. The gowns were marvelous – different from everything that is out there – they presented shapes that could have never been achieved through the traditional fabrication methods of the fashion industry. The group has been working with 3D-printers in the fashion industry for years and it’s clear that the results can be unique. One of the designs in the runway, a white bubbly-looking dress, conquered every heart in the audience due to its delicate and intricate design. Only one person was unsatisfied with that piece: the model wearing it. Because it was 3D-printed, the dress was fragile to the point that the model had to be standing during the entire show – otherwise the piece would shatter into pieces. While threeASFOUR’s new collection may have impressed the public who attended the event due to their innovative fabrication techniques, it became clear that these garments were everything but functional. Is it really possible to incorporate 3D printing in the fashion industry in a responsible and efficient way?
In order to explore that question, we must take a step back and understand this technology: 3D printing dates back to 1981, when “Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute published his account of a functional rapid-prototyping system using photopolymers. A solid, printed model was built up in layers, each of which corresponded to a cross-sectional slice in the model.” (Goldberg, Dana). Interestingly enough, this is still the same process used by many of the most advanced printers in the market. 3D printing is defined by printing something in three dimensions – this means that the printcore can move itself in the x-axis, the y-axis, and the z-axis (basically it can move to the left, to the right, up, down, and higher or lower) in contrast to regular 2D-printing where the print core can only move in the x-axis and y-axis (left, right, up, and down) – the ability to move in the z-axis is what makes 3D printing an innovative technology. In order to print something, a 3D model must be created using one of the many available 3D modeling softwares out there such as Autodesk Maya, Fusion 360 or Solidworks. After having your 3D model ready, it needs to be sent to a slicing software (such as Netfabb or Cura), this will literally slice the 3D model created into layers – and convert those layers into instructions based on the 3D-printer being used. These instructions are then sent to the printer, which will start to print the model. The printing process isn’t complex – most 3D-printers use filaments as their main printing material, the most common one being PLA (polylactic acid). These filaments come in spools and are loaded to the print cores. As soon as the printing process begins, the print cores heat up and the filament slowly melts while the print head (where the print cores are located) moves around the build plate while depositing the melted material in the locations indicated by the instructions in the print file. The printer does that layer by layer, moving from the bottom to the top, printing the object that was modeled. When using this technology, the limit really is just one’s imagination. The 3D modeling will let you model anything, the worst case scenario is that the print will require a lot of support material – which are structures that are used to support areas in the print that would otherwise be printed in midair – or the print will take too long to finish because of its size.
Understanding the new world of possibilities that 3D printing lets the creative minds explore, it’s easy to understand why its use has been rising in every branch of the art industry. An avant-garde designer who has been exploring the use of innovative technologies since she launched her brand in 2007 is the Dutch designer Iris van Herpen. (Holgate, Mark). She has been experimenting with 3D printing in the fashion industry and is widely recognized as one of the main pioneers in that area. The designer believes that fashion and art are connected, “My general idea of fashion is pretty abstract: It’s more than a garment, and it’s more than a commercial product. Fashion is really an interconnected thing. It’s very locked down in its own system and in its own world, and I really don’t think about it in that way; things are happening all around us, and that should be connected to fashion.” (Holgate, Mark), hence her research on new ways to revolutionize the traditional fashion industry in an aesthetically pleasing way. Iris van Herpen understood that the possibilities that technologies such as 3D printing give to designers of any kind are endless, and she states that technology and art should be used together “You have traditional houses that focus on craftsmanship, and then you have people who are into technology, but I don’t really see that they have to be apart. I see them as equal, and I actually think that they can complement each other.” (Holgate, Mark). Unlike what most people think, she doesn’t want to use technology to substitute the traditional fabrication method, but to improve it by combining it with new methods. This designer was just one of the pioneers when it comes to incorporating 3D printing into the fashion industry, but many designers have been interested in that area and are beginning to explore it in their own ways. However, given the fact that 3D printing was never created with a focus on its use in the fashion industries, some issues and concerns have appeared along this 3D printing and fashion combination journey – especially considering the fact that this technology may not be sustainable.
The 3DInsider, a blog known for publishing all the latest news and trends when it comes to 3D printing, surprisingly published an article named “10 Disadvantages of 3D Printing Technology”. The writer, Amanda Pearson, talks about the negative impacts of this process, mostly how it can be considered hazardous and wasteful, as she breaks down some important facts to consider. While she recognizes that 3D printing can be useful “3D printing technology has opened new possibilities for industries by enabling faster product design, customization, cost reduction, tangible product testing, and more” (Pearson, Amanda), it is still clear that there are some issues that must be taken into consideration such as the fact that the printers consume approximately 50 to 100 times more energy than melting plastic with heat or lasers. In addition to that, the process of 3D printing emmits 20 billion ultrafine particles per minute when using PLA filament and 200 billion particles per minute when using ABS filament. These particles have similar effects to the human body than cigarette fumes, they “may settle in the bloodstream or lungs posing health risks including cancer and other ailments.” (Pearson, Amanda). That is extremely relevant because even though PLA is degradatable, ABS, that emits 200 billion hazardous particles per minute, is still the most common choice when 3D printing – “PLA is biodegradable, but ABS filament is still the most commonly used type of plastic. The plastic byproduct ends up in landfills negatively affecting the environment.” (Pearson, Amanda). Keeping in mind the social impacts that this technology has, it is important to consider that “Industrial grade 3D printers are still expensive, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, which makes the initial expenses of using the technology very high.” (Pearson, Amanda).
The starting investment in a single machine starts in the tens of thousands of dollars, possibly going as high as hundreds of thousands of dollars or more – and all this cost is inevitably going to affect the wages from workers in the fashion industry since this technology is more efficient than subtractive manufacturing (the traditional way of producing products in the fashion industry, where you start with some material and subtract the amount you will use for your product in contrast to additive manufacturing where you add the material as you create your product). “It eliminates a lot of stages that are used in subtractive manufacturing. As a result it doesn’t require a lot of labor cost. As such, adopting 3D printing may decrease manufacturing jobs. For countries that rely on a large number of low skill jobs, the decline in manufacturing jobs could dramatically affect the economy”. In many developing countries the percentage of the population who is not qualified enough for high skill jobs is still very high. This means that these less-qualified workers tend to seek for less demanding jobs and those are very common in the fashion industry, but would not be as common if 3D printing started to replace the traditional subtractive manufacturing production model. This article published on 3DInsider pulls back the tech enthusiasts from the magical world of innovation with 3D-printers and presents real concerns if this process starts to indeed replace the standard manufacturing. It is important to keep in mind all the risks that these technologies might pose in the social, economical, and political spheres. The wisest approach would be to study this possibility in depth and to incorporate it in a responsible way – and that is what Julia Daviy has been doing for the past decade.
The brilliant designer Julia Daviy has been disrupting traditional fabrication methods and combining practical 3D printing knowledge and the functions of clothing with sustainability. In an interview for 3D Natives, another website that covers the latest news and trends in the fashion industry, the designer seemed extremely enthusiastic about her approach and presented many aspects on how she sees 3D printing as the solution to a more human, sustainable, and cruelty free fashion business model. “I do not like wasting time on non-intellectual monotonous repetitive operations and the current participation of millions low-paid hard working women and kids into the clothing production. I hate hard logistics in the traditional fashion industry too. All of these forced me to look for better technology for clothing production.” (V, Charlota). The designer has an engineering degree and has been studying the use of 3D printing in the fashion industry by reading countless articles and books about it. Her main focus was the functionality of clothes and the use of sustainable processes to produce them. Interestingly enough, these were two main challenges as well “I saw 2 main challenges, the first one was making 3D printed pieces of clothing as soft as possible. The second challenge was to get the benefits from 3D printing such as zero waste and minimised hand work.” (V, Charlota). Her response to the negative impacts of using ABS and PLA filaments is quite simple “today, the materials are actually secondary, the main idea is to implement 3D printing and spread its use. Once that happens the range of materials available will expand. I am sure that we will come to use biodegradable super flexible and textile-like materials in the near future.” (V, Charlota). In contrast to what most designers do, her concern is mostly with the fashion world and its production model. Even though many designers believe that 3D printing is still underdeveloped for its use in clothing production, Julia Daviy states that 3D printing technology will not develop itself. She believes that the designers of 3D printed clothing, the designers of new materials, and the designers of new 3D printers will make that happen. The higher usage of this process will result in a higher demand, stimulating the market to offer new and improved products. By forcing the market to reinvent itself, the designers using 3D printing technology in their creations are indirectly improving it.
The controversy surrounding the collaboration between 3D-printing and the fashion industry reveals a larger tension within the designers, namely the tension between each designer’s creative process and their values when it comes to the production of their clothes – be it the presence or lack of innovation, sustainability or both. A designer that is concerned with sustainability wouldn’t consider launching a collection that is entirely based on 3D-printing with the purpose of retailing it. On the other hand, a designer who’s looking to innovate will embrace 3D-printing regardless of its sustainable factor. There is even some middle ground, where designers want to innovate but also to keep their workflow sustainable, incorporating 3D-printing in a more socially responsible way based on on-demand production. What really determines the pros and cons of the partnership of 3D-printing and the fashion industry is how the designer is planning on doing so. Keeping that in mind, it is important to recognize that 3D printing is constantly being developed, just as designers are constantly seeking for new ways to improve their designs and fabrication methods.
While there is no clear or right solution, each choice has its impacts – be it on the environment, the workers, or the new uses of materials. The development of new fabrication methods in the fashion industry affects the world in a global scale; the use of cotton, wool, and silk as apparel fabric may be the only thing that comes to mind, but nylon lycra – invented in 1958 – is what allows beachwear fabrics to be stretchy while retaining shape and support (School, Textile) – this allowed athletes to move freely, families to enjoy the beach in more comfortable clothes, and a whole new category of clothes. Another example would be umbrellas, which use waterproof and UV blocking fabrics (School, Textile) allowing us to walk when it’s raining – protecting people from getting cold due to the rain for example. In addition to that, neoprene, invented in 1930, is the main component used in wetsuits worn by surfers and divers – imagine all the scientific discoveries that could only be achieved by scientists wearing these suits. Each fabric has a set of properties, some being antibacterial, sustainable, anti static, breathable, non-breathable, waterproof, thermoregulating, elastic, snowproof, lightweight, mediumweight, heavyweight, UV blocking, water resistant, windproof, among many other characteristics that allows many different uses of these materials.
It is hard to think about all the possibilities that will appear when incorporating 3D printing in the fashion industry, but this new fabrication method will definitely affect more that just those who are directly involved in the fashion world. While 3D printing is a fairly new technology, this innovative subtractive manufacturing method does create room for many artists, designers, engineers, for anyone, to innovate and bring their ideas to life – even though it may present some risks and may not be the most efficient large-scale production method for products. The designer’s approach to the use of this technique is what determines the result they will get, but as Julia Daviy said, it is important to keep exploring all the possibilities and to keep testing what it can and cannot do – by increasing the demand for 3D printers, new models and filaments will be produced, allowing even more possibilities and improving the materials that are already in the market. While some designers, like Iris van Herpen, are already producing marvelous garments, some, like threeASFOUR, are still having issues figuring out how to create a design that will allow whoever is wearing it to sit down. If incorporated in a sustainable and efficient way, the use of 3D printing in this sphere can be as revolutionary as the invention of nylon lycra or neoprene – and this technology is definitely leading the future of the fashion industry.
Goldberg, Dana. “History of 3D Printing: It’s Older Than You Are (That Is, If You’re Under 30)” Redshift, https://www.autodesk.com/redshift/history-of-3d-printing/. Accessed 3 March 2020.
Holgate, Mark. “Meet Iris van Herpen, the Dutch Designer Boldly Going Into the Future”. Vogue, https://www.vogue.com/article/iris-van-herpen-dutch-designer-interview-3d-printing, Accessed 21 February 2020. Pearson, Amanda. “10 Disadvantages of 3D Printing Technology”. 3DInsider,
https://3dinsider.com/3d-printing-disadvantages/, Accessed 25 February 2020.
School, Textile. “Application of Fabrics”. Textile School, https://www.textileschool.com/346/application-of-fabrics/, Accessed 18 March 2020. V, Charlota. “Designer Julia Daviy on disrupting and bringing sustainability to the fashion
Industry”. 3Dnatives. https://www.3dnatives.com/en/julia-daviy-280520194/, Accessed 26 February 2020.