3D Printing in the fashion industry: Current challenges
It’s hard to say who was really the first designer to use 3D printing in the fashion industry. Some people give this credit to Iris Van Herpen who presented her first 3D Printed dress during the Haute Couture Paris Fashion Week in 2011. For others, this credit goes to Michael Schmidt who 3D printed a complete dress with Francis Bitonti. But, does it really matter? The most important is not to know who was the first designer to bring this technology in the fashion world, but above all, to be able to take advantage of the added value brought by this technology on the one hand, on the other hand, be aware of the way the technology is still disrupting this area of activity.
In this vein, we asked two designers their insights into this area. The first one is Danit Peleg. We have been watching the Israel-based fashion designer’s activities for a few years now. The creator is known for launching the first 3D printed ready-to-wear clothing lines. What’s even more interesting about her path is that she goes beyond the simple act of creation. Peleg launched last year master classes to help enthusiasts embrace the fashion world using 3D Printing.
Then comes Sylvia Heisel. Two years ago, we had a first talk with the designer. At that time, Sylvia Heisel had already brought a significant contribution to the industry, partnering with 3D printing companies and fashion companies to give life to events that highlighted contemporary design, art, fashion and new technologies. In 2017, she believed the fashion tech market wasn’t that mature. Two years later, where are we?
The reality shows that 3D printing opens up a wide range of opportunities for fashion designers in the creation of innovative and futuristic designs. Like in demanding applications of the industry, going beyond the traditional boundaries of design is no exception in the fashion world. According to researchers from the International Journal of Fashion Design, five types of 3DP methods show a true potential in fashion: stereolithography, selective laser sintering, fused deposition modelling (FDM), PolyJet, and binder jetting. However, FDM and SLS seem to be the most used technology by designers.
Selective Laser Sintering enables to produce plastic parts by fusing plastic powder particles layer by layer, before the product cools down. As for FDM, the technology does not require any laser. Affordable, it remains the most used technology in the world of makers.
Danit Peleg for instance takes advantage of a farm of FDM 3D printers. She explained: “I have a number of 3D printers that work simultaneously, and I’ve also recently begun collaborating with BlackBelt, a company that has developed a 3D printer with a belt, like a conveyor belt, that can print longer strips of Textile. The technology is improving every day, so I’m confident that the [long] process to print garments will [keep decreasing].”
Even though she mostly uses FDM technology, Heisel is also open to use other types of AM technologies: “[I use] mostly FDM right now but our philosophy is to use the best form of additive manufacturing for the project we are working on. Fashion includes a huge range of things and there isn’t one type of manufacturing for all products or situations.”
However, despite their willingness to create futuristic clothes, the use of 3D printing also comes with an array of challenges.
From personal challenges to common challenges
Challenges usually vary from one designer to another. However, in this specific case, our designers face the same issues at the manufacturing stage.
Heisel explained: “very few currently available printers and materials were designed with fashion products in mind so we are constantly working around issues with printers and materials that aren’t optimum for the things we’re making. There is a lot of innovation happening in materials (recycled, flexible materials, colors) and industrial printing solutions (HP, Carbon) for fashion but we are still very limited by what is available.”
This lack of hardware explains the current partnerships fashion companies sign with 3D Printing companies to produce wearable products. adidas, Nike, Under Armour and Chanel are a few examples of brands that have already showcased 3D printed products.
In the other hand, to overcome a part of these challenges, Lepeg has decided to create her own 3D Printing materials. “My designs are almost a proof of concept - it took 100 hours to print one garment so it's not something that can be done easily. So, [in order to make it a standard practice], 2 main things need to improve: the speed of the printers, and the materials (filaments). The filaments I produced are flexible and feels good on the body, but they are not like cotton yet. I believe it's only a matter of time until we see better printers and more wearable materials.”
Despite these issues at the technical level, it should be noted a bigger challenge is yet to overcome.
A challenge faced by a wide range of industries
A common challenge encountered by industrials in the use of 3D printing is the protection of intellectual property rights. Intellectual property has become a real issue for a wide range of industries (including the fashion industry) that have adopted 3D printing.
One thing is certain, 3D printing did not bring counterfeit or pirate products in the market but does exacerbate the production of such products due to its affordability. Indeed, once he/she is in possession of a CAD file, the customer is able to customize an item to his/her size and 3D print it.
As 3D printers are becoming more and more available for personal use, we might notice a rise in digital counterfeiting, customers who possess an illegal or legal copy a of a CAD file, might easily bypass regulations for counterfeits in the fashion industry.
While raising the question of 3D Printing for mass production, this issue also warns fashion companies which should not only be investing to improve their products but also to protect them.
Lastly, should we believe in 3D printing for mass production in the fashion industry?
So far, companies of the fashion industry have showed that it is possible to wear 3D Printed garments. However, until now, given the expensive cost of the technology, and the production time required to manufacture a 3D printed product, compared to conventional manufacturing techniques, it should be noted that these companies always release a limited collection of their products. Anyway, that’s what we observed with Nike, Under Armour and adidas.
Danit Peleg is one of these fashion designers who strongly believes in the use of 3D printing for mass production in the fashion industry. “I see it as a better alternative to the way we produce and consume fashion.
If the technology continues to improve, then this could be the future of fashion. The possibilities are endless, and the impact on the industry could be huge. There will be fewer shipping costs, no inventory, and most importantly, the democratization of design — anyone could design clothes. 3D printers are getting better and more efficient, so mass production is definitely the future”, explains Danit Peleg. For her, the biggest advantage remains the fact that companies won’t have to create an excess of garments that they may or may not sell. They’ll be able to print recycle on demand, with no waste. “I also envision designs going viral and individuals printing the latest fashions right at their own home. And when something newer and cooler comes along? Recycle and reprint!”, adds Peleg.
Sylvia Heisel believes on the other hand, that it will take a few more years before we really talk about mass production of 3D Printed fashion. For the specialist of wearables, we will first witness the production of trimmings, shoes, accessories and parts of garments.
Both visions are relevant and enable to understand the different long-term objectives of the experts. Peleg has a more holistic approach of the use of 3D Printing in fashion, an approach that places the end-consumer at the heart of everything she does: “I like to share my knowledge and give inspiration to everyone who is interested”, she said. In the future, she hopes to sell 3D fashion files that customers can print at home.
Heisel believes the end-consumer does not really care about the manufacturing process. That’s the reason why her work remains more “corporate”. “Currently we do a lot of catwalk, costume and exhibition garments, prototyping and samples for large brands and trims and accessories in recycled and eco filaments for independent fashion and interior designers”, she concludes.
In a nutshell, 3D printing demonstrates a big potential for reinvention and innovation. The technology seems a natural fit for women, both newcomers and experts, as they have a natural inclination to the fashion world and constitute a big part of this market. However, the gap is still big between the reality of fashion designers and fashion companies and the likelihood end-users get interest in fashion tech.
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