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The 3D printing process begins on a computer, where a blueprint of the object one wants to produce is created. The program then divides the object into sections, acting as a guide so the printer can build it layer by layer, from the bottom up.
“It's additive rather than subtractive, because you are building up an object in layers or slices directly from a 3D model, as opposed to traditional methods of 3D fabrication which tend to be subtractive," says Philip Delamore, Director of Fashion Digital Studio, and a Research Fellow at the London College of Fashion. "Mostly it's not really printing, but melting materials like plastics or metals to make solid objects."
In theory, once they have the equipment, anyone can create whatever they wish with a 3D printer. With the current software, however, it can be difficult for the average consumer to design a blueprint. This has led to the launch of companies like Shapeways, Sculpteo and Thingiverse, which allow customers to download templates designed by experts, or help users turn their own ideas into reality.
Products that can be produced by anyone in a short space of time? The concept of 3D printing sounds like it has the potential to turn the fashion industry on its head. At the moment, however, it's nowhere near developed enough to change things substantially. "I think that there are several levels on which 3D printing is going to have an impact on fashion," says Philip. "But I don't think that we will all be printing our clothes at home quite yet!"
The materials that are currently being used are mostly rigid plastics, stiff yarns and rubber-like materials, making it impossible for standard everyday clothing like jeans or t-shirts to be produced. The process is more suited to experimental, costume fashion, as seen in the collections of designer Iris Van Helpen, or the "world's first 3D-printed dress," created by Michael Schmidt and Frances Bitonti and recently worn by Dita Von Teese.
"It's incredible to see the breadth of use that even the limited number of materials has been put to," Philip says. "A new type of aesthetic has been born out of this hybrid design culture, which owes more to architecture and engineering than fashion."
For Frances Bitonti, the use of unconventional materials in the 3D printing process is one of its biggest advantages: "The most exciting things about 3D printing for me is that you can consider new types of construction, and you are not limited to materials which must be woven or knitted. For example you can create a textile which seamlessly transitions from a solid to a flexible structure," he says. "It's really about trying to forget all you know about fashion and textiles, from a design perspective. The rules don't apply."
Natural fibres like cotton or wool are yet to be fully replicated, though there are constant developments in the area as seen in Pringle of Scotland’s Autumn/Winter 2014 collection, which used laser-sintered nylon fabric that was close to traditional cloth.
Currently, 3D printing is most applicable to jewellery and accessory making, and independent designers like Eugenia Alejos, Kimberly Ovitz and olgafacesrok have all used 3D printing in their designs. Big brands like Nike, Adidas and New Balance have also employed the process to customise shoes for their customers.
Eventually every household could have its own 3D printer, placing the production of garments firmly in the hands of the consumer. This would create huge potential for customisation, as Pia Hinze, a German designer who uses 3D printing, explains: "Nearly all of us will be able to download designs and customize shape and colour before printing them at home with a desktop 3D-printer. You could scan your body or feet and print something made-to-measure just for you."
It is hard to understand whether 3D printing would be a friend or a foe to the fashion industry, should it develop enough to produce any conceivable garment. In an industry that's becoming more and more about short lead times and high volumes of production, 3D printing could be a saving grace for many designers, as it can produce a large quantity of garments extremely quickly. Samples would also be cheaper and more rapidly made, making it inexpensive to test out customers’ reactions before investing in a product.
However, the dawn of 3D printing also proposes some more worrying factors that fashion must prepare for. According to Philip Delamore, copyright is a big issue: "There is some debate on the protection of IP in 3D printing, and copying is something which has always damaged the fashion industry. Once you have a 3D file for an object, you can reproduce at will."
Quality control is another worrying issue for brands. If a customer buys a blueprint from a designer, they have the ability to modify it as they wish - for better or for worse - before printing it from home, reducing the control a brand has over its own products.
3D printing could also lead to the loss of jobs in fashion production, although many would argue that there will always be a demand for handcrafted, high quality products. "More and more machines will replace humans and craftsmanship, but I don't think we will lose handmade clothes completely," says Pia.
Alternative types of business models, where different kinds of jobs can be created, could be the answer. A good example of this is Francis Bitonti Studio, which is developing a line of commercially available 3D-printed products that allows customers to personalise their design and proceed to print it at a local ‘3D hub’. "It's a revolutionary method", says Francis, the studio’s designer. "We are making things that are customisable, highly intricate and produced locally on demand. We are transforming the industry with these methods."
It is impossible to predict the effect 3D printing could have on the industry, but there certainly are some changes afoot. According to Bitonti, there is nothing to fear, and fashion should fully embrace the technology. "It's going to make the industry evolve," he predicts. "Change is good. Nostalgia is bad!"
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