The 3D Printing Revolution, & What it Means for Fashion/Luxury

Apr 25, 2013

Elizabeth Canon

3D printers have been around since the start of the 21st century, but as the electronic code that dictates what the machines produce becomes more sophisticated, and the machines become more affordable (Makerbots go for anywhere between $2000 – $3,000), 3D printing has become a hot topic with huge relevance today.

In a nutshell, 3D printing uses one machine to create a 3 dimensional object by adding thousands of layers of material together. Strings of digital code tell the machine how to distribute the layers and in what shape in order to create the final object. Right now, the materials available to generate objects using a 3D printer are rather limited to metals, sandstone, ceramics and various types of plastic, but that’s set to change. Before jumping to the conclusion that this is not relevant to the luxury fashion industry, note the photo above, which we discovered on The Creator’s Project. On the left is the finished product, worthy of a runway and a premium price tag. On the right is the prototype created by Brazilian designer Andreia Chaves to serve as the skeleton of the shoe, which she then covered with geometric mirrors through a hand-made leather making technique from Italy in order to create the finished product.

Even without creating an actual object, 3D printers can be used to cut precise patterns and molds that can then be used to create any object, allowing designers and manufacturers to avoid excess material that is ultimately wasted.

One of the things that’s so fascinating about 3D printing is the ability to rapidly create objects on-demand. Once the digital file (code) is sent to the printer, it can take mere minutes to create an actual object. Slight modifications to the code can then be made on the spot, and a revised version of the object can be created. Basically, you update the code to update the product traits.

Clearly, there is a big opportunity in manufacturing. In fact, in this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama cited 3D printing as a key to revolutionizing industrial manufacturing. (Imagine factories printing new parts? Or personally being able to print the replacement part for your espresso machine at home rather than mail-order it?). For the fashion and luxury industries, in particular, 3D printing technology has significant implications for rapid prototyping and product customizations, like size and fit. Imagine if you could custom order the right size and fit of a product off the runway and receive it in 2 weeks?

Since products are created on-demand, there is also a strong opportunity for independent designers to circumvent the need for minimum manufacturing orders. Shapeways, a company pioneering 3D printing technology in our industry demonstrates their functionality in collaboration with accessories brand GothamSmith in this video:

As revolutionary as this all sounds, there have been important recent advances in 3D printing that can have an even more critical impact on our industry. Specifically, the founder of MakerBot (a leading 3D printing company), has unveiled a digital desktop scanner, which can scan an object and create a digital design file within minutes. This file can then be sent to the 3D printer and a replica product can be produced on the spot. This means that you don’t need to understand how to design an object using software (like CAD). Instead, a series of cameras and lasers in the scanner create the design file automatically. This is sure to pose issues in counterfeiting that demand our industry’s attention.

But at this stage, the emphasis should be placed on the opportunity, rather than on the fear. One company making considerable strides using 3D printing technology in fashion is Continuum Fashion, whose sophisticated experimentation has lead to a 3D printed shoe collection, a (wearable) bikini made out of one continuous piece of material generated by code, and an application that allows a layperson to create an avant-garde little black dress in minutes.