Could 3D printing be the future of printed clothing?

3D printing is the latest technological advancement which is causing a storm within the media. And soon enough we could see the fashion industry start to deploy it, with the runway providing the perfect testing ground. It’s enough to start trigging utopian visions of seeing an outfit on TV, calibrating your printer and hitting the ‘Print’ button and ending up with a near perfect replication of the garment in your hands. OK, this is perhaps excessively idealistic, and a speedy and convenient approach that can be imported into everyone’s home is a long way off at best. What is most exciting, however, is the huge potential to disrupt and democratise the entire industry. Start-up clothing companies producing printed clothing could be entirely vertically integrated despite being confined to a basement. This is a revolutionary prospect.

One of the main appeals of 3D printing is the ability to cut down on waste. Current 3D printing software and hardware is able to tailor-make clothing to exact measurements and requirements while dramatically minimising the amount of waste products that are released. In stark contrast, the current fashion industry possesses a sinister reputation as a deadly perpetrator of environmental infractions. For example, the production of synthetic fabric, polyester, requires large amounts of crude oil and releases harmful emissions into the environment which is known to aggravate and provoke respiratory disease. Equally, the cultivation of natural fabrics is no exempt from issues. In the USA, the largest cotton producers in the world, a quarter of all pesticides used are as a result of this industry. Clearly, an eco-friendly alternative to fashion industry production pockmarked by inefficiency and squander is crucial.

Presently, there are serious practical issues, though. The time expense, which currently makes getting your MOT done seem like a 30-second job, is one such issue. One designer pioneering use of the technology, Danit Peleg, recalled that it took her over 300 hours to make a single dress last year, although lately, she has managed to bring this down to 100 hours. For the everyman merely interested in dabbling in 3D printing their own clothes, this still poses an insurmountable challenge. But the results from a runway point of view have been nothing short of quirky and eye-popping. The latest designs have come in the form of layered, latticed designs derived from thermoplastic elastomer with a polyurethane base. Put simply, they tend to have the texture of rubber with more flexibility and comfort that the previous models which all possessed a rigid, almost armour like, quality. The 3D printing development has enabled the kind of extravagant and left-field geometrical designs which could previously only be constructed in the digital graphics realm. Now they are being planted firmly into the real world and haute couture.

The availability of 3D printing from the comfort of your own living room or workroom seems like an innovation that dovetails perfectly into our inter-connected, always-on society. It raises the opportunity for friends and coworkers to send each other 3D printing designs via email, which would be an exciting turn of events. What’s more, it adds another dimension to fashion as a creative medium. One of the main issues is that these artificial, surrogate fabrics are a long way behind the versatility and accessibility of cotton and lycra, which means the latter will likely remain standard fare in the printed clothing industry for the foreseeable future. Instead, it is more probably that we will see a gradual roll-out of 3D printing in an evolutionary piecemeal fashion. This would entail the manufacturing of more rigid fashion products such as shoes, jewellery, sunglasses and hardware before progressing to more traditional garments. Similarly, we may well witness a process hybridization whereby 3D printed garments are coupled with traditional printed clothes. It’s all a little up in the air at the moment and only time will tell what 3D printing’s role in the fashion industry will end up being.

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