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3D Printing and the Future of the Apparel Market


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Originally running in WhichPLM’s Annual Review 2014, in this article Kilara Le looks at the rise of 3D printing, and its implications for intellectual property and the future of the apparel industry. Business process expert Kilara Le is one of WhichPLM’s most prolific and popular contributors.  Previous features have covered the extended PLM environment and process transformation.

By now, most of us will have heard of 3D printing.  Initially something of a novelty, the process of additive manufacturing – its technical name – has taken on a life of its own over the past few years.  For the uninitiated, the principle is the transformation of three-dimensional computer models into physical objects, achieved through progressive layering of a range of different materials by an incredibly precise (but increasingly cheap) 3D printer.

The transition from a hobbyist interest to an industry has been amazing and rapid, as have the advances in the things that can be made using 3D printing. It’s not just plastic novelties and resin sculptures anymore; actual products, from artificial limbs to engine parts are prototyped and some are even manufactured using 3D printing techniques.  Today, the technology can work with metals, thermoplastics, porcelain, rubber, silicone, and a host of other materials – the list of objects that can potentially make the leap from design file to prototype within a 3D printer’s enclosure is already dizzying.

A host of other industries are already wrestling with the impact of 3D printing (particularly as it pertains to intellectual property), but what about our clothes? Why are we all not wearing something freshly printed from a designer’s latest collection this morning? Well, despite some advancements in the creation of footwear from 3D files, we are not quite there yet, but garments will be coming to a printer near you.  Perhaps not quite in the way you may be envisioning it, but certainly sooner than you think.

One of the most potent aspects of 3D printing is its ability to democratise manufacturing.  Suddenly, people who have never set foot in a factory or a woodwork shop can generate furniture practically from thin air.  What value should we assign to an exquisitely-designed Eames chair when the original 3D specifications find their way into the public domain, and we can create another one at a fraction of the cost?  What happens, generally, when people outside of an industry find a way to effectively recreate its products, using new technology? Disruption.

As we have observed from other commodities industries that have undergone painful digital transitions – think photos, music, television – some of the traditional methods or processes associated with them has fallen by the wayside during the upheaval.  Music is rapidly switching to a license / subscription model; television is being forced to re-examine the concepts of “live” and “serialised” in the face of consumer behaviour and rampant piracy.  And as for photography, ask yourself when the last time was you saw a darkroom on the high street.

Could this kind of thing happen in the apparel industry? What will be the impact to our traditional paradigm of design and manufacture when 3D printing becomes ubiquitous?  One could argue that something roughly equivalent has already happened multiple times: during the Industrial Revolution, for example, when the scale of manufacture was greatly increased and power was put into the hands of the people.  I want to leave you with that thought while we examine the actual 3D printing process in a little more detail, and consider how it might be used in practical terms to actually help the retail, footwear and apparel industry.

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In the interests of clarity, there are already several companies who manufacture full “garment knitting machines” that also fall under the additive manufacturing umbrella.  Although it’s used as shorthand for 3D printing, additive manufacturing is actually quite a broad term describing products that are made by adding material (think pottery and knitting a sweater), versus subtracting it from a larger piece (think woodworking and cutting patterns from a piece of fabric). Some of the already-established benefits of full garment knitting are lower material waste, increased technical construction capabilities, and a much broader range of design possibilities for apparel products. Full garment knitting has been available for many years now, although I personally think that it’s been underutilised by the industry as a whole.

This kind of additive manufacture is not quite the same as 3D printing, however, and it’s this distinction between the two that’s crucial when it comes to considering their relative impacts on the way we work.  Manufacturing using full garment knitting machines requires inventory of available yarn in pre-dyed colors, in a range of sizes and raw materials.  3D printing requires only the raw materials- a substantial difference.

Fortunately for the industry at large, a polymer yarn is much more complex than just extruding a melted strand or layer of plastic or powder, which is the current option available for polymer materials in 3D printing. That means you’ll have some time to adjust your business model before all hell breaks loose!  I hope I’m just kidding there, but those previous industry examples certainly provide food for thought.

Due to their inherent structures, metals and hardline goods are currently better suited to 3D printing.  Anything with reliable rigidity is a target for three-dimensional prototyping and all the potential that comes with, but it’s the inherent flexibility, drape, hand and so on that make a garment actually wearable.  Is this something we expect to be able to recreate with 3D printing in the near future?

Unforeseen advancements aside, I do not personally believe that the 3D printing of soft garments is likely any time soon.  Working with the kinds of materials we currently use to create clothes is just too complex – particularly since we currently struggle to create accurate computer simulations of drape and material behaviours and virtually fit clothes onto soft body ‘mannequins’.

So if 3D printing of garments comprised of fabrics and yarns remains in the realm of science fiction for the time being, what prompted me to write this article?  I believe we should be asking ourselves whether printing garments is the logical next step, or whether the industry should instead look at 3D printing as a new way to create fabrics as a precursor to doing the same with finished garments.

Currently, 3D printing extrusion capabilities involve just one primary polymer material. Many can extrude multi-coloured objects, but only a small number of companies boast the ability to mix multiple polymer materials together.  For example, harder plastics mixed with more rubbery ones, or matte finishes with shiny ones.  But even this functionality lacks a great deal in the way of flexible micro-structural complexities – the kinds of things inherent in our fabrics.

Current attempts at flexibility have focused on creating chainmail-type structures with closed loops that link into one another – a far cry from both the long flexible yarns crossing at 90 degree angles in woven fabrics, and those used to create more open, connected loops in knitting.  A yarn’s very nature makes it flexible across more of the width of the fabric, and more capable of flexing and folding with the movements of the wearer. But as improvements to printer heads and extrusion techniques continue to allow for smaller and more precise structures, as well as the capability of switching rapidly between types of materials, I believe some exciting possibilities are going to open up.

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After all, existing synthetic yarns are made from polymers, which are in effect long chains comprised of crystalline and amorphous segments. Today’s, polymer yarns are made using extrusion anyway, albeit with a much more controlled and rigorous process which often incorporates mechanical elements as well. But as printers become more precise and the structures get smaller, the possibilities for taking apparel manufacture to a new level become much more persuasive.

As 3D printing methods and technologies advance, it’s going to be interesting to see how existing yarns and textiles are both interpreted and reinterpreted, and how current fashion tools will work with the results. The question remains as to how much consumers are willing to sacrifice comfort for convenience, and if this will even be an issue.

When people like the Creative Director of 3D printing powerhouse 3D Systems, Janne Kyttanen, start imagining a simple, hassle-free future of world travel with no luggage and printed apparel waiting for you when you arrive (in a video available on YouTube) you know the world is preparing to change drastically in the future. Either that, or we have to do a better job of explaining how complicated our industry really is!

I realise I’ve already explained that 3d printing of complete garments is unlikely in the near future, but there will be people who disagree with me, and technological advancements have a tendency of sneaking up on us.  So let’s consider what the future of our industry might be if 3D printing does become a viable option – and even whether our current model of manufacture needs to be as complicated as we all know it is.

If we take the growth of omnichannel retailing, pop-up stores and increasing Internet purchases into account, it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to consider a “make to order” model, with lower inventory costs and only the raw materials for each product held in stock. Could the supply chain be forever changed by that method of customer delivery and, potentially, customisation?

And the impact of this kind of transformation would go far beyond the consumer.  Consider your current product development environment, and imagine where the product information required for that make to order model might reside. In PLM, of course.

As I mentioned earlier, we are likely going to see new methods of construction coming into use in conjunction with new materials, mathematical models, and software solutions. Many apparel companies already use PLM to store product information that can be securely accessed globally – a kind of one-stop-shop for material and colour configurations, pattern files, technical specifications and so on. While this is obviously it a good starting point for our hypothetical future, it does of course mean that some new functionalities will need to be added, and system integrations will be required to extend PLM’s core functionality out into this area.

If the “make to order” scenario does become reality, those retailers and brands who already have a single location for their vital product data will be at a significant advantage.   Direct-to-consumer kiosks could leverage this information for both online orders and in-store shoppers, and use grading rules stored within PLM to fit the chosen garment to the customer’s 3D body scan.  Multiple CAD software providers already have made-to-measure functionality that can adjust base patterns to better fit individuals’ measurements, so this is not at all beyond the realms of possibility. The trick will be merging the pattern and garment construction together into one coherent rendering that is ultimately printable.

Following customer approval, a custom garment could then be made right then and there, or shipped from a local industrial printer direct to their address. I can even envision a scenario in which users are able to save their own versions of clothing they have bought (or customised) to share with others with similar body shapes and proportions, starting us down the process of truly democratising certain key stages of the product lifecycle.

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So, are we looking at a ‘makers’ revolution that will enable customers to either print or contract with a local 3D printer to make a 3D design they licensed into a physical object? In 10 years will artisan websites like Etsy be full of makers promising vintage construction with a needle and thread and real woven or knitted fabric? I very much doubt that, but the apparel industry should definitely be paying attention to what is happening in 3D printing and how it might affect our existing ways of working – things we take for granted but that in reality could be superseded very quickly.

If we run with that idea to its logical conclusion, we can easily conceive of a future where consumers design (or purchase licensed designs) and print their own clothing at home without ever having to step foot in a retail outlet ever again. This would truly be a tectonic shift for retail, sending high street stores the way of film development shops, travel agents and CD sellers.  A worrying proposition, but one that, if we prepare, our industry can surely overcome and potentially embrace by properly considering the real and future impact of 3D printing, and our place in a transforming world.

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for eight years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like our PLM Project Pack, or our Annual Publications, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.