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Let’s 3D Print Fashion

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In his latest, exclusive piece for WhichPLM, resident expert Yotam Solomon discusses the rise in 3D printing, and the myriad possibilities that come with it. He discusses seamless clothing, custom fit, mass scale fashion 3D manufacturing, and designing in 3D to comply with sustainable standards. Yotam shares how the industry is learning that fibres and raw materials can be combined to create superior materials.

As a child I saw my grandmother stitch garments by hand. She used to crochet the most beautiful hats and scarves. Consequently, I thought that was the way clothing and footwear were made …but little did I know. If we look back through history, producing clothing this way was indeed a reality, and still is in some fashion-producing factories today.

In the 20th century, we adopted industrial sewing machines and other modern technology that lead to the mass manufacturing we have today. In the past few decades, experienced seamstresses and craftsmen have been slowly replaced with advanced machines to produce fashion products for the growing demand. Machines have been evolving to create products faster and with more precision, requiring less labor workers and therefore, less capital. Modern fashion production machinery surpasses everything that craftsmen used to do. In fact, we are starting to see apparel and footwear made with 3D technologies. These multiple dimensional technologies combine 3D printing with weaving and knitting to create a superior fit. We can 3D print fabrics that have computing embedded into the fibers and filament that can be designed to do anything, even store energy. This is beyond what our generation could imagine possible, but it is definitely already happening.

Cristobal Balenciaga created revolutionary garments in the 1930s using shaped knitting that allowed for seamless construction of panels and pockets. Unfortunately, Balenciaga’s technique is too complex and time consuming in today’s fast paced world, but 3D printing has made creating seamless garments possible. As a designer, the idea that we can scan a body and create clothing with no seams is mind boggling. The ability to create seamless clothes with custom fit will completely change how consumers evaluate true fit and comfort. Custom fit is not the easiest to achieve when creating garments, which is why tailors take years to perfect their skills. Custom fit is usually achieved by experienced tailors as every part of our body has different measurements. In fact, the right side of our body is different from the left. This is why many companies have been funding research and development in scanning technologies that could be integrated into our phones and smart devices. By being able to easily scan body measurements, modern consumers ultimately desire locally made fashion products. I wonder what Cristobal Balenciaga would create today having access to the Internet, 3D printers, and open source files.

The fashion industry has seen an incredible rise of 3D garments after the first few designers began printing fashion designs. Initially, designers developed intricate runway pieces that were far from being wearable. 3D printing allowed fashion designers like Iris van Herpen to develop the earliest versions of ultra detailed shapes and forms unlike ever before. Today, the goal is to design 3D fabrics that provide the necessary sustainable standards, desired performance, and comfort of feel. Designers are now moving away from artistic, non-wearable fashion. Designers and engineers are working together to develop new standards for mass manufacturing of 3D fashion products. Mass scale 3D fashion manufacturing is a hugely unexplored market that is evolving now. This is because the 3D market is largely dependent on material innovation. As a designer, I hope to see more partnerships between big brands, research and development companies, software firms, and higher education institutions. It is often that students bring innovative solutions to problems. After all, 3D printing allows us to create anything we desire, so why not create fashion that includes advancements in nanotechnology, biotechnology, and energy storage? We can create fashion that connects to the Internet and enhances our lives in so many ways.

3D printing material innovation requires many raw materials used as resin or filament matter. These raw materials are the basis from which our industry will advance its multi-dimensional printing operations. There are evident signs of material innovation made in 3D printing such as Filaflex, a 3D printing filament whose elasticity is 700% more elastic than filaments used now. Filaflex outperforms conventional thermoplastics such as PLA or ABS. The challenge for most material developers in 3D printing is utilizing the development of existing organic materials such as silk, cotton, hemp, wool, and many other natural fibers into thermo-material filaments. Utilizing natural materials in 3D printing could make a huge impact on sustainability as these substances can be farmed organically and reused as bio-organic material creating a cradle-to-cradle (C2C) system. Scientists are creating new materials for the fashion industry, such as ‘Shrilk’, which is a transparent, compostable material made from discarded shrimp shells and silk proteins making it as strong as steel. Subsequently, ‘Qmilk’ is another kind of thread made out of sour milk; it is resistant to bacteria and also fire retardant. As an industry, we are learning that fibers and raw materials can be combined to create superior materials. These materials can be engineered into 3D printing filaments that will revolutionize the marketplace. In order to produce 3D printed apparel, footwear, and accessories we should engineer filament using organically farmed and dyed raw materials. The potential is remarkable, especially when it comes to eco-friendly and sustainable practices.

The conversation regarding advanced 3D manufacturing is exciting as it creates new opportunities for technology and efficiency. Mass scale 3D printing can open the door to eco-friendly practices that will outperform our current standards. These eco-friendly savings range from dyeing, processing, to finishing production, thus reducing waste and increasing efficiency. Controlled machinery could also reduce water consumption and electric energy usage, as both resources are currently used excessively.

At the same time, the advancement of mass scale 3D printing could have negative ramifications. Global adaptation of 3D printing manufacturing will leave millions of workers unemployed. Labor workers and seamstresses could be completely replaced with 3D machinery. 3D printing machines only require a small number of engineers and make the existing professions obsolete. As an industry, it is imperative that we work together to support communities and avoid eliminating millions of jobs. 3D printing costs have been dropping and will become even more affordable as more industrial companies and private consumers use 3D printers. It will be interesting to see how we collectively move towards 3D printing in fashion manufacturing and re-educate our massive workforce in order to support local economies.

As a fashion designer and product developer, witnessing the economic growth during the shift to 3D mass manufacturing and its implications is one of the most interesting topics. In fashion, we thrive to support the triple bottom line: social, environmental, and financial. Fashion manufacturing is a complex industry consisting of many sectors, making the supply chain incredibly robust. In some cases change will have negative effects, making certain jobs and companies antiquated. Fabric mills, dye houses, sewing factories, and many other companies will have to completely restructure their businesses to survive this industrial change.

On the other hand, 3D printing manufacturing will have many positive effects, especially benefiting the environment. Increased local production could reduce freight and distribution logistics, saving trillions of dollars and reducing CO2 emissions. Local production is only the beginning as naturally based 3D printing production will eliminate many carcinogenic and hazardous chemicals used today. By using 3D printing and achieving the triple bottom line goals, the future of fashion manufacturing can be extremely lucrative and sustainable.

It is our job to develop the next generation of 3D printing to allow for a positive change.

Yotam Solomon

Yotam Solomon is a fashion designer and product developer focusing on cradle-to-cradle (C2C) innovation in apparel and footwear. Yotam draws inspiration from the natural environment; he has designed collections based on the Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico and on the relationship between prescribed drugs and its effect on our DNA.His approach to design goes beyond the aesthetic of a product; it’s about supporting people, building an economy, and preserving and enriching our natural resources. By working with mass manufacturers and smaller production houses, Yotam initiated new research and development projects to eliminate toxic chemicals from today’s manufacturing process.

Yotam brings insight about the relationship between sustainable design and the purchasing habits of the end consumer, and serves on our Expert panel as a sustainable fashion design expert.