In her first exclusive for WhichPLM, Hanna Grzywnowicz, ‘The 3D Printing Lady’ explains the current landscape of 3D printing in Fashion, and the problems we have – technically speaking. Hanna is an independent 3D printing and design consultant and content creator, always eager to share her research and discuss her findings.
When you type ‘Fashion’ and ‘3D Printing’ into any web browser, you will undoubtedly come across some very intriguing haute-couture catwalk creations by the likes of the acclaimed Iris van Herpen, Gabi Asfour and Dita von Tease’s rubber dress creator duo, Schmidt and Bitonti – geometrically complex statement structures that seem to defy gravity and suggest unnatural form. Meshes and chain links, para-mechanical cogwheels frozen in motion, all resembling stiffened exoskeletons, mean to stun, dazzle and confuse the audience, as if to challenge the viewer’s conceptions of fabric and motion.
Such collections are meant to inspire and leave behind a strong impression, whilst at the same time showcase the technical advancement in the field and open-mindedness of the designer. (3D printing still is excellent publicity.) While aesthetically pleasing and ethereal from afar, the catwalk designs all share a similar, very narrow vision of 3D printing in fashion. This, in my opinion, poses some problems on the technical level in terms of managing customer expectations regarding replicability, wearability and, last but not least, accessibility.
In this piece I will address each of the issues one by one, but before I do so, let me paint the picture of the situation in the market a few years ago.
Back in 2011-2013 – the time which will soon be dubbed as the “Peak of the 3D Printing Hype” – the world’s collective imagination was set ablaze with the notion of a ‘completely new’, ’emerging’ and ‘disruptive’ technology on the cusp of overtaking the world as we knew it. The technology in question was not as ‘new’ and ’emerging ‘ as some misunderstood the early reports to mean, but for the very first time it was to be freed from patents that locked it out of the public domain for over 25 years.
The speed at which a miniaturised workshop-grade manufacturing tool gained international attention was unprecedented.
Demand for accessible, relatable information free from technical jargon soon overpowered the supply. The hype started to transform previously unknown companies into engineering visionaries. MakerBot, a small engineering company from Brooklyn, NY, created its first commercialised FDM desktop machine by gathering the already existing open-source data from a RepRap project, and then closed the source – a move which upset many but brought the company a record-breaking 212m USD buyout in 2012.
Many companies wanted to use the first-mover advantage and secure a significant slice of the 3D printing pie in a landscape of almost no competitors. With everybody destined to soon become a MAKER armed with a semi-automated tool powerful enough to replicate itself, humanity was to take a new turn by breaking free from the supply chains of traditional manufacturing, with FMCG and fashion markets losing the biggest chunk of the market in the process.
Desktop 3D printing materials at the time were basic and few, with ABS, a LEGO block material, leading the way with toxic smoke and a very high melting point …resulting in many burnt fingers.
PLA followed suit, joined swiftly with few elastomer-enhanced soft options, PET, and experimental wooden and stone filaments.
The world of industrial-grade materials like PA12 (Nylon Polyamide 12) or PolyJet was virtually inaccessible to the general public or artists without connections. (This later changed with the arrival of Shapeways and other online 3D printing bureaus offering a variety of materials and finishes, including as exciting options as metals, elastomers and even porcelain.)
However, the actual development of 3D printable materials was not as rapid as it had been portrayed in the media, nor was the speed of the FDM machines improving as quickly as the public wanted. The price was not dropping as quickly as expected. By hastily reporting all the freshly discovered facts on the topic of additive manufacturing the press created a falsified image of the actual state of 3D printing that has its repercussions to this day.
To summarise: the way the design media wanted to present desktop 3D printing AD 2012 to be a maverick of accidental engineering developing at the astounding rates, widely accessible, easy to use and for virtually every application, painted a false image that is often obfuscating the understanding of the true potential and reliability of 3D printing. In reality, the situation resembled a narrow shutter slowly un-obfuscating the effects of work from the past 25 years of development.
Another misunderstanding that still affects the clear understanding of possible additive manufacturing solutions in the fashion context stems from the lack of clear demarcation of two separate types of printing achievable on two separate types of machines: industrial and consumer (desktop, hobby). Understanding the difference between industrial and consumer (desktop) 3D printing is key to managing the expectation of the customer/student/designer who would like to implement the elements of 3D printing in their production process. It encompasses the replicability, wearability and accessibility problems mentioned earlier.
The first fact crucial to understand is that the haute-couture 3D printed forms from designers like Iris van Herpen are created on industrial machines and, despite the same .stl file format and potentially similar thermoplastics used, similar results are not replicable on the desktop 3D printer in terms of size, colour and quality of the part.
The machines are furthermore backed up by machine manufacturers’ expertise and operator’s experience, which aids to the perfect finish of the 3D printed parts. Designers like Iris have thus almost unlimited and prioritised access to the resource that is otherwise difficult to access in terms of prohibitive pricing structure, long shipping and lead times. Having said that, this is progressively changing with the emergence of Direct On-Demand Manufacturing Services offered directly via machine manufacturers, and 3D printing bureaus diversifying their printer portfolio.
Secondly, it is paramount to understand that the designs of Iris van Herpen are translated into the virtual realm by a team of skilled CAD designers and modelers. Designing in CAD is a skill that has been, and still is, widely overlooked while presenting the ‘all accessible’ and ‘democratised’ world of 3D printing. Almost all resources I had encountered on the subject of Fashion design in the context of 3D printing mention CAD as something that can be quickly acquired on a basic level, then move promptly to 3D scanning and possible body scans. This is not how it works at the moment, and the lack of ability/practice/talent in the field of Computer Aided Design in creating print-ready files that could have similar aesthetic standard to the such elaborate and organic structures and surfaces takes years of hard work and dedication to master. It is one of the greatest sources of disappointment that I have witnessed while working with students so far.
The way to counteract it is to consider hiring a trained Product Designer or a Studio that would be able to translate the brief into the 3D printable file at a cost.
Last but not least, I would like to tackle the material suitability and development in the field – or rather, a surprising lack of thereof. TPE and TPU-based elastomers are still the only materials vaguely suitable for such application. The rigidity of the materials renders 3D printed fabrics unwearable. The main flaw that ailed the creators attempting to invent 3D printable fabrics 5 years ago still persists and is unlikely to change anytime soon.
What’s more, the development of so called ‘soft’ materials seems to have taken a step back in favour of the so-called ‘hard’ materials with real industrial applications in mind. What had been unexpected was the sudden development of rigid, heat resistant and medical grade resins for desktop SLA solutions and metal filaments for FDM parts, which demonstrates that there is more of the demand for this type of product rather than attempts to develop anything softer and easier on the skin. As a final example of desktop solutions favouring harder materials, the first desktop metal 3D printing solutions are said to enter the market later this year. To be able to print fully functional metal parts on the desktop is a proof that rather than pursuing the dream that might never be worth pursuing, the companies decide to opt for creating reliable materials for end parts.
The unrealistic expectations regarding the feel of the 3D printed ‘fabric’ is apparent with customers who don’t implement enough time for research before setting off on their 3D printing journey. Despite printer manufacturer’s promises from the glossy brochures, it is not yet possible to mix the materials in any way you like to recreate a particular property. It is still an experimental and very expensive technology to use, and, in my experience, the results are not always replicable.
Fast-forwarding to 2018 and we can safely say that the hype is truly and finally over. Nervous System’s Kinematic Dress still remains an interesting concept in chain link interlocking mesh design, and is proudly featured in permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (Boston, MA) and the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (Sydney, Australia), amongst others. Danit Peleg’s DIY desktop-printed clothes deserve huge recognition in terms of creative thinking and entrepreneurship but, due to material limitations especially on the desktop segment of the market, the end result, in my opinion, isn’t readily wearable yet.
We are finally reaching a stage of disappointment and disillusionment necessary to abandon chasing the idea of 3D printable apparel in the form of meshy ‘fabrics’ in favour of appreciating technology for what it is and how we can leverage its current potential. Just the other day a press release from software manufacturer Materialise revealed the example use of 3D printing while creating a prop in the film industry. A whimsical, intricate pattern of the crown and a ruff couldn’t have been recreated using traditional crafting methods.
Rather than conceptualising unrealistic ideas for the future and waiting for the appropriate material to appear, designers should concentrate on leveraging current technologies and mixing both traditional and digital manufacturing techniques and create wearable (and unwearable) pieces of art instead.
The hype is finally over, thank you very much – now we can finally start enjoying 3D printing!