3-D Printing and Apparel Manufacturing: A Primer

Iris van Herpen has hooked us.

I’ve spent lots of time drooling over the artistry of her structural wonders. Experimental, technically intricate, architectural and inventive—she’s continually pushing boundaries with her application of 3-D printing technologies. I’m fascinated—and inspired—by her imagination and vision.

We’re in a time in apparel design and manufacturing that’s seeing a lot of innovation and technology integration. Processes that have existed for hundreds of years are being reinvented for a new era. 3-D printing is intriguing because it’s new and cool, and because it has some interesting creative possibilities.     

On the flip side, if you listen to Yeezy (aka Kanye West), 3-D printing is going to doom the fashion industry.

As a classically trained artist, I embrace edge thinking. I’m also a bit of a nerd, so I’m absolutely on board for this merging of science, technical design, fabric technology and art.

Yet I am also co-owner of a small, independent private label. So, like many of you, I want to understand:

  • • How realistic is 3-D printing for my line? Is it just a luxury experiment or a high end art project?
  • • Will I be able to mass-produce at scale, and at what price point?
  • • Will my brand be perceived as a novelty… or as a legitimate, progressive industry force?

And, of course, the big question:

Will people actually want to buy and WEAR these types of garments?

Let’s take a closer look.

Iris_van_Herpen,_Zonder_titel

Materials

One challenge with 3-D printing is limited stylistic and construction choices based on the current workable materials. As we know, many consumers prefer comfortable fabrics and fluidity. Not rigid materials and substrates. The danger is creating a garment that is ornamental, not day-to-day wearable. There is also concern over a lack of durability, as garments might look amazing, but be too fragile for long-time, consistent wear.

However, check out the amazing Kinematics project by Nervous system, and you’ll see how they are working through some of these concerns. Also, companies like Electroloom are working on innovative filaments and printers to start creating legitimate, seamless fabrics.

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Software

In order to design and manufacture 3-D printed garments, apparel designers need a high-level knowledge of CAD software. Or to partner with an engineering or architectural vendor who can help with the complexities involved in the process.

Planning for 3-D manufacturing can be a tricky mind-meld. Yet, we collaborate with lots of other industry partners, every day. Is this more learning curve than anything else? As with all garment construction, it is about finding those who can help us realize our vision.  

Cost

3-D printed garments can generate more expensive per unit costs. One factor is time needed to complete a garment construction. Many garments must be produced in sections, therefore requiring assembly.

Since it’s an additive process, though, 3-D printing can mean zero to minimal manufacturing waste. TamiCare, a textile innovation company in the UK, has been working on this for a few years now.

This 3d Printer is currently printing a turtle. http://www.fablabscarolinas.org/

Quality

Ironically, even at a higher price point, 3-D printed garments can look mass produced. We have every right to ask ourselves if that leads to compromising the craft and artistry of the trade. Would it homogenize efforts and stifle the uniqueness of a handcrafted garment—a time-honored hallmark of quality?

Death of the Independent Label: A Discussion

This is part of Mr. West’s hysteria. The concern is… would 3-D printing drive us toward a more democratized, personalized manufacturing future? If so, is that necessarily a bad thing?

In the doomsday approach, retailers would be able to print garments in store, eliminating the need for independent labels. A customer would walk into a retail location, get a body scan, and have a garment custom-made on the spot. Or individual consumers would download a file from the web and print at home on their personal 3-D printer. This idea is a scary prospect for some.

There are also positives to this, though. Instead of negotiating a purchase of physical inventory with a stockist, we could sell access rights our intellectual property. Manufacturer costs would be zero until garments are ordered. We’d eliminate forecasting volume, pre-producing inventory and praying it sells. We’d save on freight costs and buybacks. We’d be able to produce more variants in color, size and quantity—with less risk.

We’d surely need to control any legal issues that would arise with copyright infringement—such as printing and modifying a design without the designer or label’s permission—but the costs and logistical benefits are enticing.

I’ve touched on just a sampling of the topics of discussion around the subject. All things considered, this is an interesting time to be in the apparel manufacturing industry. So excited to see what’s to come!

Find American manufacturers with 3D printing know-how right here!

Read Up On What 3D Printing Means For You:

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