3D printing is also known as additive manufacturing (AM), as a reference to making three-dimensional objects, with multiple layers being laid upon each other.
Nowadays, you can print almost anything. You can make your own engagement ring with silver or gold, you can print parts for your own car, build houses, recreate functional body parts, and yes, you can also print your clothes. Although the technology is more mature, it has not reached its peak.
The Available Types of 3D Printers
Currently, there are three models available: the Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), the Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), and Stereolithography (SLA). The SLS and SLA use powder or liquid types of materials to produce objects, while the FDM can only use solids such as plastic filaments. The model FDM is ideal for personal application, due to its cheaper cost in comparison to the SLA and SLS industrial models. Although its price might be more accessible, it has some drawbacks for fashion, since the surface of its object is rough and usually non-flexible.
Although the 3D printers have increased their accuracy, fashion designers still struggle with some limitations. Danit Peleg, the designer who printed her amazing clothing collection at home, confesses her project took long hours and that was not cheap or easy to finish.
The Limits Of 3D Printing for The Fashion Industry
It Is Expensive
Buying a 3D printer machine might not be so cheap. Besides investing in the printer machine itself, be ready to spend some bucks in costly raw materials. Your electrical bills might also increase since a 3D printer consumes approximately 100 times more energy than if you had an injection molding.
With the FDM model, the most common one, you can only use materials such as PLA, ABS, and TPU. Although these materials can reproduce some level of flexibility and smoothness, it is not enough for most clothing projects. It can be a great solution for printing labels and some accessories, such as shoes, bracelets and so on.
For those who have never used a 3D printer, it might sound as though it is easy to use. But the truth is that this is not conventional plug-and-play equipment. 3D printers require high-voltage power supplies, specialized tools, and parts that may make it a bit hard to navigate.
Creating and printing a file is also another challenge. First, you need to design a three-dimensional volume model, slice it the best way possible to avoid material waste, then, print the object (which may take a few hours). After the object is printed, you will need to clean the final piece, wash, and inspect it to make sure everything is in order. The printing process can take hours and definitely requires some skills and knowledge to be completed.
A study showed that 3D desktop printers could release a large number of hazardous ultrafine particles and volatile organic compounds during printing. To print an object made of PLA, printers emitted 20 billion ultrafine particles per minute, while ABS emitted up to 200 billion particles per minute. These compounds could lead to health risks such as cancer.
Besides its harmful particles release and energy consumption, most objects rely on plastic filaments to be produced. Although printers can reduce a good amount of waste, a relative amount will still be left behind. Most common filaments are made of metal or carbon, and users can find a few biodegradable options. But, the technology still has to evolve and accommodate more sustainable materials.
Materials Are Still Limited
Garments are one of the most challenging pieces to make. 3D printing is mostly used to produce non-flexible parts, which is a little bit far from what you would expect for clothing. However, designers alongside engineers have developed a way to print using mesh systems, which prints separated materials and assembles them later.
The Benefits Of 3D Printing for The Fashion Industry
3D Printing Will Not Make Traditional Factories Obsolete
A Harvard Business article states that 3D printing is not exactly the best fit for mass production, not just by its high cost but also for both scale and learning effects inherent to the process. Contrary to belief, objects don’t get printed with the touch of a button. So, even if the material’s price drops, there will be a labor-cost penalty.
3D Printing Is Best for Customization
3D printers might work best in customized objects, such as dental implants, hearing aids, and other implants that might have to fit specific anatomy or criteria. In the near future, maybe retailers will be able to offer a customized product on the spot to its customers.
It Can Save Time for Designers
The creation of product samples is an intensive phase, and 3D printers might be able to cut months from traditional development timelines. This can greatly benefit brands with hundreds of new SKUs per season. According to a Forbes article, some brands are already using 3D printers for sampling, which helps to anticipate manufacturing challenges.
There Is an Immense Potential for Reinvention and Innovation
3D printing allows designers to go beyond the traditional frontiers of fashion design. The technology has already achieved some milestones and is still evolving. Designers are free to create intricate structures and geometry, change traditional buttons to adhesive areas, print directly on textiles, customize apparel to the perfect size of each body part, and so much more.
So, is 3D Printing a Hero or a Villain?
The technology is still evolving, and people are still learning how to use it in different areas, such as fashion, medicine, and technology. The potential is huge, but some drawbacks might make this a solution not recommended for everyone. For the fashion industry, it will probably take a few more years to be fully developed.