Could 3D printing be the future of printed clothing?

3D printing is one of the latest technological phenomenon’s that are currently causing a storm in the media. One of the reasons for this is that the fashion industry is set to start deploying it as the runway is seen as being the ideal testing ground. This alone is enough to being triggering utopian visions of seeing an outfit on TV, calibrating the settings on your home 3D printer and then hitting the ‘start’ button and printing a near-perfect replica of the garment. OK, this is possibly quite idealistic and, if we’re being honest, a fast and convenient approach that can see this kind of technology imported into everyone’s home is a long, long way off. However, what’s most exciting about this new technology is the potential to cause disruption and democratise the entire fashion industry. Start up clothing companies that produce their own lines of printed clothing could be entirely vertically integrated even if they’re currently confined to a basement – making 3D printing a revolutionary prospect.

One of the main appeals of 3D printing is the ability to cut down on the excessive waste that is currently produced in the fashion industry. Current 3D printing software is able to tailor-make clothing to the exact measurements and requirements that are needed and this drastically minimises the amount of waste that is produced. In stark contrast, the fashion industry currently holds a sinister reputation as being a deadly perpetrator of environmental infractions. An example of this is the production of synthetic fabric, polyester, which requires a large amount of crude oil. This oil releases harmful emissions into the atmosphere which are known to aggravate and provoke respiratory disease. Equally, the cultivation of natural fabrics isn’t exactly exempt from these issues. The largest cotton producer in the world, the USA, uses a quarter of the pesticides as a result of this industry. Clearly, an eco-friendly alternative to the fashion industry production is needed – and soon.

At present, there are some serious practicality issues to 3D printing. One such issue is the time that it takes to get 3D clothing printing. The time expense makes getting your MOT done seem like an absolute breeze. One designer which is currently pioneering the use of this technology is Danit Peleg and she stated that it took her over 300 hours to make a dress last year using this technique. Lately, she has managed to reduce this down to a much speedier 100 hours. For anyone who’s interested in 3D printing extends to merely dabbling and producing their own clothing, this is still a challenge that is insurmountable. Despite the time constraints, no one can argue that the results, from a runway point of view at least, have been nothing short of quirky and eye-popping. The latest designs have all come in the form of layered, latticed designs which are derived from a thermal plastic elastomer with a polyurethane base. In a nutshell, they tend to have the texture of rubber combined with more flexibility and comfort than previous versions – versions which possessed the flexibility of rigid armour. The 3D printing development has enabled the kind of extravagant and left-field geometrical designs which could previously only have been constructed in the digital graphics realm. Now they’re being planted firmly into the real world and haute couture.

The availability of 3D printing from the comfort of your own living room or workroom promises to be an an innovation that fits hand-in-hand with our interconnected, always-on society. It also raises the opportunity for friends and family to send each other 3D printed designs via email. What’s more, it adds another dimension to the fashion industry as a creative medium. One of the main issues is that the artificial fabrics are still a long way behind the versatility of cotton and lycra – not to mention they aren’t as readily available. Which means that the aforementioned are likely to remain standard fare within the printed clothing industry at least for the foreseeable future. Instead, it is more likely that we will witness a more gradual roll of 3D printing. This would involve the manufacturing of more rigid fashion products such as shoes, glasses, hardware and jewellery before we progress to more traditional garments such as T-Shirts, dresses, vests and underwear.

It’s all a little bit up in the air at the moment and only time will tell what 3D printing’s role will end up being within the fashion industry.

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