Melinda Looi’s 3D printed full-length gown was printed in a single part before being finished with colour dye and over 5000 Swarovski crystals

Melinda Looi’s 3D printed full-length gown was printed in a single part before being finished with colour dye and over 5000 Swarovski crystals

The organiser of a 3D print fashion show in New York has told just-style there will be major changes in fashion industry supply chain because of this new technology.

While development is currently in its early stages, Natacha Alpert, the director and curator of the 3D Print Fashion Show taking place today (16 April) in New York City, predicts that in 10 to 15 years, consumers will be able to completely customise their clothing and print them at home, bypassing manufacturers altogether.

"Right now, it’s a new technology so people can’t really envision the long-term meaning of this, just like people 20 years ago would never have thought there would be a Facebook or Instagram," she explained. "Soon, people will be able to scan their own foot, create a design at home, and then print it at home. This will affect roles all the way down the supply chain."

Alpert says factory jobs and how consumers shop will be disrupted. While traditional products will continue to be made, she foresees major apparel brands like Nike eventually shifting toward offering software and design templates instead of fully manufactured items because consumers will want to – and be able to – print their own products.

"Brands have strong identities, so in the future, they will exist to offer more of a design service with their identity stamped on it. They will offer 3D designs that can be bought and downloaded by consumers, who can then manufacture in their own homes," she said.

Alpert emphasises customisation as one of the biggest advantages of 3D printed clothing. "[3D printers] have been called ‘personal factories’. Imagine being able to have shoes that exactly fit your feet even though one foot may be bigger than the other," she said.

This ability is on display at the fashion show, where several high-profile designers are unveiling new collections, including Melinda Looi, who will debut a 3D printed full-length evening gown. The show is part of a larger 3D Print Week series of events in New York, which will have interactive displays and exhibits for attendees to explore the potential of 3D printing in architecture, interior design and consumer goods, as well as fashion.

"The intent of the fashion show is to showcase just how far 3D printing can take the footwear and apparel world," said Alpert. "I think it will be the first time people will be fully aware of 3D printing capabilities."

Technology already in use
Mike Fralix, president and CEO of the Textile Clothing and Technology Corporation ([TC]²), a research and consulting firm that is helping apparel companies to explore 3D printing, points out fashion companies have already begun using the technology.

Outdoor footwear manufacturer Timberland uses 3D printing to create shoe sole prototypes; Nike is testing printing performance-level football cleats for athletes; and a Brooklyn, US, company called Continuum Fashion has developed a wearable 3D printed bikini made from nylon, whose pieces snap together without any sewing.

Alexis Walsh, a fashion design student at the Parsons School of Design, in New York City, will be a guest speaker at a 3D Print Show Summit happening on the same weekend as the fashion show, with events in New York, London and Dublin.

She has embraced the technology, telling just-style: "One of the biggest advantages to 3D printing is that it’s so quick; you can have something you designed ready in just a few hours. I can create and print jewellery, for example, that’s immediately wearable. It speeds up production times because you order on a need-for-need basis."

Fralix agrees: "You can now have a 3D file sent to a 3D printer anywhere in the world. If you can virtually send products to be made locally instead of making them somewhere else and shipping them across the world, you can save a lot of time, which is money. It reduces the cycle time down to hours instead of weeks and months."

Another benefit of the technology is how little waste it creates. Typical fashion production involves cutting patterns from a base material, and sewing pieces together to create the final product, something Fralix calls ‘subtractive manufacturing’ because there is often material left over, which gets thrown out. But 3D printing is ‘additive manufacturing’ technology "because you’re not subtracting anything from the base, but actually using it completely to make something," he says. "In apparel production, there is at least 10% or even 15% material waste, so with 3D printing this waste can be reduced because nothing is being thrown out."

Printable materials have expanded from just plastics and rubbers to include nylon, wood, leather, and some metals like titanium, gold and silver.

"I foresee a day when we will have nanoparticle fibre substances that can be 3D printed into complete articles of clothing that would have the feel of cotton or wool," says Fralix, who has already heard concerns from the thread and yarn sector that this will eradicate their industries.

"I’m not trying to do away with these businesses, but in 10 or 15 years down the road, I can see these things happening – so why not be prepared?"