A number of fashion companies are turning to 3D printing for innovation

A number of fashion companies are turning to 3D printing for innovation

3D printing has already transformed the manufacturing process in many industries, but an assessment of the technology by analysts at Bernstein Research seems to suggest much more progress still needs to be made before it has the potential to impact apparel.

A number of large apparel and footwear players have already embraced 3D printing technology, including US sportswear giant Nike which developed a 3D-printed spike plate for its Zoom Superfly Flyknit sprinting shoe earlier this year for athlete Allyson Felix. 

New Balance has also had a go, with the development in 2013 of a 3D printed spike plate "hypercustomised" to the mechanics of athlete Jack Bolas on the track. And earlier this year Under Armour released 96 pairs of its Architech trainers, featuring 3D printed midsoles, to the market. This marked the first time consumers were given access to shoes with 3D printed components. New Balance also released 44 pairs of higher performance running shoes with full-length 3D printed midsoles to the public this year. 

The price tag, however, suggests they may not prove an immediate hit with the mass consumer. As Bernstein analyst Jamie Merriman points out, Under Armour's Architech shoes cost US$300 per pair, while the Zante Generate shoe cost $400 per pair – more than twice the price of the most expensive, and four to six times the price of the cheapest pair of shoes available for each brand. 

"3D-printed shoes may have entered the market, but they have done so with a very limited supply and at a high price point, making it commercially inaccessible to the broad majority of consumers," the analysts explain. 

The printing process

Indeed, the 3D-printing process has yet to achieve high-scale production efficiency, which suggests the technology is unlikely to be used for mass-production purposes. As an example, the process for one Architech midsole takes just under 24 hours to finish, compared to other automated machines, which can make around 2,400 pairs of soles in eight hours. 

The printing of 3D spikes and midsoles involves a process called Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). As Bernstein analysts explain: "Broadly speaking, the machine first spreads out a fine layer of powder only as thick as a human hair. Following the cross-section of the digital 3D design, a high power laser then passes over the surface, melting and solidifying the area that will eventually become the finished product. This process is repeated again and again, as the laser fuses together one layer at a time, from the bottom up."

From a survey conducted by PwC in 2015, around 58% of US manufacturers believe 3D applications are unlikely to be used for high-volume production, although this percentage dipped slightly from 2014. It also found the top three reasons preventing companies from adopting the technology are the expense of the machines, the uncertainty over quality, and the lack of expertise to manage the technology. 

"Until these barriers are overcome, it is unlikely that the majority of manufacturers will use 3D-printing for mass production purposes," the analysts say. 

Rapid prototyping

There is, however, another application of 3D-printers in the production process that has proven to be highly advantageous. Adam Bayer, director of Under Armour's design and manufacturing test lab points out that usually it can take up to a month to make a shoe mould overseas, whereas the printer can do the same in about one day. The traditional process involves building injection moulds to create the parts. By eliminating moulds, companies can save time and money in prototyping. They can also test multiple concepts against each other rather than follow the traditional, iterative testing process.

"The limitations of 3D printing in high-scale production and its benefits in rapid prototyping suggest that 3D printing will primarily be used not for mass production purposes, but as a prototyping tool, rapidly increasing the efficiency of the design process," the analysts say. 

Away from mass production, personalisation is another way in which companies such as Adidas are trying to utilise 3D printing. Its Futurecraft 3D is a unique 3D-printed running shoe midsole which can be tailored to the exact contours and pressure points of an individual's foot. 

"This is a revolutionary concept and could be a game-changer in the apparel and footwear sector, as consumers are becoming increasingly demanding when it comes to product personalisation," the Bernstein analysts say. "In the footwear and clothing category, interest in personalisation increases as the consumer gets younger."

According to Deloitte, around 41% of UK consumers showed interest in having personalised clothing. This proportion rises to 53% for the '16-24' year-old group. More interestingly, for the clothing category, the findings show that consumers want to be actively contributing to the personalisation process, possibly to add a personal touch to the design."

3D printing in clothing

To date, 3D printed clothing designs have been limited to haute couture and high-fashion collections, with textiles made using SLS 3D printers, which create a chain that allows some movement. But Bernstein points out that while SLS is suitable for producing footwear components such as midsoles, it is inappropriate for clothing, as the degree of flexibility and movement in the printed material is too limited.

One innovative company, Electroloom, has started to focus on creating the world's first 3D fabric printer. The company uses an electrospinning process called Field Guided Fabrication (FGF), and aims to be able to print seamless fabric items on demand. FGF takes a liquid solution and converts it into solid fibres that are then deposited and bonded onto a 3D mould. This is then placed inside a chamber with an internal electric field that guides and bonds the fibre onto the mould. 

The end product is made up of tiny fibres, which means they can flex, drape and fold just like a normal fabric.

However, the Bernstein analysts say: "While it is an exciting breakthrough, much more progress still needs to be made. Successfully printed garments have been limited to very thin tank tops and skirts that have yet to resemble the garments currently sold by apparel retailers."