The days of 3D printing being a hyped-up novelty are gone. The technology has moved past the innovation stage and is well into the early adoption phase as more and more people seek out information and dip their toes into the industry. But while 3D printing as a whole is rapidly becoming more mainstream, when it comes to printing clothing, there are still major challenges.

I experience some of those challenges every day in my 3D-printed fashion lab in Miami, and I’m using one of the most advanced 3D printers available on the market. For someone working on clothing at home with a consumer-grade 3D printer, the challenges would be even greater. But luckily, I do see solutions on the horizon, and as the technology matures, most of the problems fashion designers currently face will begin to ease.

Here are the top three problems I currently see facing 3D printed sustainable fashion, and the solutions that I believe will arrive sooner rather than later to help ease the frustration of 3D designers like myself.

Problem 1: Materials are Currently Quite Limiting

While there are a number of types of filament on the market, there are some major limitations to essentially all of them. From a fashion perspective, the biggest one is flexibility. As it stands, we can 3D print clothing that behaves similarly to stiffer materials like leather, but we aren’t quite at the point of being able to print something that flexes and flows like a cotton t-shirt. With that being said, there most definitely are 3D-printed t-shirts, and with any luck it won’t be long until they move and feel just like their cotton cousins!

The other big problem is a lack of sustainable, eco-friendly materials to choose from. ABS is recyclable, but a ton of it still ends up in landfills. PLA is the most common biodegradable filament currently used, but it takes a long time to break down and requires a composting facility. It’s also not flexible enough to be realistically used in fashion applications. That means fashion designers looking to maximize the wearability of their garments are currently forced to take a less eco-friendly route.

Luckily, there are innovative companies out there tackling both of these problems as we speak. A company called Essentium has recently developed a new filament they call TPU 80A, which is one of the most flexible 3D printing materials available to date, and I personally have started to use TPE 70A, which is even more flexible! On the sustainability front, the Singapore University of Technology and Design recently unveiled a material they call FLAM – a completely natural, 100% biodegradable material that the SUTD says is completely safe for use, potentially in every ecosystem on the planet.

Problem 2: 3D Printing is Slow

There have been great strides in the efficiency and speed of 3D printing over the past few years, but I’d be lying if I said that the technology was currently fast. The time it takes to complete a design is obviously based on overall complexity, but even the simplest of fashion pieces requires some serious patience.

For example, in my September show at New York Fashion Week, the pieces incorporated a lot of complex geometrical shapes. As a result, it actually took around 150 hours to print one of the dresses on a single printer! That’s obviously an extreme example, but even with the current skirt I’m working on, which is a much simpler design, printing takes around 18 hours.

The solution to this problem is obvious – the unstoppable march of technological progress! Every year printers get faster and faster and, especially as large format printers grow in speed, the time it takes to do large, complex designs will rapidly decrease. For multi-piece designs like the skirt I mentioned (which requires a 3D printed liner as well), employing multiple printers is also an easy way to cut the manufacturing time down.  

I’ve also begun experimenting with stereolithography (SLA) printers, which are faster than traditional printers. SLA printers also allow me to print with different materials like silicone and flexible resins. The downside is that, while fast, SLA printers are small. They are getting larger though, and I’m eagerly awaiting the launch of a large-format version in the coming months.

Problem 3: There’s a Long Way to Go in Education and Acceptance

While 3D printing is now in an early adoption phase and more and more consumers are becoming familiar with it, when it comes to 3D printed fashion, there is a long, long way to go. In fact, when you tell the average person about 3D printed clothing, most of them initially don’t even believe it’s real. They also assume that 3D printed clothing is worse for the environment and for the consumer than traditional materials like cotton. That’s understandable, since most people associate “plastic” with “bad”, but when it comes clothing production, they couldn’t be more wrong.

The industry also needs more education on the technology itself, specifically the software used to create designs. As it stands, it can be a steep learning curve to tackle, and many fashion designers that might otherwise be interested in trying out 3D printing will never get started due to the barrier to entry posed by the relatively complex software.

In my opinion the thing that will drive the greatest change in this area is going to be the continued shrinking of global natural resources. As we continue to run out of land and fresh water all across the globe, the harm done by traditional production methods will be brought more and more into the light. The result will be a widened understanding and appreciation of 3D printing as a means of textile production, and a growing interest among designers looking to implement the technology into their own collections. That raised awareness will naturally lead to greater education and adoption.

Julia Daviy

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Photo: Vita Zamchevska

 

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