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3D Fashion Printing: Present and Future

30 January, 2017

3D printed dress by Danit Peleg and worn by US athlete Amy Purdy at the Rio 2016 Paralympics opening ceremony. / Danit Peleg / Photo credit: Marina Ribas

Professionals and entrepreneurs from Barcelona are undertaking training in the way that 3D printing works and promoting it as a fashion production and distribution system.

You open the computer, download a file from a designer’s online store, send it to the printer and get a skirt. Of course, then you have to pay for it. This is a process that millions of people across the world might be doing from home in just a few years. The image evokes a futuristic scenario more in keeping with a sci-fi film than the production routines that govern the fashion sector. Until now, production and consumption were differentiated processes featuring different actors. Designers and manufacturers were responsible for the first and the public for the second. In other words, the former would produce and the latter would consume, respectively. There was no room for confusion. But 3D printing has the potential to change all that – so much so that a term for a new actor has been coined: the prosumer,  i.e., an individual with the ability to produce the goods they consume. This ability comes from personal 3D printers which allow for individual manufacturing and personalised products custom-made for that person alone.

3D printing technology is in full swing in such important areas as the production of human organs and the food sector. Although still in its infancy, its potential has also attracted people from the fashion industry and technology sector, who see 3D printing as an element of success that can turn the production industry on its head.


Printing fabric?

“3D printing is one of the many forms of digital fashion manufacturing. Its future lies in ultra-customisation and the creation of short runs,” says interactive design researcher Oscar Tomico of the Department of Industrial Design, Eindhoven University of Technology (Netherlands), who has worked on various smart fabric projects with the Eurecat technology centre of Catalonia. “When we talk about 3D fashion printing, we’re not printing textiles but rather the materials the printer needs,” specifies the head of Fab Textiles at Fab Lab Barcelona, Anastasia Pistofidou. Since finishing her master’s in 2011 at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, Pistofidou, originally from Greece, has focused on training independent professionals and future designers in the use of 3D printing for fashion. She does so in Barcelona, at Fab Textiles, and in many other cities around the world as well. Taking the example of the Catalan capital as her lead, she is responsible for opening up other spaces like Fab Textiles further afield. The goal is to bring society closer to the use of the latest technologies applied to the textile sector, including 3D printing. A number of Barcelona fashion schools are also working in the same area and both Pistofidou and Tomico collaborate with them to teach designers the potential of the technology and how to leverage it.

“I worked with designer Natalia Suschenko (who trained at the European Design Institute of Barcelona) in 2013 on the creation of some 3D-printed shoes. She did the sketches and we did the 3D modelling and printing,” Pistofidou says, recalling one of her first forays into fashion printed with 3D technology. “The fastest way to get 3D fashion to market is through accessories like buttons and pockets. It also offers very exciting finishes and textures,” says Tomico. “You can make some fairly complex shapes which you couldn’t get with any other industrial production method.  It allows you a great deal of freedom in this area,” adds Pistofidou.



Israeli designer Danit Peleg is one of the names that crops up the most when talking about 3D fashion printing. She visited Barcelona in July to take part in the first In(3D)ustry event, a trade fair that drew professionals from very diverse sectors but who all work with 3D printing. One example is industrial designer Pep Farrés, who says: “I think it’s a technology that is growing and has a great future ahead of it for both the end user and for industry and which could impact all production sectors”. Farrés listened to Peleg give one of the speeches at the new trade fair, discussing her experience in 3D printing an entire collection. “Technology has always been an essential part of the fashion industry,” says the designer, speaking to us from Israel. At home, she is working on her second collection with a printer designed in Madrid, the Witbox 2, and a filament called FilaFlex, developed by the Recreus company from Alicante. “It won’t be long until customers no longer need me; all they’ll have to do is download my file, tweak the garment the way they want and print it out. “We’ve learnt a lot from the music industry,” Danit Peleg says, referencing the distribution model that record labels use to sell their products online.

With this material, FilaFlex, and using a Witbox 2, Peleg printed the dress worn by US athlete Amy Purdy at the Rio 2016 Paralympics opening ceremony. A dress like that needs 120 hours of printing time. That might seem a lot but it’s less than half the time that was required in 2015. Personal printers like the ones that Danit Peleg used then have the advantage of bringing 3D technology to people with no specific technical specialisation. Jon Goita, technical director of 3D products at Bq, the company that makes the Witbox 2, says the key to this technology becoming popular is “making the printing process as simple as possible”. “People like Danit Peleg want results and they don’t want to get bogged down in technical details. The printing measurement we offer with Witbox 2 is the largest on the market and the machine also boasts very high reliability. Each section of fabric represents 20 hours of printing, so it is very important for the end result to be what you want. There are many hours behind each piece. Today we can guarantee 100% success with regards the printing, whereas before only seven out of every 10 pieces turned out how we wanted.”

Fab Textiles uses the RepRap printer made in Barcelona by the CIM Foundation and its manager also believes that the secret to the popularisation of personal 3D printing lies in “educating both designers and the public at large”. Pistofidou adds: “You have to train people in the options available, like 3D modelling, and how to produce. Research into new materials will evolve quickly after that”. When she refers to materials, Pistofidou says that the existing options will shortly be replaced by ones that are more appealing and similar to the fabrics we know today.


The thread of the future

One of the people who knows the most about contemporary materials is the CEO of Recreus, the company that makes the filament that Danit Peleg uses. Ignacio Garcia says that FilaFlex is made from polyurethane and a combination of additives to make it flexible and strong. These two attributes make it perfect for 3D printing and is the closest thing for now to the textiles the technology can use. “The materials have to continue improving, but they will soon. I use FilaFlex, which is like rubber but is the best material I’ve tried to date. No-one has yet developed a material that’s like silk, for example. When that happens there will be a revolution in the fashion sector,” says Danit Peleg.  Although he can’t provide details as yet, Garcia says that “2017 will see a new technology released on the 3D printing market that will be of vast importance to the fashion sector”.  However, FilaFlex has already made the company a 3D fashion printing benchmark, doing even better than proposals that arrive from the US.  “This is particularly because of how flexible it is and also because we have differentiated ourselves with a variety of colours,” Garcia says.  His company is working with the CIM Foundation to roll out new 3D printers adapted to better materials that will replace the fabric.  Recreus is also already making and marketing 3D-printed shoes. “They offer the same level of resistance as regular ones,” the CEO says.


The next stage

When Pistofidou is asked about the potential of 3D fashion printing, she says it “could be a sea change in the way we consume clothing today” and emphasises Barcelona’s advantageous position. “There is a longstanding tradition here of applying technology to the textile industry and there are large fashion businesses and many design schools. That makes Barcelona a wonderful city for the development of 3D fashion printing”. Pistofidou pauses before adding, “One very important step would be not only for people to have 3D printers at home but also machines to recycle pieces they don’t wear or which didn’t work out well”. Oscar Tomico makes a similar reflection about the importance of uniting the perspective of a more sustainable economy with fashion consumption, harnessing the development of this new technology: “We are witnessing the start of the creation of a new business model. It would be very interesting to consider ways to make it sustainable. If everyone had a machine, they would be consuming printers in addition to fashion. Would that be more sustainable than manufacturing on the other side of the world and throwing away 30 percent of the production as happens today?”

The reality is that we still can’t envisage the future of 3D fashion printing. Which business model will prevail? “We don’t yet know whether this technology will remain within the realm of research centres and universities or will reach major consumers. It will depend on who is leading the distribution process. It could be a large fashion-sector firm like Zara or a tech enterprise. It’s true that there is a big community interested in the technology and Barcelona is an example of that. It’s also true that we have the know-how and the ability to promote it,” says Tomico.

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