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All you ever wanted to know about 3D printing…

And the pros and cons of a new technology that goes against the grain of mass production

3D printing technology, a type of additive manufacturing, is rapidly taking over the world, revolutionising industries such as engineering, medicine and even fashion. Contrary to popular belief, the origin of 3D printing dates back to the 1980s. Charles Hull invented the world’s first SLA (stereolithography apparatus) machine in 1983, which he patented three years later.

Perhaps, it would be easier to understand the process of 3D printing by comparing it with the more traditional process of sculpting. Typically, sculptors start work with a block of material like wood, stone or metal. The material is then sculpted to complement the sculptor’s vision, through a process of removal which could involve drilling, carving or machining. 3D printing is similar, in that the artist starts off with a material, but instead of it being in block form, it’s a liquid, powder or filament. Layers are added to the malleable material, until the artist’s vision is met. One can see this as the reverse of sculpting, where the process of removal has been replaced by a process of addition.

a view through the lens of fashion It wasn’t going to be long before 3D printing ventured into the fashion industry – a field that’s always searching for the next great idea. The unconventionality of 3D printing pairs well with the fashion world, since the industry has always longed to marry art with fashion.

One of the main goals of a fashion designer is to produce a wearable garment. Although one may argue that high fashion editorial looks need not be as wearable as everyday clothing items, if a garment is unable to fit the human form, then high fashion or not, it has lost its purpose. Fashion designers typically start with a sketch which is transferred onto fabric, to create the ultimate garment.

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3D printing produces a material that does not have its origins in fabric, but rather in other substances like plastic and metal. This means that, unlike fabric garments, 3D printed garments lack the flexibility, fluidity and breathability that fabric naturally offers, reducing the comfort factor.

The strength and weight of the garment also affects its wearability. Therefore, 3D printing can be tricky, in the context of materials used to create these garments – they need to be sufficiently light to be worn by a living, breathing human body, and also strong enough to withstand movement.

Neil Miller – 3D printing whiz at the Museum of Design Atlanta – elaborates on the challenges of merging 3D printing with fashion, explaining that those who choose 3D printing as their medium for fashion design need to have a very clear picture of their final product, prior to commencing work.

This process leaves no room for error, since the printer will only build what the artist tells it to. When 3D printed garments are created, they’re usually made to fit a particular body type with specific measurements since, unlike fabric, 3D printed garments cannot be altered to suit varying body types.

Iris van Herpen is one of the most popular fashion designers to have ventured into 3D printing. Her work has been showcased on runways across the globe, grabbing the attention of the international fashion industry with her innovative take on wearable art. Although her garments are clearly not meant for the everyday consumer, she takes into consideration all the challenges that designers face when creating 3D printed fashion. Her work presents a juxtaposition of fluidity and rigidity that is achieved through the marriage of 3D printed materials, and unconventional materials such as mirrors and tubing.

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Although it is an innovation that has rejuvenated the fashion industry, 3D printing does present several drawbacks.

While 3D printed textiles make for a pretty picture, the success it has had in the wearability department is still questionable. Until 3D printing has mastered the art of creating lightweight, flexible, breathable, durable, fabric-like material, fashion designers may have to think even further outside the box.

As is the case with Iris van Herpen’s designs, the path to success with 3D printed fashion might be to weave in non-3D-printed materials, to compensate for the drawbacks of items that are made entirely using 3D printing.

In a world that thrives on mass production, it is comforting to know that a technological advancement such as 3D printing can move us away from it. With the concept of 3D printing gaining popularity with every day that passes, it’s exciting to think of the possibilities that may lie with its merging with the fashion industry, hopefully in the near future.

Stereolithography refers to the process of creating 3D objects, layer by layer, using photopolymer liquid and ultraviolet light.

This layering process is achieved by using different types of additive manufacturing, all of which come under the larger umbrella of 3D printing. SLA is one of the three most common types of additive manufacturing.

While SLA ultimately converts a pool of liquid into a solid object, by using a laser beam, Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) – another version of additive manufacturing – shares a process similar to that of a robotically-controlled hot glue gun, in that it involves a thermoplastic filament and moderate (oven-temperature) heat to create each layer of what will ultimately become a 3D object.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) involves a process that is similar to electric welding. It uses a high-energy laser, to form layers out of a fine powder made up of substances like plastic, metal, sandstone, glass and ceramic.

Each of these processes uses different methods to fuse material together, to create layers of matter that ultimately form the 3D object. Collectively, they play a major role in defining the 3D printing technology we know today.

  • 3D printing is a type of additive manufacturing that has caused a major shift in the world of fashion. Not only are 3D printed garments a photographer’s best friend, in that every angle presents a different take on the textile being used, they reduce the reliance on mass-produced fashion.
  • Since 3D printing is as one of a kind as it gets, with the use of technology in fashion, each garment has a unique signature which claps to the beat of our existing anti-mass-production society.
  • In spite of its perks, 3D printed fashion is a tricky industry to be in, since the rules of fabric-based textiles still apply to garments created from 3D printing. A garment is meant to be worn, regardless of the material it’s made of.
  • The drawback of 3D printed fashion is that the materials created are less fabric-like. This compels designers to pay attention to the flexibility, flow, weight and strength of garments, so that they are as ergonomic and wearable as a fabric garment.
  • Dutch designer Iris van Herpen takes 3D printed fashion to the next level, by creating wearable art. Her work marries 3D printing with unconventional materials, so that the completed garment is not only wearable, but interesting to the eye as well. Her garments are all one of a kind and put together by hand, making them even more appealing to her international audience.


Saashya Rodrigo