Fashion Friend or Deadly Foe

By Catherine Wei

The world has never seen anything like this before. These revolutionary machines have changed society’s preconceptions of innovation by lowering production costs and increasing mass customization. They surpass traditional manufacturing processes and have become applicable to any field ranging from medicine to fashion. The gamechangers: 3D Printers.

In the words of Heidi Klum, at New York Fashion Week, “One day you’re in, and the next day you’re out.” The stakes are high. After months of drawing, designing, and dyeing, fashion designers are finally able to come out of their shells and watch models dressed in their work strut down the runway. For NYC-based designer Alexis Walsh, not only was the 2016 New York Fashion Week an opportunity to present her latest LYSIS Collection, but also a chance to exert the power of a 3D printer on the runway.

Walsh first learned of 3D printing in one of her industrial product design classes at the Parsons School for Design. In an article with 3D Printing Industry, she recalls how she started the process as an experimental whim, yet now, it has become her favorite design method. Her LYSIS Collection showcases numerous 3D printed pieces to complement the soft fabrics of the rest of the outfit. To her, the collection is meant to imitate the growth of viral structures. It is a combination of organic shapes with rigid silhouettes. One of Alexis’ past pieces was titled “The Spire Dress.” In collaboration with designer Ross Leonardy, Walsh assembled 400 3D printed individual titles using tiny metal ring connectors. The dress expresses a geometric formation with spirals around an individual’s body. Furthermore, rather than sketching her initial thought process and designs, Alexis digitalized a 3D model of the dress using Grasshopper, a software algorithm, and prototyped her piece with a MakerBot 3D printer. With 3D printing, designers now have the opportunity to create extraordinary pieces, challenging traditional fabrics and fashion craftsmanship.

Alexis Walsh is not the only designer to bring 3D printers into the fashion workplace. Back in 2011, Iris van Herpen debuted of one her first 3D printed pieces at Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week in her collection titled “Crystallization.” The black lace dress she designed had been developed by van Herpen’s own textile called TPU 92A-1, the first printable material that is both flexible, durable, and machine washable. That said, 3D printing has accelerated the possibilities for fashion. Rather than being custom-made, clothes are custom-printed.

The invention of 3D printing first appeared in 1983, when Charles “Chuck” Hull invented the first stereolithography machine, a printing process that enabled a 3D object to be created from digital data using a UV laser. Shortly after, in 1986, Hull patented the first stereolithography apparatus and one year later, in 1987, Carl Deckard patented the US Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) process.

3D printers operate using an additive process. While traditional manufacturers use a subtractive method to break material into products, 3D printers build a product up, layer by layer. After modeling an object or design on a digital software, an individual can send the file to the 3D printer. A laser source containing common materials like plastic, titanium, or resin, begins to draw out the base layers, solidifying the material as the laser begins to continuous draw layers.

With 3D printing comes many advantages. First, printing is cost-efficient compared to traditional manufacturing counterparts, as objects can be crafted at a fraction of the original cost. After investing in a 3D printer, the plastic material can cost as low as $3 to make a product. Second, the supply chain is greatly diminished. Rather than requiring the interaction between equipment makers, suppliers, prototypers, warehouses, and transportation, 3D printing simplifies the process to a digital-stored file that can upload data to a printer anywhere. Lastly, 3D printing provides a great medium for customization. For example, when designers Alexis Walsh and Iris van Herpen needed to adjust their measurements based on a model’s body, it was as simple as changing the increments on a digital file. Designers who invest in 3D printing can easily modify their garments through the 3D modeling software. This creates mass customization and a genuine connection between customers to a product that perfectly suits them as individuals.

However, it’s important not to immediately idolize 3D printers. While they have provided society with innovation, customization, and alternatives to the costly manufacturing process, 3D printers have been susceptible to abuse. Although 3D printing allows for mass customization, it struggles with mass production. Individuals cannot benefit from economies of scale with 3D printing. The time to produce and wait for the printer to design a product layer by layer is only acceptable for prototyping and small series, not for large scaling. The speed of printing depends on the speed of the printer-head extruding the raw material used.

There are also negative consequences to the environment caused by using 3D printers. According to Loughborough University, melting plastic through lasers by 3D printers consumes 50 to 100 times more electrical energy than injecting molding of the same item. Additionally, based on a 2013 study, printers that use a plastic filament can emit 20 billion ultrafine particles per minute. As a consequence, these particles can end up in the lungs and bloodstream, posing great risk to those with asthma.

Lastly, as the 3D printing industry grows, there are several legal risks that need to be addressed. For instance, if a helmet produced by a 3D printer reveals a flaw following an accident, who is to be blamed? The original model manufacturer or the printer manufacturer? With digital files, the line between who legally possesses data is thin. Through open-source 3D printing websites, intellectual data can easily be manipulated. With a click of a button, customers can download a company’s product file and adjust it.

The answer of whether 3D printers truly benefit society remains unclear. Several years ago, 25-year-old Cody Wilson became famous for producing the first 3D printed gun. After less than a year’s worth of work, Wilson was able to design and print a plastic, yet durable gun called “The Liberator”, easy enough to slip through metal detectors in public arenas. More so, his gun, which costs roughly $25 to print, is good for at least nine rounds. Before the US State Department took down the files, 100,000 people were able to download the digital file after Wilson uploaded it to the Internet. Instantly, this presents a controversial issue. According to the Bill of Rights, citizens have the rights to bear arms. However, should that allow for potentially deadly misuse of 3D printers?

Yet back at New York Fashion Week, designers like Alexis Walsh and Iris van Herpen have used 3D printers to design magnificent pieces that are idolized on the runway. This new technology disrupts supply chains and traditional fashion process. Within the fashion world, 3D printers have been praised for providing an alternative to the injustice and violence of manufacturing sweatshops. With great speed and affordability, models and customers have become one with their style. 3D printed garments can now be tailored to specific body types, praising individuality in the modern world. These extraordinary printers have created a new age of clothing.

It begs to ask the ultimate question: Are 3D printers fashion’s friend or deadly foe?