3D printing (3D printing) has an incredible potential to change the paradigm of the fashion industry, creating innovative, customised, sustainable, and recyclable garments. 3D printing offers promising alternatives to traditional textile manufacturing, enabling fast, flexible, decentralised production, accelerating the design process, and minimising transportation and costs for inventory, storage, and packaging.
The conventional textile industry annually emits 1.7 billion tonnes of CO2 in total and generates 2.1 billion tonnes of waste from disposed of clothing and off-cuts. Yet only 20% are actually recycled. 3D printing can make fashion more democratic, eco-friendly, and sustainable by bringing the production from overseas back to local communities, minimising the pollution, emissions, carbon footprint, and waste. 3D-printed clothes can be recycled back into liquid or powder and reused to print out new products.
Advanced 3D printing technology is now able to produce breathable, lightweight, flexible fabric-like materials with different levels of density and stiffness. It is increasingly used in the fashion industry by prominent designers, pioneering retailers, and startups to develop unique prototypes and customised clothes, apparel, shoes, and accessories. Material scientists from MIT have successfully set up the Ministry of Supply, engineering high-performing, comfortable apparel, elegant kinetic woman dresses and pants, composite men’s polos, and ultra-soft shirts. 3D-printed accessories with a special photochromic ink can even change colour when exposed to ultraviolet light, and the same ColorMod technology could eventually be used to create clothing with colour-changing properties.
3D printing utilises an automated additive manufacturing process of depositing material into successive layers to build a product inside a 3D printer without any additional tools.
The capability to build the entire product in a single print job achieves manufacturing complexity and product design diversity with minimum manual labour and assembly, resulting in a lower cost per part. The design sketch is created using digital 3D computer-aided design (CAD) software and divided into numerous horizontal layers.
Contrary to traditional subtractive manufacturing that wastes large amounts of materials cut to create the required shape, the 3D printing only needs 3D data files and printers to develop the garments and deposits exactly the right amount of material for each layer, minimising the waste. The materials used in the 3D printing fashion design can be made of natural or synthetic fibres, such as leathers, cotton, rayon, liquid polymers derived from natural latex, silicon, nylon, polyurethane, and Teflon.
The major 3D printing methods viable for fashion applications include stereolithography, selective laser sintering, selective laser melting, electron beam melting, fused deposition modelling, fused filament fabrication, PolyJet, and binder jetting.
SL uses an ultra-violet laser that draws a 2D path along the surface to cure and harden each individual layer of liquid plastic (photopolymer resin). It is then lowered into the surrounding resin bath followed by another fresh surface curing until all layers are bonded to form the product. The laser beam is able to scan as fast as 889 centimetres per second, and it takes on average only few hours to print a garment. This method is quite user-friendly as designers without much prior experience are able to create detailed high-quality pieces.
Materialise utilises the SL printer technology and Magics software to create unique, long, complex customised dresses used by the famous designers, including Iris van Herpen and Anouk Wipprecht, as well as celebrities like Lady Gaga.
The main drawback is that SL requires special support rafts to secure the product to the building platform during production that must be manually removed after printing. The surface must be smoothed by sanding after draft removal, which may slightly reduce the quality of the product. Another concern is the cost of the print material and a limited variety of colours. Smaller, less expensive and more flexible SL printers are being developed that can resolve these issues in the near future.
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
SLS is a rapid prototyping technique using high-powered lasers to fuse tiny particles of powdered materials from polymers, including nylon, titanium, aluminium, polystyrene, or glass and a powdered bed to support the printed product. A layer of plastic powder is spread over the machine base area uniformly, then a laser selectively fuses together successive fine plastic powder into layers. The remaining unsintered powder can be removed and reused again, which reduces the amount of wasted materials. Production is quite fast, typically just few hours per piece, as it does not require additional tooling. However, it currently does not produce the same high-quality surface finish as the SL.
Designers can utilise a wide variety of available materials to create highly functional, delicate, and durable products with SLS. It has been applied in various haute couture collections including the famous Voltage featuring soft flexible fabric-like material with multiple layers of thin, woven yarn-like lines made of thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU). Other effective methods similar to SLS include selective laser melting (SLM) where, instead of fusion, the powdered material is melted at very high temperatures and electron beam melting (EBM) that employs an electron beam as the power source.
Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM)
FDM uses a thermoplastic material with a melting point below 3000° C that is extruded from a temperature-controlled nozzle producing layers with a high degree of accuracy. The 3D object is designed with CAD software and imported as an STL file to the 3D printing software, then printed layer by layer under controlled temperatures. During the extrusion process, the solid material becomes semi-liquid, and each layer is stacked on top and fused with the previous layer, hardening immediately after dispersion and binding to the layer beneath it. FDM requires support rafts, which must be mechanically broken off or dissolved in detergent. Strong, flexible, glossy, lace-like fabrics are produced with soft PLA polymers. However, the temperature fluctuations during the production may affect the strength of bonds between the layers. Some lines may remain visible between the layers and temperature changes can cause delamination.
This method is widely used as it is quite affordable and various low-cost desktop printers are available on the market. For example, MakerBot’s Replicator Desktop 3D Printer can produce smooth paper-thin layers from biodegradable plant-based materials, enabling designers to adjust the product to the shape of the human body and create flexible joints for comfortable movement. This technology combined with artificial intelligence has created a new generation of customised ergonomic running shoes.
Photopolymer Phase Change Inkjets (PolyJet)
PolyJet provides alternative solutions to the challenges associated with the stereolithography technology. Also based on the use of photopolymers, it uses resins in cartridge form and applies a wide area inkjet head to cure fully each layer with a UV flood lamp after deposition. The machines are clean, quiet, and office-friendly, with less post-processing cleanup and waste. However, the maintenance costs can be relatively high, as the print heads are quite expensive and need to be replaced regularly.
This is the fastest 3D printing method that bonds single layers within seconds and does not require the support rafts. It is currently the only 3D printing technology able to print in multiple colours simultaneously using up to five colour inkjet heads. However, binder jetting prints weaker products sometimes with an uneven surface finish.
The 3D printing technology is remarkable for textile engineering due to its unique capability to produce finished, ready-to-wear recyclable clothes directly from raw materials in a single manufacturing operation. The industry experts believe this technology has a great potential for the textile industry and can reshape the global fashion supply chain, altering its geographic span and density within the next decades. However, 3D printing is still experimental and not yet mature enough to enter the mass production market and replace the traditional mainstream fashion production. It will continue to advance as the engineers, scientists, artists, and designers all over the world are working hard on developing new technological innovations to address the challenges and uncover new viable dimensions of the 3D printing application.