“3D printed clothing will take 5-20 years to mature, but it's not about being perfect,” said Mary Huang, who has created 3D printed bikinis and sandals. “It's so much better than what's been done for 100 years.”
She sketched out some of the opportunities and challenges ahead as the fashion industry lumbers into the digital age in a talk at the Designers of Things conference here.
“We live in the age of software, so why shouldn't fashion be digital?” said Huang, founder of the R&D company Continuum Fashion. “Clothes have been made by hand, a process that is representative of the last century.” The chief hurdles today are in manufacturing.
Huang helped develop a program that lets consumers create dresses using their own patterns. In a crowdfunded pilot program, a Google Glass evangelist used the program to design a Windows Vista dress. A Canadian painter designed a dress that blended into one of her paintings. Thousands of users created custom dress designs, but the problem was making them.
The software Huang helped create flattens the designs so they can be traced on material, cut out, and sewn. However, assembling the clothing was still a cumbersome manual process. “It took 40 hours to sew all those triangles.”
Early shoebox-sized 3D printers could not handle a dress. Even today the supported materials are very expensive and lack the feel of clothing fabrics. “A plastic dress is not that great, but a nylon bikini was OK,” said Huang of a series of designs Continuum created using a custom program for packing 3D cells of different sizes into a 3D printed fabric.
Next page: Not ready for prime time — yet
Today's clothes industry still relies on manual processes and high-volume production methods. The automated techniques that could replace them are still in their infancy and geared for other uses, Huang said. “3D printing is really cheap for mechanical engineering prototypes and really expensive for making consumer products. All the manufacturing behind this totally sucks.”
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