5 Ways 3D Printing is Making Fashion Design Sustainable

3d fabric

Believe it or not, 3D manufacturing has been the hottest buzzword in the fashion industry for the past few years. 

Before this, the traditional production cycle of shipping materials and goods back and forth (mostly overseas) has barely changed in the last century. Now, with the rapid development of 3D printing, eco-friendly fashion designers are gearing up for a revolution that could make producing fashion sustainable.

3D printed clothing and accessories made record appearances on the runways in 2014. Pringle of Scotland featured a laser sintered nylon technique for their fall 2014 collection. Victoria’s Secret collaborated with Swarovski and Shapeways to create flamboyant accessories for their show last year.

While 3D printing was initially identified with making plastic models, there have been significant strides in textile development with different fibers. Researchers as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have successfully used 3D CAD software and silk worms to print a dome. With a few adjustments, one could easily adapt the design to produce a finished dress. Knitting machines have already been able to knit fully finished sweaters, but a 3D printed process using silicone coated cotton yarn is being developed. Scientists may be the ones to dictate the next fashion trends.

So how can 3D printing nudge the fashion industry into sustainable fashion?

3d printed jewelry

1.Smaller carbon footprint

Fashion and accessories designers generally start their development process a year in advance of the product hitting the retail market. In that time, there are multiple product rounds and materials sourcing where the designer piles up samples from vendors.

3D printing allows much of the trial and error in product design to be worked out digitally before making the first sample. Deciding on the materials to be used ahead of time saves the mountain of vendor samples that inevitably end up in the garbage at the end of the season.

If you are a designer with your own 3D printer, producing your sample can be as hyper-local as your own studio. Otherwise, most 3D manufacturing companies are domestic. 3D printed patterns are pulled from digital files and the product is made from supplies onsite. Therefore the need to ship patterns or materials to your vendor is eliminated. Designers save shipping costs and their high heels. The planet is spared the carbon output of shipping trucks.

2. No production wastage

3D printing reduces a designer’s production minimum requirement to a count of one. It also allows a designer to produce custom pieces to fit individual customers. Your epic sci-fi couture fantasies can now be a locally printed reality.  This eliminates the cost and wastage of excess production to meet factory minimums. It also saves the space and storage needed to handle extra inventory or returned items that customers do not fit.

3D manufactured products only use the materials required for the product itself. This eliminates the yardage of cut fabrics or excess materials purchases.

3. Recycled materials can be used.

Materials currently being used for 3D printed fashion include everything from nylon filaments, plastics, metal and silk. There are already companies like EKOCYCLE founded by entertainer Will I. Am and Coco-Cola who are marketing the Cube 3-D printer intended for home users. Their cartridges use filament processed from discarded plastic soda bottles.

You can also make your own supplies with recycled materials. Michigan Technological University found that you can make your own printing filament from plastic milk jugs.  They realized that the DIY process for this also used less energy than traditional recycling methods.  Looking trashy can now be a compliment!

Companies like Shapeways offer metal choices like bronze and silver for their designers. Services that recycle and reuse metal products for 3D casting should soon be a popular option.

4. Biodegradable Materials

Bio plastics is a category of materials that is gaining momentum. There are several sources online that instruct developers on how make their own biodegradable supplies for production. The Shapeways blog has instructions online on how to “cook” your own bio plastics from a mixture of starch, glycerin, vinegar and water. While it might be difficult to sell the idea of starch based jewelry or clothing to fashion fans, there might be promising ideas in adapting this for beauty companies making 3D printed cosmetics.

5. Extending the life of existing products

The ability to print your own replacement buttons, manufacture an extra shoe heel or add more charms to jewelry is an opportunity for a new segment in the 3D printed fashion market.

Local printing companies can work with customers to create pieces that extend the life of existing wardrobe pieces by upcycling them with new embellishments or recreating missing parts.

Canadian company Alleles developed a stylish prosthetic limb from a 3D printed process to accessorize the fashion collection of designer label Vawk for their fall 2014 collection. This not only served a functional purpose, but offered a fashionable one for a customer to complement her wardrobe.

3D prosthetic limb
3D printed prosthetic limb at the Vawk 2014 fashion show

New 3D printed fashion techniques are being developed every day. As a designer and entrepreneur, 3D manufacturing offers benefits for cost, time and sustainable fashion that make it impossible not to consider as part of a modern business. Fashion thrives on innovation, and editors love any new reason to bring back the geek style trend. Let’s make 3 dimensional the new black!

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Mariana Leung

Designer, writer & photographer with almost 20 years in the fashion industry. NYC is my homegirl. Follow my fashion journey on MsFabulous.com