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3D Printing, Copyright Nightmare or DIY Heaven?

  • Guest Contributor

Today, guest contributor Navaz Batliwalla, also known as Disneyrollergirl, explores the rise of 3D printing and its potential impact on fashion, courtesy of BON magazine.

LONDON, United Kingdom — Remember Maison Martin Margiela's L'Incognito sunglasses from 2008? Of course you do. A futuristic strip of dark polycarbonate that wrapped around the wearer's eyes like an identity-obscuring black bar, they were an instant sell-out and are now sought-after collectibles. I missed my chance to buy them and I've regretted it ever since. Everyone has their version of this story, from the limited-edition Nikes that got away to a coveted vintage bracelet that's now impossible to find. But in a fast-approaching future, you may be able to simply download a design file, the same way you might download an mp3, and '3D print' all the products you want.

‘Rapid manufacturing’ may be a more accurate name for this instant production process, but with a PC, the right software and a 3D printer, it’s now possible to produce your very own sunglasses, jewellery or bikini. Within hours. From your kitchen table.

The technology itself isn't completely new; for decades, industrial designers have been using it for fast, cheap prototyping. But 3D printing is now finding its way into the hands of consumers. "This trend has been emerging over the past three years, allowing consumers to adapt and create products themselves," says Lucie Greene, insight editor at lifestyle trends forecasting network LS:N Global, a division of the Future Laboratory.

3D printers work somewhat like regular printers. Instead of ink, however, these magical machines whir out micro layers of plastic, metal and even glass, in whatever shape the user dreams up. Indeed, it’s now possible to print the most intricate silver necklace as a single piece, with no assemblage required and very little waste.

“It’s incredibly satisfying for people to make their own products,” says Ruth Marshall-Johnson, lifestyle analyst and senior editor of the Think Tank directory at WGSN trend forecasters. “We’ve seen a huge embracing of social platforms that allow people to co-create designs and products, open-source service needs and ‘hack’ existing products,” adds Greene. “Product design has, effectively, been democratised.”

It seems that a new and relatively inexpensive 3D printer is born every minute — an entry-level PP3DP UP! Mini is only $900, for example — but there are limitations. Most hobbyist printers can only print with one material and the results can be clunky, meaning that your Margiela L’Incognito lookalikes might well end up looking more like a reject from a toy shop than a refined luxury accessory. Plus there’s the small matter of learning computer-aided design (CAD) skills.

But this is where online communities like Thingiverse and community-marketplace sites like Shapeways can help. These platforms let users upload and share digital designs with others — and, in the case of Shapeways, leverage on-demand printing centers to produce the products they order and have them delivered by mail only days later. Indeed, it's the growth of Kinko's-like 3D printing centers, more than individual 3D printers, that could make this a real consumer proposition.

Of course, the democratisation of the design and manufacturing process has serious implications for intellectual property and brand copyright. What happens if I see a Marni bracelet that I like but think I can improve on? Would I be breaking the law if I clone it using CAD, make a subtle change or two, and then print my own? And what happens when digital product design files are shared as routinely as music and video files? Indeed, brand owners may soon face the challenges associated with the widespread cloning of their products, as well as the proliferation of design blueprints themselves.

“Increased access to inexpensive 3D printing potentially presents a significant challenge to designers, as well as brand owners, a great degree of whose power resides in their control of manufacturing and distribution channels,” says Kenneth Mullen, a specialist in intellectual property law at Withers Worldwide. But along with potential threats, there are opportunities for brands brave enough to seek them. “In the near term, companies willing to embrace the technology will be able to open up new markets,” says Mullen.

3D printing technology can be used, not just to copy, but to create new, personalised products, extending what is currently possible with existing 'mass customisation' platforms such as Nike i-D and Burberry Bespoke. "It may be more about downloading a pattern from Prada and printing it in a colour or material you choose," says Marshall-Johnson. "I can see the more innovative brands working with 3D printing on marketing projects and one-off campaigns alongside their normal lines."

But the long-term implications of 3D printing could be much broader. Chris Norman, creator of Kraftwurx, a Texas-based marketplace and community for 3D printing, believes the technology will unleash a wave of entrepreneurial 'professional consumers.' On his site, I admire an $150 silver skeleton ring uploaded by 'Marco CM' that's as desirable as anything I might find on Net-a-Porter.

“There’s enormous interest in the DIY segment,” says Norman. “We call them ‘prosumers’ — people who have the skill set to make things and understand the technology. People are even playing with tools and technology to make things at home, in their garage.” In fact, soon software systems will allow just about anyone (with or without CAD skills) to be a product designer.

For professional ‘makers,’ jewellery and other accessories are currently amongst the easiest products to create. Architect and industrial designer Ron Arad first used 3D printing technology to produce laser-sintered jewellery that can be stretched into different shapes to suit the wearer. “We were the first to use this process, not just for prototyping, but to make consumer products,” says Arad. “With 3D printing we can take advantage of things that other materials can’t do.” This year Arad launched PQ Eyewear, a brand that offers a style of superheroic cat-eye sunglasses made from 3D printed nylon.

Shoe design is another area that's seeing momentum. Rem D. Koolhaas, creative director and co-founder of innovative footwear brand United Nude, is an industrial designer who is experimenting with the application of 3D printing in fashion. "For the Capriole shoe [made in collaboration with Dutch couturier Iris van Herpen] we printed the core of the curved heels, which were then manually laminated with carbon fibre for strength," says Koolhaas. "This allowed us to make an impossible shape work."

But what about bigger, more complex items? Is it possible to 3D print an entire outfit? Van Herpen, who shows in Paris during haute couture Week, creates mesh-like wearable sculptures with the help of architects and the creative division of a Belgian company called Materialise. In fact, van Herpen's dresses point to a possible future in which traditional pattern-cutting gives way to print-to-order polyamide gowns, moulded to the body's exact measurements.

However, 3D printing still has some way to go before it starts to impact everyday fashion. "It's hard for a designer to get their head around creating a garment entirely virtually. It's a bit like being an armourer," says London College of Fashion's Peter Hill, who manages the school's Fashion Digital Studio. "Also, at the moment, unless you've got an amazing machine, it's a struggle to produce a large object. And it's not easy to make adjustments. You have to print your piece out in order to see if it fits, so it's time-consuming and costly."

More immediately workable, perhaps, are 3D printed 'textiles' of the type being developed by Philip Delamore, director of LCF's Fashion Digital Studio, and designers Jenna Fizel and Mary Huang of Continuum Fashion. Their flexible loop-like materials resemble plastic chainmail or discs linked together, which, if nowhere near as flexible as woven fabrics, can be used for small, fun items such as Continuum's 3D bikinis.

“Currently, 3D printers can make a chainmail-like material relatively simply and quickly, but they’re not at the point of creating silk or a woven shirt,” says Lucie Greene. “This could happen soon, though, since the technology is developing rapidly.”

Navaz Batliwalla is a writer and blogger also known as Disneyrollergirl

The full version of this article appears in the current issue of BON magazine.

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The Business of Fashion

Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
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