In the same way that wearables have been buzzing around the headlines at various levels of expertise, depths of analysis and niche-ness, 3D printing has been developing in parallel, gaining ground in the media and advancing technologically. Although still experimental, limited in capabilities (super slow, and high density), the process is constantly improving, and in many industries it is already an obviously integral part of the future. In fashion, the relevance of the technology is clear, so the outlying issues become questions of commercialization and copyright laws.
As we learned from Napster in the music industry, once a commodity is digitized, it's easy to copy and share (i.e. pirate) and the same could be easily applied to any kind of product sold in code format for download.
Personal musing: What if you can plant a bug in the code, where if it's copied, it will print out with "I am a pirater" printed across it? Or the Lulu Guinness lips handbag (which I reported here she would love to start with, experimenting with distribution through 3D printing) doesn't open? Brands could come up with any number of tongue-in-cheek–or more serious–ways to use code in deterring consumers from stealing code.
Soft materials cannot yet be printed, so for fashion 3D printing is only for explorative, structural products. This means that accessory designers will continue to lead the adoption of the technology, while Iris Van Herpen, who creates entire garments for great Wow factor at her runway shows, remains a singular pioneer of 3D printing garments (a couple of other lesser known names share the space). And besides the celebs who will brave the red carpet in one of the sculptural designs, the salability of the pieces, and thus the scalability, waits for us in the future.
Aside from the not-there-yet commercialization of the end product, there is also a question of the commercialization of the printers themselves. Will we all have one in our homes? Or will there be print shops, like Kinkos, where you can send your code and get a notification when it's ready for you to pick up?
The possibility of personalization is also an exciting aspect. While I believe in the authority of the designer, so modifications in style are not something I encourage, fit is a place where customization is transformational. In garments as well as in shoes, imagine if we weren't limited to standardized sizes, but instead we were all just the size that we are, with our unique bodies and unique the foot shape. 3D printing could enable this kind of production, and that is a beautiful thing.
Finally, it demands an understanding of the technology in the design team to be able to explore the posibilities. Is this something that fashion designers will exploit? Will design teams soon be hiring programmers? Will styles be developed, like chez Herpen, solely for the 3D printing format? Or will the printers only be used as an alternate means of distribution for an article that is prototyped and manufactured through more traditional methods?
You can find a lot about the future of fashion and technology (see here, here and here) on the blog, but I've largely neglected the subject of 3D printing until now. It's a space I'll be watching more closely, so keep checking back for more analysis and updates on the amazing & innovative (or not so successful) applications and developments.
In the meantime, here's a brief digest of reading on 3D printing if you're behind on the game:
"Royal Ascot: 3D printed hat from poetry and plastic" The Telegraph