Rapid Prototyping & 3D Printing Challenges in Clothing World


In today’s fast-paced world, the idea of manufacturing clothes at home using 3D printing and rapid prototyping seems like something easily achievable, especially after 2010 when these machine prices began to decline. However, no matter how much technological progress we have made in this scene, there seem to be newer problems. 3D printed outfits could not be produced as fast as the companies would have liked, rather the patterns were rather slow and progressed stitch-by-stitch.

Scott Hudson, a Carnegie Mellon researcher who co-created the soft 3D printed materials with Disney maintains that textiles are an extremely well-developed technology. Referring to textiles as technology is not in any way exaggerated due to the fact that the loom is often considered to be an early computer. Joseph Marie Jacquard in the mid-1700s could store the designs of fabric on punch cards. This selected the pattern for a loom to weave those designs and hence, the process was automated.


The Rise and Rall of Electroloom

Electroloom is an ambitious startup that meant to address the rapid prototyping/3D printed apparel problem in the market. Co-founded by Aaron Rowley in 2013, the problem of not being fast enough was one of the challenges to overcome at Electroloom. In its first few days of inception, the company seemed to garner the attention of large fashion brands. However, most of them dropped out one by one and the entrepreneur’s hopes began to fade. Rowley reminisces the much hyped days of 3D printing and rapid prototyping by stating that there was actually a time when people were keen enough to want to print say, a spare hammer at the comfort of their homes.

These heady ideas were at the peak when Electroloom launched, hence clothing and apparel seemed to be the only natural extension of that thought. After all, clothing is the second basic need of humankind, plus it needed regular replenishing. However, the similarities that clothes had with tools ended right there. Rowley states that the process of manufacturing a fabric is radically different from that of making a solid product.


The Challenges

In spite of the progress of its predecessors, rapid prototyping and 3D printing did not have the benefit to attain an equal footing on refinement. Hudson explains that with 3D printing, one runs into a trade-off between robustness and stiffness. 3D printers happen to deposit melted plastic layer by layer on top of one another. These layers, when fusing together, make a pattern that is drastically different from traditional fibrous fabric.

The team over at Electroloom took the raw fabric components and produced blends that had a close resemblance to existing textile patterns. When they wanted to print their designs out, however, the 3D printer churned out a chaotic web of unwanted threads. In order to achieve the desired result, several iterations were needed. Even so, the foldable, lightweight and fibrous material could not withstand wear and tear; therefore it was not suitable to make clothes with.

Rowley explained that unlike woven material where the fibers are able to move and slide along one another, 3D printing results in physically bonded fibers that cannot move like that. Electroloom finally closed down in October 2016 after all these failed attempts.


Until The Problem is Solved

It is evident that the problem with rapid prototyping is a persistent one and it simply cannot replace conventional fabric anytime soon. The current outfits being made through 3D printing look more like art projects rather than comfortable, everyday wearing clothes. More avant-garde and experimental initiatives such as threeASFOUR are emerging in the fashion industry to create compelling and futuristic dresses. Even though the outfits are uncomfortable, they sure are making a huge statement at major fashion events all over the world.

Other apparel industries such as athletic wear and jewelry are making use of rapid prototyping and 3D printing with much greater, grander success. Sports gear giants Adidas and Nike are making use of rapid prototyping in order to manufacture high performing shoe soles and padding which are generally made with foam. Instead of the stiffness that conventional foam provides, these companies are replacing it with soles that would perfectly absorb the energy of the foot. The sole would adapt according to the pressure the wearer puts on them. The more the pressure, the stiffer it becomes and the less it is, the less stiff the sole will be. NASA has a project lined up which would feature a 3D printed chain mail material that would act as a protective suit of armor astronauts in the outer space.

We hope that not just astronauts, but regular people too can make use of 3D printed clothing in near future. Even though traditional clothing still relies on conventional manufacturing methods, a protective armor can be readily available for 3D printing at home.


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