The Genteel
August 22, 2014
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Shapeways' 3D printing process. Source: shapeways.com.
Dita Von Teese's 3D printed dress.
Source: thezoom.com.

The fashion and technology spheres were abuzz when Dita Von Teese wore the first fully articulated, Fibonacci-inspired 3D printed gown at New York's Ace Hotel in early March. The futuristic gown was designed by Michael Schmidt, rendered and coded for production by architect Francis Bitonti, then sent to Shapeways - a 3D printing marketplace and community - to produce the necessary 3,000 fully articulated joints in 17 mesh panels needed to assemble the gown. The 3D printed panels were then lacquered black, assembled and adorned with hand-applied Swarovski crystals.

Although 3D printed fashion has already appeared on the Paris runways, the gown designed by Schmidt and Bitonti is particularly special. It is form-fitting and flowing, as opposed to earlier models which were rigid and inflexible. In light of this feat, 3D printing - one of TIME magazine's top 50 inventions - is well on its way to being used by more designers, rather than being an intangible concept found in science fiction books or alternate universes.

The technology, also known as additive manufacturing, has been used in the engineering industry for about 25 years. "For a long time it was used for engineers, by engineers for prototyping new products that they would then mass produce," explained Peter Weijmarshausen, CEO of Shapeways, to The Creators Project.

People like Weijmarshausen saw the potential for 3D printing to reach an audience beyond the engineering community. Weijmarshausen explained, "[In 2007], we realised that we should use this amazing technology to give anyone access to manufacturing. Why don't we use the technology of these printers to make actual, final products?"

Through Shapeways' website, designers and enthusiasts can follow a series a steps - starting with an idea - and the company will take care of the actual 3D printing. Several factors must be kept in mind when creating 3D designs. For example, the design must be completely "watertight" (which means every surface of the model is closed) and manifold (or in layman's terms, the model is non-manifold if an edge is shared by more than two faces). The designs must be converted into 3D models before printing, which can be done through a variety of applications. Once the 3D model is sent to Shapeways, the company uses various 3D printers such as the Stratasys' FDM 400mcObject Eden 500 and EOS Formiga P100, according to the scale and material of the design.

If we can make technologies that can "grow" materials rather than subtract materials, then we can control a lot of elements in that growth process.

In an interview with Wired, Schmidt divulged, "The entire dress was designed on an iPad, refined over Skype, rendered digitally by Francis and sent to Shapeways for printing, an entirely virtual endeavor." With a variety of 3D projects under his belt, Bitoni was already familiar with the process of creating the necessary 3D model. He used design software Maya to create a 3D model of the dress according to Von Teese's measurements and Schmidt's original sketch. With Rhino software, he detailed approximately 3,000 independent, articulated joints that formed the body of the dress. The design and rendered data were then sent to Shapeways to produce the 3D mesh panels needed to construct the gown.

In order to physically construct the gown, a powdered form of nylon material was used. William Wagner, the Materials Product Lead of Shapeways, told The Genteel, "The nylon material is powdered because it is built particle-by-particle, layer-by-layer, so the finer your raw material the better detail you will get in the finished product. [...] Designs can be more complex because the 3D parts can be constructed in a sea of powder - it won't slump or fall over. This also means that interlocking parts like weaves that were used in the dress are possible."

Through a process called selective laser sintering, a laser hits a thin layer of powdered nylon which bring it to a liquid state. The liquid state cools into to a solid state, forming the first layer of the design. Another layer of powdered nylon is then deposited over the previous layer and "sintered" by the laser, forming a subsequent layer. This process is repeated, layer by layer until the design is completed. In the case of Schmidt's and Bitonti's design, 17 mesh 3D panels had to be created separately before they were linked and assembled to form the gown.

New Balance's 3D printed shoes. Source: adafruit.com.

Despite the acclaim Schmidt and Bitonti have received for the gown, other designers have already been working with the technology. Neri Oxman, a design professor at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and her team held a show called, Imaginary Beings: Mythologies Of The Not Yet, which featured 18 Stratasys 3D printed prototypes that were put on display at Paris' Centre Pompidou. In the show, Oxman designed 3D clothing that was inspired by mythological creatures from Jorge Luis Borges' The Book of Imaginary Beings (1957). The problem was that the designs were rigid, stiff and not all wearable.

Oxman soon collaborated with Dutch designer Iris van Hepern, who had already been working with the 3D printing technology, and focused on movement and wearability. Van Hepern's latest collection for Paris Fashion Week, Hybrid Holism, featured two 3D printed ensembles created with the help of Austrian architect Julia Koerner and the Belgium-based printing firm Materialise.

The sportswear company, New Balance, recently came out with a 3D printed shoe, using the selective laser sintering process, which can offer a custom fit - perfect for running races. Jewellery, home décor and gadget accessories are also popular products created through 3D printing.

Iris Van Herpen's 3D printed dress.
Source: materialise.com.

3D printing is considered the next frontier for fashion design because of the possibilities it offers for designers everywhere. It could change the way fashion is produced and manufactured because aspects of design, such as cutting and sewing, could be removed from the equation. The materials to construct garments could also modified, because garments would not be constructed with traditional woven fabrics or knits. 

Oxman explained in an interview with Object, "If we can make technologies that can "grow" materials rather than subtract materials, then we can control a lot of elements in that growth process. We can control composition and by controlling material composition, we can compute various functions into the same materials."

There is also an environmentally conscious aspect to 3D printing. Materials used to create the designs have the potential to be recycled. For example, "Nylon is a very inert plastic and it can be re-used in this process over and over again. We actually use about 50 per cent recycled nylon in all our parts," Wagner explained. If and when 3D printers are eventually available at home, industrial designer Joshua Harris believes, "Such a contraption would eliminate shipping. Unwanted garments can be returned to the unit to be cleaned, broken down, and recycled, eliminating waste."

If knowledgeable about the process (and with a hefty wallet), one can buy his or her own 3D printer. They're costly, but some believe that improvements in the technology and materials will allow the prices to drop to under $2,000 by 2016, making the at-home 3D printer even more available to not only other industries, but to the masses. Materials like powdered nylon can easily be found on the internet, as are tutorials on 3D modelling. Before we know it, we may be able to have a garment designed with a specific fit and aesthetic, through a simple push of a button - in the comfort of our own homes.

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