Before your very eyes

“I would equate it with Gutenberg’s printing press revolution,” says Neri Oxman, architect and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. So, what is it that could possibly change life as much as the printing press?

Another printer, as it happens. A 3D printer, to be specific. First developed in the 1980s in the US, 3D printing has advanced rapidly since the early 2000s. The production method, also known as “additive manufacture”, allows users to create a 3D solid model from a digital file by adding layer upon layer of plastic or metal. Where once we relied on traditional subtractive techniques – in other words, drilling or cutting to create something – 3D prints can generate items as a single seamless piece.

Oxman says: “If you think about it, the printing press allowed everyone to print books – it democratised the printing of information. For the first time we could all print. Now, we can all make.” Indeed, by 2016, the 3D printing industry is predicted to be worth $3.1bn worldwide, with a large part of that sum expected to come from fashion.

Small forward-thinking fashion labels are already experimenting with the process. Continuum Fashion, a New York-start up founded by designers Jenna Fizel and Mary Huang, has created a 3D printed bikini touted as the world’s first piece of 3D printed “ready to wear”. The design is made up of white nylon discs snapped together without using thread. It also sells Strvct, a 3D printed shoe ($900) made from woven nylon.

Iris van Herpen A/W 2012

“As a designer you have to totally change your perspective,” says Iris van Herpen, who has been showing 3D printed, futuristic creations at Paris haute couture week since July 2011. “There are no seams or garment construction. You can go denser, lighter, flexible, sculptural, wider, smaller – and in any direction. You are, essentially, limitless. It’s an incredible prospect as a creative.”

Though, historically, 3D printing has only been available to manufacturers for rapid prototyping of parts for machines, toys, and components, the first affordable printers for domestic use have been coming to market in the past year. At last year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, New York start-up Makerbot made a splash with one of the earliest examples. The Replicator (£1,130) allows consumers to create small plastic figures in just 20 minutes (in October it produced an update, the Replicator 2). The design allows users to create anything from toys and gadgets to jewellery, and then watch their creations come to life before their eyes in plastic. The machine creates figures using extrusion technology, a process in which a thread of plastic is unravelled, melted and fed through a print head that creates the object by applying layer after layer at a rate of 40mm per second. Other, less advanced, models are also on the market for around $600 to $900.

This year office supplies retailer Staples is going to introduce the first consumer 3D printing service in-store. Launching in the Netherlands and Belgium first, consumers will be able to send Staples a computer-aided design (CAD) and collect the printed result in-store or when, as is hoped, the service is launched globally online, have it delivered.

“You’re able to create prototypes for designs that you just wouldn’t have been able to before,” says shoe designer Nicholas Kirkwood, who has been using 3D printing to create heels. “You used to be restricted by the mould, and getting pieces out, but with this process you can generate anything in any shape.”

Bec Astley Clarke, founder of online fine jewellery retailer Astley Clarke, says: “Our suppliers use it to create casts.”

3D printing has been embraced by creative personal order platforms., a 3D printing marketplace and community founded in Seattle in 2007, allows users to upload and share designs, adapt them, and then have them printed on demand. They can also trade their newly created wares.

“I can see us becoming 100 per cent mainstream,” says Pete Weijmarshausen, chief executive at the company. “One huge benefit of 3D printing, in respect to the production process, is the potential for avoiding waste. When brands produce collections it’s almost a guessing game. With 3D printing, the consumer is getting exactly what they want.” The company now has a membership base of 250,000 users.

“Brands could use it to enhance the in-store experience,” says James Wallman, editor of LS:N Global, the forecasting division of the Future Laboratory, a trends think-tank. “Burberry could invite customers to print their own personalised sunglasses designs and have them ready to go in minutes. The process would still be branded but it would invite the customer in.

“We’re seeing this whole change in the relationship between consumer and brand. Consumers want to be involved in the design process. They want a dialogue, rather than being dictated to.”

Lucie Greene is senior editor at Luxup

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