What Might Apparel Sourcing in the 3D-Printing Era Look Like?

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(photo credit: WGSN)

Wearing 3D-printed apparel is no longer a dream (see the pictures above)! But what is the implication of 3D-printing technology on apparel sourcing? Here is my personal vision:

First, 3D printing may create brand new T&A supply chains and business models. 1) Because 3D printing is highly technology and capital intensive with little input from low-skilled labor, it implies that developed countries rather than developing countries may enjoy the comparative advantage in manufacturing 3D-printed apparel. 2) Because apparel will be directly printed by machines, cross-the-border transportation can be largely reduced in the 3D printing era, generating potential cost-saving opportunities both for manufacturers and consumers. 3) 3D printing will empower consumers to more directly involve in the product development process. Yet given consumers’ limited technical knowledge and equipment, many new types of customer services ranging from design assistance to on-site apparel printing may emerge in the 3D printing era.

Second, 3D printing may result in a more sustainable T&A supply chain. 1) Because 3D printing is digital-based, it may help reduce waste during the product development process. 2) Because 3D printing is highly customized and can produce on-demand, it may result in less overproduction in the textile and apparel (T&A) industry. 3) 3D printing has the potential to be made by recycled material. 3D printed apparel itself may be recycled as well, resulting in almost zero carbon emission in the whole product life-cycle.

However, 3D printing my create new challenges for apparel sourcing. 1) When 3D printed apparel substitute traditionally-made apparel among ordinary consumers, demand for apparel sewing workers will be substantially reduced. Millions of unskilled or low-skilled workers currently employed in the T&A sector may have to find new jobs. 2) Workforce in the T&A industry may have to substantially update their knowledge structure in the 3D printing era. The T&A industry may even be short of talents for certain positions such as 3D printing designers and engineers. 3) The application of 3D printing will require an update of the current legal system to better address issues such as intellectual property right protection, consumer privacy protection and data security in a digital-based context.

What is your vision for the future of apparel sourcing in the 3D-printing era?

Sheng Lu


Author: Sheng Lu

Professor @ University of Delaware

12 thoughts on “What Might Apparel Sourcing in the 3D-Printing Era Look Like?”

  1. I think there will be some obstacles faced as businesses learn to adapt to this new technology. One of these obstacles will be transportation, figuring out how to get the product safely to the consumer. For example, how do you ship a 3D garment- it will need more protection than the traditional plastic packaging used for apparel. A solution for ensuring the garment’s safety could mean having to design a special type of packaging. Having specialized packaging would mean more waste, at least in comparison to the traditional apparel packaging. In regards to transportation, these 3D pieces cannot be easily folded like apparel made from fabric. By taking up more room in a vehicle, this could mean that less products can be shipped at one time. It almost seems like the most effective way to produce 3D apparel would be to have specialty stores that allow clients to customize the product in store and receive it at that location. This would put transportation on the customer and less need for heavily protective packaging.

  2. I think that we still have a very long way to go in terms of production of 3D-printed garments. I have seen some videos online about how some 3D printed garments are produced. The video was actually about the black dress in the second picture on this blog. In order to create the dress, hundreds of small interlocking pieces had to be printed separately and then attached together so the dress would be able to have fluidity and form to the body in a natural looking way. Until production of a full fluid garment is able to be achieved, I do not think that this method will become widespread.
    I am happy to hear that 3D printing is a sustainable process that may eliminate waste and over-production. But even though this is the case, it may be hard to produce 3D printed products quickly for retailers because of the complicated and complex nature of the production and it may also be hard for producers to scale up their production or change an aspect of the design at the retailers’/designers’ request. In all honesty, if this phenomenon does end up taking off, I actually do not think that it will be the force that eliminates jobs in manufacturing and production. I have a feeling that 3D printing of apparel and regular apparel production will almost become two separate industries and cater to completely different customers. I think that it could take off, but is more likely to be in the realm of high-end, custom designs and gear.

    1. good point raised! 3D material currently is one of the bottlenecks. But technology is also advancing in an amazing way. some 3d clothing actually can be printed directly–they use 4D design software to shrink the size of the clothing so that it can be printable as one single piece.

  3. I believe 3-D printing is an amazing accomplishment once perfected and updated in the years to come. I do not believe that this idea will make any head way with the T&A sector just yet due to the fact of the complexity and limited resources we have now. Being a fashion design major, it is always interesting to see what kinds of styles will come about in the years because, as a designer, you need to be able to stay up to date with the latest trends and fashion. 3-D printing will change the way designers design, basically, because now they can get really creative in ways that none of us thought possible with a regular sewing machine. Though this might be good for the future, there are some definite problems I feel with 3-D printing. As mentioned above, one of the ideas with 3-D printing is that it will empower consumers to be directly into the product development process, so does that mean designers will be a thing of the past. Our jobs as designers is to create new fashion and inspiration with clothing and product development with companies that if 3-D printing happens were consumers now create what they want, what will designers do? Another problem I see is that this will put people around the world out of a job because it will basically eliminate globalization (which is the main purpose of the class). If 3-D printing eliminates over the borders transportation and the need for textiles, then all the companies in the globalization chain of T&A will start to slowly go out of business until 3-D printing is the new T&A with no need for real textiles. At first, before I read this article, I thought 3-D printing would be an amazing feet for technology, and it is, but now I have seen that there are a lot of problems to take into account before 3-D takes the stage of T&A.

  4. Last year was the first year that I’ve ever seen a 3D printed object in person. It was a stick figure for kids, but I was amazed at how something like this could come from printing. It’s even more amazing that a full piece of clothing can come from printing ready-to-wear. I think in the future multiple fashion designers are going to take advantage of 3D printing because they can start creating pieces fully customized and right on demand. This new technology will also help with the overproduction of clothes because retailers should never have to oversupply and can get products made at a fast pace and put on their shelves if they ever have piece that is flying off the shelves in high demand. This article also pointed out that 3D printing can also use recycled material and I thought that was pretty cool because that will even further help not creating as much waste as the industry does. As far as the challenges of 3D printing, I definitely don’t think this will deplete jobs as much as we think. Yes, it will eliminate the need for sewers in THIS field, but I think regular production of clothing and the 3D printing way will be demanded separately because they will appeal to different customers. I know I would definitely like to eventually own a 3D printing piece of clothing, but depending the price point and the kind of fashion these pieces are, even though the production process is cool, it may not even appeal to me as a consumer, but hopefully we’ll see over the next couple of years where 3D printing has gone.

  5. The future of 3D printing is very unknown. Currently since it is so capital intensive, I think that it can almost be compared to Haute Couture in the sense that it is so rare. It can also be made for specific individuals, which is another aspect of Haute Couture. It also seems that most 3D clothing is lace-like, with holes. Will there eventually come a time when they make materials similar to cotton and jersey with a 3D printer? I am very interested in seeing how this process works. I have searched for some videos, but I can’t seem to find one that explains how 3D printing works. If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know.
    I could see 3D printing eventually replacing the traditional cut and sew methods. However, I would not expect this change until many years in the future. I think the technology is so new that it needs to be tested out in the next few years. It also seems that the apparel made by these 3D printers is not very Ready-To-Wear. Nothing that I have seen made by a 3D printer is causal enough to wear everyday. I think that the 3D printing industry must develop more casual clothing before it can replace the traditional apparel industry. However, if it does replace the traditional industry, this will be a problem. The traditional apparel industry is labor intensive, but not capital intensive, and 3D apparel is the opposite. If the traditional apparel industry is replaced it will leave the labor abundant, less developed countries without employment and income, which is very problematic for their economies.

  6. 3D printing is such a futuristic concept and it is so exciting that it is currently making its way into the Textile and Apparel industries. I feel that there is still a long way to go when it comes to every day consumers interacting with the design process of the garments, and I feel that it will be many years before 3D printing reaches that level. However, it will be interesting to see what point 3D printing reaches within the next couple of years. I feel that consumers won’t interact with the design process any time soon, but I do feel that it is extremely likely that designers will soon take advantage of these opportunities. These 3D printers could allow designers to quickly produce samples and would also allow alterations to be quickly made right there on the spot. It would most likely speed up the design process as well as allow for more designs and samples. Additionally, the fact that 3D printers would eliminate the risk of over production is very helpful in terms of sustainability as well as cost to producers, and it would allow for garments to be made according to demand. It is also wonderful that recycled materials could be used to print the garments, because that could eliminate that much extra waste from entering landfills. I have heard that the printing process can take a good bit of time, so I wonder if this would slow down production rates. It is concerning that these printers could lead to a loss of jobs for millions of people, but I feel that it will be many, many decades before 3D printing phases out the current production cycle as it is known today.

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