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Materialise: How 3D printing will bring flexibility to the fashion industry

By Weixin Zha


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What do high fashion and shoe soles have in common? Well, they’re both areas in which 3D printing has made the biggest leaps and bounds in the fashion world.

These days, it seems like the hype around 3D printing may have fizzled out a little. One day we may be able to print a T-shirt or blouse from the comfort of our own home, but for now, that reality probably remains a distant vision. So what does the future hold for 3D printing tech in fashion?

To find out more about what’s possible today and in the near-term, FashionUnited spoke with Valérie Vriamont, business developer and innovation consultant at 3D-printing company Materialise. Founded in 1990, the Belgian company has worked with designer Julia Koerner on an intricate 3D-printed shoulder mantle and crown worn by Queen Ramonda in the movie Black Panther - a film that won this year’s Academy Award for Best Costume.

3D printing has been quite a buzzword in fashion, but it’s also a complex technology. What are the most common misconceptions?

When we’re talking about high-end fashion designers, they often misunderstand the level of knowhow that’s needed to use the freedom of design that 3D printing offers. By changing your design, you can also alter your material properties. A material that might seem very stiff when you look at the material data sheet might become very flexible when you use the design properly.

When we’re talking about products for the mass market, a lot of brands still have to be convinced that 3D printing can achieve the aesthetics needed to be desirable and that it can be used to produce in big amounts in a qualitatively consistent and affordable way.

How does 3D printing help fashion companies that are producing for the mass market?

In the commercial area, we’re specialised in wearables. Brands with classic collections benefit from a digital manufacturing process. 3D printing allows them to adapt to trends continuously. Every time a brand wants to slightly adapt their eyewear because of a trend, the digital file immediately allows it. The added value is not only the agility to adapt design but also the possibility to have just-in-time inventory with no risk of stock. Traditional manufacturing technologies require high levels of stock; With 3D printing, you just produce what is ordered.

Picture: Cabrio Collection by Hoet

How long does it take to print a piece of eyewear?

In the commercial field, it can be 5 to 10 days for eyewear. It’s hard to specify how many at the same time, but we’re speaking about large amounts. For the brands we’re working with, we see that their share of eyewear produced using 3D is increasing compared with other methods.

Which technologies within the field of 3D printing should we be aware of?

For eyewear, selective laser sintering and polyamide powder are the technology and material to go as they enable the production of goods that are compliant with the aesthetic and qualitative requirements of the market. On the commercial side, it’s important to have a durable material that can be worn over time. So there, the focus is very much on laser sintering. Laser sintering offers you design freedom because it’s powder-based but at the same time we’re able to finish laser sintering at a very high quality. We’re producing eyewear that won’t change after 2 or 3 years and won’t break when you drop it.

You have worked with designers like Iris van Herpen in the past. Could you name some of the most groundbreaking 3D printing projects in the area of high fashion for Materialise?

We have several projects. Our most recent one was with Julia Koerner. It was a very interesting project as Julia fully understands the potential of 3D printing. She is actually able to make materials more flexible using well-designed 3D structures.

What benefits does 3D technology bring to high fashion?

You can create shapes that you really couldn’t create with other technologies. There are designers who work in a very organic or in a very sculptural-static way in 3D, but again with volume. It’s about all the creativity that they can translate due to the freedom of design.

Materialise has also worked on shoe soles with companies such as Adidas and Phits. Why should we use 3D printing for soles?

You can have enhanced functionality. Data is used to see where you need more strength and our structures can provide that strength. You can also go a step further, where the technology enables personalisation. Your feet will be scanned while you move and then the scan used with a software which creates a custom printed insole. Nowadays, insoles mostly still use a static imprint.

Picture: 3D-printed insole

What’s the next step for Materialise?

The focus now is on materials, that’s why we started a strategic partnership with BASF. The R&D department at Materialise is always looking at new materials, looks and feels. The focus has increasingly been on the development of high-end finishes as the product has to appeal aesthetically. That’s equally important in printing. When you’re dealing with end consumers, they expect diversity; they expect you to evolve with the trends. That’s what we are doing.

What’s next for 3D printing in fashion?

We will see more and more applications in the commercial area because digital technology offers you manufacturing flexibility and brands are starting to understand it. Technology is developing, so it’s only a matter of time until 3D printing will be broadly adopted by a number of industries.

How can we already see this trend today?

There is a very interesting dynamic going on in the industry. The number of material and machine suppliers has been very limited but the last couple of years have seen a lot of new entrants. I think it will evolve much faster than in the last 20 to 30 years. Now, both machine manufacturers and material suppliers see the potential markets in 3D printing and are willing to invest and develop new materials. It’s not a coincidence that BASF, which is active in the bulk production of raw materials, is interested in the development of 3D printing materials.People understand and see the potentia of this market. There will be a lot of evolution in this market at a much faster rate than observed in the last few years.

Will 3D printing revolutionise the fashion industry?

It’s bold to say that it’s going to revolutionise the whole industry but, yes, it will bring a lot of flexibility, which is demanded by the end customer. End consumers want new things quickly and they want sustainable things quickly. Brands and fashion companies are pressured by the market and need to find flexible yet sustainable technologies. So the role of 3D printing in commercial fashionable products will only become bigger.

Picture: 3D-printed statement piece designed by Julia Koerner

Pictures: Materialise; Homepage picture: © Matt Kenneda/Marvel Studios 2018 - Costume Design Ruth Carter

3D printing
High Fashion
julia koerner