Slowly but surely, 3D printing is entering the fashion industry, and with its introduction is expanding the possibilities of modern design and creativity. Incorporated within the work of designers such as Iris Van Herpen and Francis Bitonti to pieces from large-name brands such as Nike and Adidas, this new technology is undoubtedly here to stay. It has also taken the manufacturing and medical industries by storm and is set to play a large part in the future of design thanks to government-funded schemes in schools and non-profit community centres all trying to help develop and nurture the impact of this new technology on the next generation of creators.

In essence, it is the process of turning a CAD (computer aided design) digital file into a three-dimensional object. This is done by creating and printing multiple layers using a chosen material, which changes dependant on what is required, and then adding all the layers together to create the final item.

So what is 3D printing and how does it work? In essence, it is the process of turning a CAD (computer aided design) digital file into a three-dimensional object. This is done by creating and printing multiple layers using a chosen material, which changes dependant on what is required, and then adding all the layers together to create the final item.

So clever is the construction that, when looking at the finished product, none of these layers can be seen. Of course, the results can vary through the size of the layers printed, the quality of the materials, the technology used and the time taken with the design. As in most things, there is always a trade-off between time, cost, and functionality when it comes to the finished item – but, to get the most out of this compromise, it is crucial to understand the technology’s capabilities and what the end product requires.

3D printed components don’t just have to be prototypes anymore and there are now as many printable materials as there are machines to print them with. Plastic printers take the majority of the headlines, and there are huge variations in the types of plastics that can be printed, each with its own benefits - but metal printers are now being focussed on in industrial circles, offering functional parts that, after minimal finishing, can be put straight into use. The medical industry is one of the leading fields in metal 3D printing, reaping the benefits of bespoke and hardwearing parts.

There are lots of opportunities to develop the future of design using 3D printing and the possibilities it presents. Given the proper support structures, new shapes can be created as a single piece, free spaces can be left to create extremely lightweight functional parts, and also reduce production costs by saving material.

There are lots of opportunities to develop the future of design using 3D printing and the possibilities it presents. Given the proper support structures, new shapes can be created as a single piece, free spaces can be left to create extremely lightweight functional parts, and also reduce production costs by saving material. Further food-for-thought is that it is now pretty easy to create a design with multiple materials or colours to change the parts mechanical and functional properties. 

For instance, electrically conductive circuits can be built directly into a piece using one single process. Companies such as Stratasys now offer a variety of printers that can complete a range of techniques, from fading one colour into another to create a gradient, to transferring from one type of rigid plastic to another more flexible one. This means a designer can create completely new designs that wouldn’t have been possible with conventional manufacturing techniques.

Recognising the future of 3D printing, in 2013, a £500,000 government fund was made available to let 60 teaching schools across the UK buy 3D printers and train teachers to use them effectively, in a hope to boost STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. Our current designers will need to stay competitive when the next wave of creators graduate, as these will no doubt be talents honed throughout the years.

In an ideal world, we could, of course, all get our own 3D printer and stumble through the learning process of what to do with it. The much-anticipated day where any house can have such a printer and anybody can print anything is just about upon us. But for most of us, the price of 3D printers means they are not financially viable - even for a budding designer. It would seem that at least for the near future, decent 3D printers will be restricted to service bureaus and larger companies.

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.
— Douglas Adams

That being said, there is a community that has already spread across the UK and is expanding to the rest of the world, in which an increasing number of - often non-profit - centres are being set up to cater for any budding tinkerers and creators. According to Hackerspaces.org, a free-for-all website to advertise projects and spaces from all over the world, there are over 1100 active centres globally, with hundreds more planned, allowing designers from any kind of background to have access to technology and processing techniques. These community-run locations, ranging from a bit of fun to full-blown community projects, are quickly becoming one of the most innovative ways to get to grips with new technology and stay ahead of the game, so may be the place to learn.

The world is a fast-moving sea of new technologies, processes and innovation - most of which we have little idea about, but the key is ultimately to learn in order to keep up with the competition. To quote Douglas Adams from his posthumous The Salmon of Doubt (2002), when describing our perception of new technology: “Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that's invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you're 35 is against the natural order of things.”

Words: Thomas Eddershaw

Image Source: Assembling 'Dita's Gown' by Francis Bitonti