My recent examination of technology trends for 2012 emphasizes advancements in mobile communications and cloud computing as well as related developments in software applications, SaaS, social networking and crowdsourcing. As I was investigating these trends I came across several references that highlight 3D printing as a potential game changing technology for product manufacturing. For readers unfamiliar with this technology area, the 3D printing process begins with a CAD model of an object. This model is sliced into layers that are used to drive an “additive manufacturing” method in which materials are applied in corresponding layers by the printer to create the three dimensional entity. There is a selection of 3D printing methods in use today. These methods are summarized in the report “Could 3D Printing Change the World?” (Strategic Foresight Report, Atlantic Council, October 2011). Common methods of building of layers include:
- Extrusion of thermoplastic or wax material,
- Jetting of binder into a polymeric powder,
- Use of laser to melt metal or polymeric powder (laser sintering)
- Or use of UV laser to harden photosensitive polymer.
Some systems enable the use of more than one type of material and it’s also possible to create colored objects.
I think it’s important to note that 3D printing is not new. In fact, sources reference the use of the systems for rapid proto-typing as far back as the 1980’s. These systems have primarily been used in fields of industrial design and engineering for crafting parts that are then reproduced via more traditional manufacturing processes. Within the soft goods and fashion sectors, 3D printing has primarily been used to aid the development of footwear products and jewelry. For readers that are interested in learning more about the use of 3D printing for footwear, Adidas describes the benefits of the process for their product development strategy in a vendor published case study from 2010. Timberland’s use of 3D printing for product development is described in an earlier article (On the Job: 3D Printing Gives Footwear Company Leg Up on Competition, Cadalyst, Feb. 10th, 2006).
Why Should Readers be Interested in 3D Printing?
If 3D printing has been happening for some time, why is it being called out as an important trend for product manufacturers to be aware of? Even more importantly, since 3D printing appears to be a technology that has more relevance to other industries, why should participants in the cotton supply chain take note?
For starters, 3D printing is increasingly being explored as a technology solution for the manufacturing stage of products in addition to rapid proto-typing. Most attribute this shift to advancement in system capabilities and the ability to print materials that meet performance requirements for finished items. Innovators in the 3D printing area are also exploring the use of the technology for areas including fashion and textile related products. Check out the 3D Printed Bikini article in the technology reference area of this site. Additionally, have a look at some of the innovative products and concepts being developed by companies that specialize in 3D printing including Freedom of Creation (e.g. furniture, space dividers, bags, textiles) and Within (e.g. chain mail glove).
These companies are exploring the technology to create structures and shapes that are difficult or impossible to produce via traditional product manufacturing channels. In some cases the resulting products provide functional capabilities that could not be addressed by other means (e.g. medical implants and devices). In other instances, the focus is on aesthetics and/or reduction of material waste given the “additive” rather than “subtractive” approach to manufacturing.
The evolving price point of 3D Printers should also be noted. In the recent past, these systems have been fairly expensive to purchase. However, open source kits and lower cost solutions are now available. For example, the MakerBot Replicator, described as a personal 3D printer that sells for under $2000, recently won the Best of Show Award in the Emerging Tech category at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show. This is not the only low cost device on the market. Cube by 3D Systems was competing in the same class of product at CES and sells for under $1300. This price point opens the door for individuals to print at home. In the home setting the user can download CAD data for products and replacement parts or even design and manufacture their own products. Will it be possible to print cotton fiber at some point or jet a flexible binder that offers a nonwoven approach to cotton textile production? 3D Printing strategies involving layering paper and glue have already been explored and so it may be that printing cotton textiles is not so far fetched.
My primary goal in covering this topic is to point to a couple of themes. Just like developments in social business and crowdsourcing open the door for companies to think about communicating, innovating and developing products differently, the advancement of 3D printing inspires the textile supply chain to consider alternative strategies for manufacturing product. Specifically, how can our industry manufacture textile products via additive means? The recent announcement by Nike regarding the company’s Flyknit seamless running shoe upper is as great example of this kind of approach and it’s a concept that the company is positioning within their sustainability story as well.
Secondly, assuming continued development and growth in adoption, 3D printing provides an example of a technology that is paving the way for decentralization of product manufacturing. In the context of this theme, we should be asking ourselves, “Who will be the designers and producers of textile products in the future?” Just as digital printing is enabling a “Do it Yourself” approach to textile decoration, technologies such as 3D printing are putting design and production in the hands of individuals or in the hands of manufacturing resources with proximity to the consumer. This kind of technology also opens the door for crowdsourcing in regard to design content. Check out websites such as Cubify and Thingiverse as examples. Also refer back to Ponoko mentioned in a previous post.
Will this shift happen on a grand scale? Or will it be specific to product areas and industries? Time will tell and the answers will be determined in part by a variety of factors including the level and pace of technology development and adoption, desire for unique and personalized product among consumers, and a drive toward more sustainable manufacturing and product delivery strategies. While 3D printing may not be disrupting manufacturing methods and design strategies within the cotton textile supply chain today, the broader sphere of additive manufacturing is a technology area to watch. With that in mind, I will continue to look for developments and applications in this area that readers may find of interest.
I will be stepping away from general technology trends to examine systems and advancements that are a little closer to home. As always, we welcome your topic ideas, comments and insights!