10 more ways 3D printing will change clothing
December 12, 2013
Charlie Stross had an interesting take on how 3D printing could affect the clothing, textile and garment industries. The comments are also pretty interesting. I have 10 thoughts to add (a month later – I’m slow):
- Health concerns could become a deal-killer. People are understandably nervous about what touches their skin all day. And new-fangled technology that could involve toxic materials or dyes, disintegrating materials, etc. could scare people off. Even if those technologies are safer than current clothing production processes, which people assume are okay, even if they’re not.
- Adoption will take a lot longer than we think. It requires an entire set of technologies that don’t exist yet. Charlie listed a bunch of those technical problems in his post. 3D printing woven fabric is only the first step to producing clothes people can and will wear. The technology could take decades to mature to commercial viability, and decades more before it becomes a player in the industry. Expect to see 3D printed cloth for more limited applications first (towels, work gloves, etc.)
- Clothing fabrication shops will exist, and could last a long while. If custom-sized clothing becomes a thing, clothing fab shops may turn out to be as durable and profitable as shoe stores. But these shops may not appear until the 23rd century. Seriously. The clothing producers could slow the introduction of the technology and raise the barriers to entry. If you doubt this, try to buy a car without involving a car dealership.
- People won’t make their own clothes at home. Fashion does not award the bold loners or amateurs. People want to conform when it comes to fashion and the barriers to entry to produce quality clothing will be high.
- Hand-stitched will become a hobby. Sure, it may survive for a while for very high-end clothes (suits, gowns, etc.) but probably not for long. It will become like sailmaking, cobbling and other outdated skills that are relegated to historical re-enactors.
- The textile industries will need less manual labor, and more brain labor. Manufacturing may become a matter of fashion sense, measurement, and creativity. The industry’s labor force may shift from mostly blue collar to mostly white collar. This will not bode well for unskilled labor, but then again, unskilled labor around the globe looks screwed in so many ways.
- Clothes will not become much better fitting. The one thing that won’t change is the human body and how gravity and local conditions affect clothing on those bodies. Clothes have to fit in a series of conditions and environments. This includes weight changes, sweating, temperature changes, getting dirty, having to get arms through sleeves and legs through waists, wear and tear, body irregularities, and fitting while standing up, sitting, prone and moving. The idea of spray-on clothing will not make much of a dent other than select situations (mainly involving public quasi-nudity).
- Prices will stay low. Because people are used to that. The manufacturers will have to do something pretty awesome to justify significantly higher prices for every day clothes. Pants that eliminate the need for underwear, shirts that can cool/heat to keep you comfortable, a game changer of that magnitude. And there’s no reason to think that current clothing production won’t reach those milestones first (much like 3D movies are keeping movie theaters afloat now).
- Textile production may not change. 3D printing may not be able to compete with cheap labor and existing fabrics. The textile industry is pretty nimble and already optimized. If 3D printing can’t beat existing low prices, it will fail. So it may fail for a very long time, especially if there are subsidies for existing, job-laden production methods.
- Footwear could change dramatically. Maybe a cousin to the clothing industry (socks seem to straddle both) but all the action could be here. Footwear is an area that cries out for customization and exact fitting. Currently, people who are petite or have other foot measurements one standard deviation from the mean don’t have many options. And advancements in orthopedic thinking may coincide with being able to print custom shoe pieces which could be assembled later. Everyone could have their own, highly-tailored orthotic shoes. And maybe socks will become obsolete as well.