Step into a scanner, select the fabric and design of your choice and press print – voilà, here is your new suit. If you think this scenario is just a tad too futuristic, you may be right, but researchers and designers around the globe are working on making printed garments a reality.

Is this the future of fashion? Step into a scanner, select the fabric, color, and design of your choice and press print – voilà, here is your new suit. Perfectly tailored to your size and taste. If you think this scenario is just a tad too futuristic, you may be right, but researchers and designers around the globe are working on making printed garments a reality.

A group of researchers from the Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences in Germany have recently achieved a breakthrough in additive textile manufacturing by 3D printing weft knitted structures. “It was important to me that the single strings and knitted stiches didn’t melt into each other but could still move independently, as they do in real knitted fabrics”, says Rimma Melnikova, lead author of the paper “3D printing of textile-based structures by Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) with different polymer materials”, in which the new method is described.

BendLay

The weft knitted structures were realized using selective laser sintering (SLS) with a firm nylon powder. The SLS method allows printing very delicate structures. The drawback: The fabrics are not as soft as real textiles yet. “The models are proof-of-principle rather than real wearable textiles”, says Melnikova.

In a different experiment, the scientists used fused deposition modeling (FDM) but it turned out that FDM-technology was not well suited to imitate classic textiles without a support structure.  When they used soft PLA with FDM, the result was much more promising. The stiches were separated in most cases and the material was more flexible than the one produced by SLS technology.

layers

structure

The researchers also experimented with FDM-printed lace-like structures with surprisingly good results. The fact that the filament can be applied in single strings proved to be an advantage. The scientists used the FDM printer X400 made by German RepRap and used a combination of PLA soft and BendLay.

They also tested a new filament, LAY-TEKKKS, which consists of two components and is a hard filament that can be softened by placing it in warm water after the printing process so that the hard part of the material is dissolved and the softer, more pliable material remains. The SLS-models were printed by the printing service provider Shapeways with the material “White, Strong & Flexible” (nylon).

Laytekks

For Melnikova, the appeal of experimenting with textile 3D printing lies in developing new ways of producing fabrics and in creating new fabrics that were impossible to make with traditional production methods. She sees the greatest potential in 3D printing’s ability to shorten the production process. The step of producing yard ware could be skipped altogether and cutting and fitting may also become obsolete. This would shrink production times and eliminate the need for transport, which, in turn, could significantly lower costs.

High-fashion designers such as Iris van Herpen and Bradley Rothenberg have already presented their 3D creations at fashion shows in Paris and New York. They are fascinated by the myriad of creative possibilities the new medium offers. So far, however, the dresses are stunning to watch but not very comfortable to wear. The most common materials used in 3D printing were made for technical applications in the automotive and aerospace industries and not for everyday wear.

Shrinkwrap

Asked whether she believes that 3D printing will replace the traditional textile industry, Melnikova stated that she deems it not very likely. “The technologies are really too different”, she says. “But maybe we don’t have to replicate traditional fabrics but instead develop new ones – and this is where 3D printing offers great opportunities”.

Original Paper:
R. Melnikova, A. Ehrmann, K. Finsterbusch
3D printing of textile-based structures by Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) with different polymer materials
IOP Conf. Ser.: Mater. Sci. Eng. 62, 012018 (2014)

Article photo: Victoria Secret by Bradley Rothenberg