Though there are a smattering of emerging brands keen on experimenting with 3D printing, the rising technology remains an untapped production method for most large retailers and established brands.
Despite business benefits to using printers — including reduced waste and more room for product personalization — there are several barriers to implementing the technology. 3D design company founders cited a number of factors, including the upfront cost of machinery, and the need to acquire new talent, enact extensive employee training and essentially overhaul production. On the design side alone, 3D printing design operates very differently from traditional sketching and illustrating, and requires an extensive knowledge of the manufacturing process.
For example, in advance of installing the 3D printer that now operates from within Ministry of Supply’s Boston store, the company had to shut down Newbury Street, the city’s retail haven, and hire a crane to position the machine into the shop. Though implementing the printer was a bit of a financial and logistical burden, Ministry of Supply co-founder and president Gihan Amarasiriwardena said it’s been essential to educating consumers about 3D knit printing. Having the opportunity to see the machine in action helps alleviate uncertainty about a production method that still feels remarkably futuristic, Amarasiriwardena said, while giving consumers a more active role in the design process.
“That’s something that’s been really eye-opening about having the machine in-store, where people can have a closer relationship to the products,” he said, noting the company intends for 25 percent of its products to be made using 3D digital knitting processes by 2019. “It’s like watching a bartender make a drink in front of you, or an open kitchen preparing your meal.”
Veronika Harbick — founder of Thursday Finest, a company specializing in 3D-printed items like socks and men’s ties — echoed Amarasiriwardena and said the biggest barrier for larger brands to begin using 3D printing at scale is the manpower needed. Harbick also uses 3D knit printing, or “green knitting,” as she calls it, but said implementing printing requires changing a company’s mindset to an on-demand production model, which most mass retailers are not designed for.
“Unless brands are manufacturing in-house, or they give manufacturers a financial incentive to take it on, it’s going to take some time,” she said. “The expertise in this field is really small. Finding programmers is difficult.”
However, there are some indications that 3D printing might have legs in mass retail. Earlier this year, Adidas announced it would produce 100,000 pairs of its new Futurecraft sneaker by the end of 2018, the brand’s first foray into mass-produced 3D-printed styles. To produce the shoes, Adidas is partnering with Silicon Valley–based company Carbon, which uses a process called continuous liquid interface production to develop the product.
“People want to buy something that’s 3D-printed before anybody else can — not just because it’s technologically advanced, but because they feel they’re actually spending their money on something that’s buying a piece of the future,” James Carnes, vp of strategy creation at Adidas, told Glossy in a previous interview.
Aimee Moyer — e-commerce manager at Shapeways, a 3D printing service and marketplace — said ultimately, she foresees there will be an urgency among larger retailers to use 3D printing as sustainability becomes a priority. Fashion still remains the second largest polluting industry in the world after oil, and traditional cut-and-sew models of production waste an average of 35 percent of the fabric. Though 3D printers rely on electricity, they greatly reduce fabric waste.
“The more we see people adhering to green, eco-friendly purchasing behavior, as well as this obsession to have personalized, customized unique pieces, the more that larger retailers twill take advantage of these one-off pieces,” Moyer said.