Pondering Interplay of 3D Printing, Fashion and New Social Consciousness

One of the most active  companies on the new 3D printing scene today is Shapeways.  If you check out their Instagram on any given day,  you might catch a quick shot of model Coco Rocha stopping by their offices, behind-the-scenes with notable Dita Von Teese posing in a 3D printed dress or a preview of a printed piece of jewelry from designer Kimberly Ovitz.  I had the the opportunity to speak with Duann Scott at Shapeways recently in order to get a deeper understanding of 3D printing and its impact on fashion and how its philosophy just may be reflective of/complimentary my research on the rise of the individual voice in our society. Analog fabrication versus digital –  here’s a Q&A peek at part of our conversation:

LdC: I’m so excited to talk with you because I think what you are doing is really hot.  You seem to be bringing the 3D printing message to consumers that’s more hip, sexy and fashion-oriented rather than those who might be talking about printing guns, so I can’t wait to get into a few questions with you along the digi-socio perspective.  First, I’d love to ask you what you think about the fact that 3D printing is being heralded as a way to take customization to the next level.  Might you agree with this or do you think there is more to the story.  I kind of see the interest in customization to be indicative of more of this phenomenon leaning toward greater individual empowerment (and, of course, that enabled even further by today’s technology.)  What are your thoughts?

DS:  Absolutely.  In the short term, the customization thing is very, very strong; but what’s really valuable about 3D printing is that it’s empowering to make exactly what you want and what you need instead of having a mass produced item which is the lowest common denominator.  To design, modify and/or customize something, you get exactly what you want makes a strong statement about the self.

LdC: Completely agree.  I think, though, I’m a bit concerned about just who will be able to participate in this avenue of expression given price.  What would you say to price issues?  Will we see a have’s and have-not’s scenario here or not, Duann?

DS: Well, for the past 20 years 3D printing has been very exclusionary, but in the last several years the price has been steadily dropping since the patents are expiring.  You can actually buy a basic home version for about $300, so it’s going to be everyone at once as these patents keep expiring.  Cartridges of certain materials can be as low as $40 for three pounds.

LdC:  This is great to hear!  So, many people might say that this 3D printing will also further contribute to the democratization of design.  But how might professional designers themselves feel regarding such easy access. Will we need to re-think what we mean in terms of the words “ownership” – from a fashion and/or accessory design point of view?

DS:  This can get very complex regarding whether we’re talking about copyright, trademark, etc. because there are a number of differences between the legal parameters;  but as it might apply to the fashion industry I think it helps to look at it like, for example, Stella McCartney who makes various products at various price ranges based on the quality of the materials used and then H&M might copy even that at a lower price, so clearly something that is 3D printed is going to be a very different product from something of high quality that is indicative of the original.  So that’s number one.  In other situations,  say in printing an already-existing iPhone case, what we’re hoping is that the original designer obtains credit for their inspiration.  It’s similar to the music industry where there is the original track created and others are free to remix it and improve upon as they see fit.  In fact, one of Shapeways designers made something that a few people copied. He could have tried to take legal action, but he decided to see what would happen.  Turns out that someone who copied it offered it as a reward on Kickstarter and made a link back to the original.  What started happening was that people used that link to start buying the original.  So by not controlling it, he actually ended up generating more revenue. Most forward designers in fashion are seeing this as an opportunity.

LdC:  That’s a great little case study, there.  But I’m also wondering, given the ease and price point at which items can be created, might 3D printing encourage more “disposability” in our culture – a here today, toss it tomorrow point of view?

DS:  I don’t think so.  Once you can go into something tweak it, it has a meaning beyond it’s material costs because you’re a part of it.  There was a guy who was on holidays in Europe who met this girl and fell in love.  The girl had mentioned that she wanted this Swarvoski piece  but that was no longer available.  He decided to look everywhere – ebay, everything –  for it but couldn’t find it.  So he learned how to 3D model, he modeled its basic form, got 160 Swarovski crystals and glued them all in himself. He then sent it off to her back in the U.S., and he said that when he sent it off he said that he felt like he was giving away a piece of himself.  The thing is, there is value beyond just the product and the material.

LdC:  Oh my gosh, Duann, I’m going to have to get a tissue (LOL).  I love this because there seems to be such interesting psycho-social potential in the introduction of 3D printing to the masses.  But I’ve done a bit of homework, and I do have a bit of concern about one other thing (since I’m gluten-free, organic, etc, etc like so many other girls these days): apparently there might be some issue about the fact that the materials may not be what we call earth friendly.  ABS plastic being made of either oil or glass and something that could be potentially polluting…is this accurate or what is the actual story?

DS: Well, there have been a lot of materials used in 3D printing.   Currently there is either ABS, which is not the most friendly material in the world, or there is other material which is made from corn starch.  So this is totally biodegradable.  Currently we print in nylon, acrylic, sterling silver, stainless steel, ceramics, full color and variations of upon those.  Nylon is the most popular.  This is Nylon 12 which is the same nylon that is used in cosmetics so it’s relatively safe.  We also use blocks of powder, and it’s able to be recycled.  The process is not wasteful, the way that we do it.

LdC:  But there are other processes that are not as efficient, correct?

DS:  Correct.  What is actually important is that the manufacturers of 3D printers start creating more eco-friendly materials.  We don’t create them here at Shapeways, so we’re limited in what we can offer.  We want that as well.

LdC:So we should all be aware of the tech developments in this as they unfold.  Good to know!  In the meantime, what else can we look forward to from Shapeways?

DS: We’re looking forward to more materials and processes coming out so that people can make more innovative designs.  We also have a Shapeways API that will be available too because there is a lot more potential in that for designers to create deeper engagement.

LdC:  Well, from the Instagram shots, it seems the crew is always hard at work on something. Will definitely be watching for what comes down the pike next.  Continued success!!

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Take- Away:  Connect the dots here.  Given the fact that we’re seeing companies like Burberry offer “made for” name plates via digital orders and further support of customization via 3D printing, we are witnessing a greater shift toward the individual and that shift is facilitated by tech.  As top-down seems to no longer rule, watch for the re-definition of hierarchy to play out in interesting ways in the fashion-tech convergence.

Lauren deLisa Coleman


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