3D printing in fashion is causing turmoil. 3D printers are well known in certain industries. They have been used to make quick and inexpensive prototypes for many years. In general the process involves making a digital model of an item using computer design software. Data from the digital model is fed to a 3D printer which then prints out the physical object.

3D Printing in Fashion

3D Printer

There are many different types of 3D printers. Most 3D printers deposit successive layers of material to build up an object. Think of a book being formed from hundreds of thin pages of paper, except each page can have its own unique, two dimensional shape. When all the layers are stacked and fused together, a three dimensional object is formed. This process can be used to form very complex objects from different kinds of material, including metal. The process has even been used to make material that is flexible and acts like fabric.

This “additive manufacturing” process can be much faster and much less expensive than removing material from a piece of material (“subtractive manufacturing” or “machining”). Additive manufacturing can also be faster and less expensive than molding processes because there is no need to make a mold.

In the last decade the cost of these 3D printers has dropped so much that small businesses and individuals can afford the basic models. If you want to use a more expensive printer, you don’t need to buy one. Printing shops are opening in many locations that will print your item for a fee.

3D Printing in Fashion

Recently the fashion industry has been adopting 3D printing technology. 3D printing has been used by designers to make clothing, jewelry and accessories. Some 3D printed items have even hit the runways of major fashion shows.

3D Print Fashion Accessory Necklace

3D Printed Necklace

3D printed clothing is not quite ready for mass consumption. The clothes tend to be a little uncomfortable or impractical. However, the technology is improving rapidly.

In an industry that strives to be cutting edge and push the limits, 3D printing offers great opportunity for designers. One of the benefits is that custom items can be produced efficiently. For example, 3D printing can be used to create a glove that is specifically designed to fit your hand or a shirt that is made to fit the precise shape of your body. If your feet are different sizes or shapes, why buy a pair of shoes that only fits one foot? Print out a perfectly fitting shoe for each foot. Software will be used to modify digital designs to fit your body’s dimensions. You simply measure your body, perhaps with a digital scanner, and the software sculpts the digital model appropriately.

3D printing also allows the end user to customize an item for their particular function or style. If you don’t like the size or location of the handle on a handbag, change it. If you want more or less bling on your bracelet, modify it.

3D printing will tend to decentralize the fashion industry. Instead of a few companies dominating a segment, anyone who has software and the skill to use it can offer a competing design. This competition will put pressure on the large labels.

3D Printing in Fashion

Printed Shoe by Z Corporation

3D printing will also bring about generic components that can be used with printed components. For example, watch manufactures will offer generic mechanisms that can be inserted into customized watch shells. Similarly, smart phone manufacturers will offer generic electronic components that can be inserted into custom printed cases.

Intellectual Property

Many intellectual property issues are being raised by 3D printers. For example, if a user wants to copy a product that is protected by a patent, trademark or copyright, the user may be able to find a digital model of the product online. After downloading the file, the user can print it out on his 3D printer. If the user cannot find a model of the product, the user may be able scan the product and make a digital model.

Because of the decentralized nature of 3D printing, it may be very difficult for intellectual property owners to enforce their rights. If an individual or small company infringes an intellectual property owner’s right, it will likely be very difficult to detect and prove the infringement. Even if the infringement is detected, it may be difficult to justify an infringement action. In many cases the cost of an infringement court case may be so high and the damages that can be recovered so small that an action would not make economic sense.

There are many parallels between the development of 3D printers and the development of digital media. The new technology promises many benefits to consumers; but current rights holders may suffer under the technology. Just as the music industry and copyright laws have adapted to digital media (somewhat), the fashion industry and intellectual property laws will be forced to adapt to the new technology.

The government could help intellectual property owners by providing for more fixed damages in the event of infringement. Providing for the award of significant damages, even if owners are not able to prove significant harm, may provide a sufficient deterrent to those who use 3D printing technology. The copyright law already provides for “statutory damages”, but these provisions could be strengthened and tailored to better suit 3D printing. Similar provisions could be provided in patent and trademark laws.