I come from a printing background, developed over time after graduation, where I was skilled in both design and PostScript — the language that produced digital designs on printers. It was the ’90s, where digital printing was in its infancy. Electronics for Imaging (EFI) was run on a DOS prompt, Tektronix used different color wax shapes as a way to place the colors into the printer, and Indigo had come onto the scene with the first commercial digital color printer.
For almost two decades I focused on digital printing or 2D printing on a flat object — typically ink on paper. It wasn’t until later, much later, that I learned about 3D printing and what I discovered is that 3D can be as disruptive to marketing and consumer applications as digital print was to the printing industry.
Digital printing was born in the ’30s with the first xerographic image by Chester Carlson, but it was decades later that Xerox made pop culture with a copier scene from 9 to 5 with Jane Fonda and Lilly Tomlin. Since then, digital print has been a disruptive technology. With digital print advances, commercial printers saw production runs get shorter as well as a host of new workflow and automation tools. Than with the rise of the internet and mobile technologies people, business and new startups further changed the way people think about print.
3D printing came to my attention in 2013 with Kickstarter’s 3D Doodle Pen (FYI: I backed the project and still own that pen). It is a consumer application that gained a lot of attention and raised over two million dollars in funds. While the 3D Doodle Pen isn’t considered an ISO 3D application, it’s been branded as a 3D printing pen and received a lot of hype at the time.
So, what is 3D printing? At its core, 3D printing is the act of layering, adding one layer on top of another. Some industry experts have suggested that the concept of ‘layering’ started a hundred years ago in Japan when blacksmiths experimented by laminating felt to steel to help cushion the horse’s feet. Today, the proper term is additive manufacturing — applying layers that build upon itself. ISO states “ Additive manufacturing is the general term for those technologies that based on a geometrical representation creates physical objects by successive addition of material. “
In the short years that pen has come to market, 3D printers have created new business models and marketplaces like Shapeways. Phil Reeves, Managing Director at Reeves Insight and formerly the Vice President of Strategic Consulting within Stratasys shared with me his thoughts. “ Additive manufacturing is not meant to replace existing technologies; it does not replace molding, or tooling. Brands can benefit from 3D production, by complimenting their current products with add-ons or by increasing the functionality and value of their product offering small production runs, allow flexibility to test markets and offer regional uniqueness to the current product, whilst increased product value allows for greater revenue opportunities.”
Similarities in the evolution of 2D and 3D
As I look back on how digital 2D printing has evolved and redefined commercial printing, there are many similarities with what can grow from 3D printing.
The success of digital printing could not have occurred without Adobe’s PostScript. PostScript is a language, independent of a printer, that enables a digital file to render on any printer. Adobe founders, John Warnock and Chuck Geschke, saw an opportunity to take what was once proprietary and make tools independent of all print technologies. It was that idea that founded Adobe and PostScript — the desktop publishing language we use today. The digital desktop software was 2D design, with design software like Aldus PageMaker, Quark, and later Adobe InDesign. Even Microsoft, with its Microsoft Publisher, was providing graphic design tools to millions of designers. Today Adobe is ubiquitous for all creatives in the digital design, publishing, audio and video space.
In the early noughts, digital publishing represented only a small portion of printers’ revenue. Over the decades digital print created entirely new markets for commercial printers — photobooks, cards/invitations, printed gifts (mugs, blankets, etc.). Over time new materials and technologies were introduced, and digital print began to represent a more significant portion of printers’ businesses. Companies shifted from xerographic to inkjet and substrates evolved to include thicker, textured, wood, ceramics, glass, textiles, and much more. It is rare today to find a printer who does not offer digital print services, and in many cases, digital print technology is the only technology the business may own. Today companies like Moo, Snapfish, Zazzle, and Vistaprint allow businesses and consumers to customize designs and print on a variety of material affordably.
As digital printing and desktop publishing tools were coming of age, so too was 3D printing. In 1983, Chuck Hall created the first 3D object and in 1984 filed for his patent on stereolithography (SLA). He quickly formed 3D Systems, the first 3D print manufacturing company, by 1987 3D Systems had commercialized 3D printer. The early 3D printers were costly and mostly used for prototyping in medical and transportation. 3D printing was confined to industries that could afford its high cost — automotive, aeronautics, NASA and life science. For example, the medical industry made history when surgeons used 3D printing to replicate a kidney and abdomen of a two-year old, to help surgeons plan for the complex surgery. Today, complex surgeries will typically use 3D printing as a tool to practice and prepare for intricate surgeries. Even with these innovative uses of 3D, the technology remains on in its primary industries and outside the scope of everyday consumer goods manufacturing applications.
3D finds its voice
One of the key challenges that the additive manufacturing market faces was primarily due to the limited forms in which 3D could be digitally communicated. Designers would use 2D design software and then plot to produce a 3D object. Just as Adobe was a game changer for digital printing, the development of CAD software helped 3D manufacturing find its voice. Companies like AutoCAD, SolidWorks, PTC Creo and others enabled industrial designers and engineers to design within a 3D space digitally by using the Standard Triangle Language or STereo L ithography (STL) language. Like Postscript that renders an image or graphic into dots or pixels, SLT uses the Tessellation concept of tiling a surface with various geometric shapes.
Like digital print, and companies like Shutterfly, 3D has made dramatic impacts to some industries. Consider the hearing aid market, one of the earliest industries to shift to full 3D manufacturing. Manually making hearing aids was a laborious process, hand molding each device. 3D printing made it easier and significantly faster to manufacture custom hearing aids that are smaller and more affordable. Or consider how automotive companies are embracing 3D printing for unique branded add-ons. BMW’s Mini Cooper uses 3D printing for many of its customized add-ons, like the side mirrors that clip on and show the infamous Union Jack branding. The Mini uses primary manufacturing for its vehicle but has smartly used 3D printing for consumer add-ons.
Initially adopted by the automotive industry, CAD has quickly expanded into fashion, footwear, and interior design. There are numerous 3D CAD solutions for the fashion, apparel and interior market. Companies like Browzwear, EFI Optitex, Fushion 3D, Rhino, and PointCarre make it easy for designer to work in 3D. These companies are introducing a new generation of fashion and footwear designers to the 3D world, and over the next decade, I foresee pleather of new applications and startups that will disrupt the industry similar to how digital print disrupted print.
3D Printing in Apparel
Today, the cost of a 3D printer is significantly lower, and the technology and materials continue to evolve, and each evolution is creating new leading-edge apparel, footwear and interior applications. The footwear industry has been experimenting with 3D for some time, and most major sneaker brands are looking into 3D manufacturing. When you consider the complexity in shoe manufacturing, it’s easy to see why.
Footwear uses rubber, leather, faux leather, knitting, and everything in-between. For decades the footwear manufacturing process remained unchanged. A typical shoe is made up of around fifty components. The upper of a sneaker is typically prepared with synthetic materials, rolled out and die stamped. The upper is cemented, lace hole punched, and people laboriously lace each sneaker. Anyone who has seen this process can attest to the amount of labor required to produce the footwear. They will also corroborate that this process has barely changed in the past century.
Similar to hearing aids, the prototype costs are expensive and with mounting pressure to reduce costs, innovate and speed time to market many footwear brands are collaborating with technology providers and their suppliers to find new ways to solve these historical problems. Many large athletic brands are moving to 3D for prototyping to remove costs. Today prototypes are still predominantly done in Asia. An initial prototype may be shipped to a product manager, but more often the product manager goes to Asia and spends weeks or even months refining the final prototype and tooling. 3D can be designed locally, with the prototype produced in less time than the flight, and without the jetlag. By having 3D near the development team, product managers can become agile. They can engage sales, marketing, and even consumers during development, and quickly integrate any feedback. Though prototyping is a way to speed development, some 3D innovations have been right in front of consumers’ noses.
Knitting machines are typically used for manufacturing sweaters, where the sleeves, front or back are knitted on devices that look like complex wide format printers, but instead of inkjet heads, they have yarns and needles. These machines have evolved from knitting in 2D to knitting in 3D by changing the algorithms and patterns, and these machines can now knit and weave sneaker-uppers. The uppers in many high-street sneakers are knitted; there are no shoelaces, and they slip on like booties, snuggly fitting your foot.
When it comes to 3D in footwear, the possibilities are endless. Consider sports cleats — which have to be made with a very specific plastic sole to provide the strength and support athletes require. There is no reason brands can’t create 3D printed cleat covers, branded for Arsenal or Manchester United. Companies could even offer 3D cleat covers for high-school, college or AAU sports teams. Athletic brands could regionalize their own footwear using 3D printing. Imagine 3D printing the heal component (which is separate from the upper sole) of Under Armour’s Hover High Top for specific regions and markets. This popular basketball shoe could be customized to support a particular NBA or college team. In many ways, 3D innovation can help footwear companies find inspiration from the fast-moving Consumer Goods industry and digital direct mail marketing campaigns.
3D’s core is still manufacturing, and new applications and materials will continue to come out to the market, creating a richer playground for brands to innovate. Last year, Stratasys, an industry leader in 3D, announced a metal 3D device. Aluminum, thought to be a low-cost raw material, can have expensive manufacturing costs to them. Brands could create unique accessories for apparel and footwear, unique zipper pulls, branded studs or design unique 3D buttons. Manufacture to demand, manufacture emblems for specific events or regions, or personalize the final product.
3D and Personalization
Looking back at the digital print revolution, what made this technology so versatile is how it enabled new applications and the personalization of products from holiday cards to gifts to personalized packaging. The recent Share A Coke Campaign took the most common names and printed short run labels. This highly successful campaign connected with consumers on a personal level and engaged them online, with consumers creating and posting their own social media content.
As the 3D printing market matures and more footwear and apparel brands start incorporating it into their manufacturing, there is an opportunity to learn from digital printing. Footwear brands could 3D print common names or even offer highly customized add-ons to their products similar to my Mini Cooper (FYI: big Mini fan). Nike and other brands offer design your own / custom-built sneakers on-line. 3D printing could be used to manufacture a custom component allowing consumers to personalize the product further. 3D is fascinating to watch, and many consumers have yet to see them in action. Adding these personalized 3D components can help merge the digital and physical worlds. Adidas or other brands can bring 3D printers into their visual merchandising, where consumers try on and pick their shoe in the store and the add ons are printed in store. It’s taking the Build-A-Bear model and bringing it to athletic sneakers.
Ryan Stanley, Senior Director of Color at PVH recently shared his thoughts. “ There is a general rule in manufacturing, and business that any innovation needs to provide, at the least, a comparable level to what has come before it — otherwise there is little incentive to implement. As new affordable Stereolithography Apparatus (SLA) (aka 3D printing), come to market, the cost of the consumables and ease of use diminishes. The ubiquity of designing in 3D will slowly take hold for different design modeling. I look forward to the future of manufacturing and coloration in this area.”
If brands are not ready to go that far, they can still experiment with 3D printing. The first step is to begin designing in 3D. They can partner with their PLM providers and start experimenting with prototyping. They can work with local plastic masterbatches in the US to help develop new polymers to support their brand and 3D technology. Manufacturing may happen in Asia Pacific, but development and innovation should be in-house, close to the development teams and protected under the brand.