3D printing has been described as nothing short of a new industrial revolution that holds potential for major innovation in terms of business models and consumption patterns. This technological development is part of the 4thindustrial revolution that is characterized by a range of new technologies fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all industries including luxury fashion.
3D printing has been specifically helped by advances in material science, digital design and on-demand production capabilities. There are three main technologies behind 3D printing. The most common is FDM (Fused Deposition Modelling), where a nozzle deposits layers of melted filaments one after the other at a temperature of around 200 degrees Celsius.
The science aside, is 3D printing a game changer that is disrupting luxury fashion the way e-commerce has disrupted retail businesses? What are the challenges it poses to the luxury business? What are its limitations? And how can the luxury business capitalize on its potential?
Challenges to the luxury business
Probably the biggest challenge that 3D printing poses to the luxury business is intellectual property (IP) infringement and counterfeiting. Luxury fashion greatly relies on IP to legally protect the creative ideas, designs and products of a designer or brand in the form of copyrights, trademarks or patents. Without IP protection, creativity and innovation would suffer, and there would be negligible brand value and customer loyalty. http://damnedgooddesign.com
With global imports of counterfeit goods already estimated to be worth $500 billion a year, it is likely 3D printing will only add to that figure. The growing threat of counterfeit 3D printing stems from the increasing availability of cheap 3D printers, printing materials and design specifications for items ranging from bags, apparel and jewellery. Countermeasures such as microchips in genuine items are possible solutions, but counterfeiting will remain a problem as long as there is market demand.
3D printing also challenges existing luxury retail models. With consumers able to play a more active role in the design and creation of their products, industry functions such as high-quality production chains, omni-channel retailing and that exclusive store experience have been called into question. Luxury brands risk losing significant market presence if these aspects of their business are curtailed.
Limitations of 3D printing
3D printing has not had a uniform impact on the luxury business. The technology is better suited to hard materials over soft ones, and geometrical over organic shapes. At present, 3D printing appears better suited for accessories such as jewellery, eyewear and watches. Even in the case of a high-end 3D printing jewellery studio like VOJD Studios in Berlin which works with the likes of Alexander McQueen and LOEWE, the finishing of 3D printed products entails precise manual work and traditional craftsmanship.
As for 3D printing at home, as novel and convenient as it might be, there are limits when it comes to luxury products. In today’s experience economy, 3D printing cannot replicate the experience of buying a luxury product in a store along with the opportunity to be part of a brand’s philosophy or appreciate its fine craftsmanship.
The evolution of materials for fabrics in 3D printing has been slow and there remains a trade-off between stiffness, robustness and comfort. Because the technology involves fusing layers of melted plastic one on top of another, a 3D printed fabric does not behave the way a woven textile adapts its shape to the body. At present, 3D printing for fabrics is unlikely to disrupt the luxury apparel segment, which is projected to grow from US$1.8 billion to $60.7 billion between 2015 and 2024.
Evolving fashion tapestry
That does not mean 3D printing should be written off. One brand that has managed to buck the trend is Danit Peleg, an Israeli company that has gained a following for its wearable designs. In Asia, Malaysian designer Melina Looi’sinvolvement in Asia’s first 3D printed fashion show could be the start of a new wave of fashion that embraces the technology in this region.
Rather than being blinded by the hype or dismissing it, luxury players should embrace 3D printing as part of an evolving fashion tapestry that allows them to innovate with new materials and designs, and create new concepts and processes to captivate sophisticated tastes. Luxury brands can harness 3D printing’s ability to customise products to appeal to the affluent customer who seeks to express her individuality.
Industry players also envision a trend of hybridization where 3D printing technology is coupled with traditional methods to produce hybrid creations that reflect the best of both worlds. In the age of disruption, the gradual rather than sudden induction of 3D printing into the fashion tapestry affords luxury brands the opportunity to shape it in their own image.