3D printing technology makes the move from lab to catwalk

2 Jul 2013

The dress created using 3D printing technology that debuted at Paris Fashion Week for Haute Couture. Credit: Materialise

3D printing technology would appear to be the buzzword of the year, with prototypes of the technology already used in the medical, design and automotive spaces. But could advances in 3D technology allow it to materialise in fashion and create European jobs?

Perhaps one day. That’s because one Dutch fashion designer, Iris van Herpen, yesterday unveiled a dress at Paris Fashion Week for Haute Couture that was created using 3D printing technology from Belgian company Materialise.

Supported by EU funding, Materialise created the design using a new application of the technology. Materialise is already pioneering additive manufacturing (AM) software and solutions, more commonly known as 3D printing. The company has grown in size from a university spin-off to a multinational, thanks in part to EU research funding.

Sven Hermans, account manager for Materialise, said the company worked with van Herpen to produce a hybrid creation incorporating what he called “unique, transparent bone-like structures” produced with “mammoth stereolithography”.

“Thanks to 3D printing, the dresses are seamless and made to measure. It is exciting working with Iris van Herpen to bring her complex geometrical designs to life,” said Hermans. “3D printing does what no other form of clothing manufacture can do when complex shapes need to be created quickly and as one piece.”

In the design studio

So, how did they go about designing the dress?

According to Materialise, the design was first created on a computer in collaboration with Isaie Bloch, a Belgian architect and CG artist, before being optimised for 3D printing using Materialise software.

At this point, flaws or obstacles were fixed before work continued and the design was sent to the printer.

The dress design was then brought to life using mammoth stereolithography, an additive manufacturing technique that creates objects layer by layer.

UV lasers scanned the design into a liquid resin that hardens wherever the laser hits and the 3D object gradually came to life, Hermans said.

Materialise supported by EU – already working in med-tech innovation

Materialise started off as a university project focused on rapid prototyping applications. As the company evolved, it began providing surgeons with models of their patients’ anatomy after performing CT or MR scans and transforming that information into printable models.

According to the company, the models have improved both diagnosis and surgical planning. They have also been used as masters for surgical implants or prostheses.

Through ongoing research and a strong focus on innovation, the applications of the technology have continued to evolve and diversify. Today, Materialise’s technology is accessible to the medical, automotive, design and consumer market segments.

The company now employs almost 900 people.

Wilfried Vancraen, founder and CEO of Materialise, said the company would never have become what it is without European backing.

“It gave a small company the chance to do longer-term development,” he said.

Applications for 3D printing

3D printing has become an important prototyping technology, producing one-off models of newly designed products. The technology was also recently used at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, Italy, for its production of the opera Madame Butterfly from the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini. This recent version of Madame Butterfly was staged by the contemporary Japanese artist Mariko Mori.

Joris Debo, creative director at Materialise, worked with the Mariko Mori Studio to create a 3D-printed solution for the wings of the main character in Madame Butterfly.

NCAD in Dublin – looking to capitalise on EU funding

Derek McGarry, head of innovation and commercialisation at Origin8 at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) in Dublin, is welcoming of the news that the EU is funding research into 3D printing for art and design. 

“We at NCAD also use this type of digital technology and it has been a major influence in our strategic thinking for quite some time,” he said. “Only last week our students’ degree exhibition showcased a number of products, including lighting and handbag designs, that used various types of 3D printing and related digital manufacturing technology.”

McGarry said Origin8 at NCAD would be looking to participate in the new EU funding programme Horizon 2020 that’s set to kick off in 2014.

“We are delighted to know that the EU supports this type of innovation and look forward to participating in the new framework programme ourselves. Design has a significant role to play in creating jobs in Europe,” he added.

European jobs

Michael Jennings, European Commission spokesperson responsible for research, innovation and science, said the cultural and creative industries now benefitting from 3D technology account for 3.3pc of Europe’s economy and employ 6.7m people.

“So we now have a successful manufacturing process developed in Europe supporting one of our key export industries,” he said.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic