3D Printing And The Age Of Hyper Customisation

With the coming of the fourth industrial revolution, I take a closer look at the 3D Printing process and how it is no longer about creating a standard product.

Advances in 3d printing technology, the popularisation of the industry 4.0, and the rise of hyper-customised products represent a cultural shift in the way we do business, design, manufacture and interact with each other as humans. According to Germany Trade and Invest, Smart industry or “INDUSTRIE 4.0” refers to the technological evolution from embedded systems to cyber-physical systems. It represents the coming fourth industrial revolution on the way to an Internet of Things, Data and Services.


INDUSTRIE 4.0 draws a paradigm shift from “centralised” to “decentralised” production – made possible by technological advances which constitute a reversal of conventional production process logic. Simply put, this means that industrial production machinery no longer directly “processes” the product, but that the product communicates with the machinery to tell it precisely what to do.

Image Credit: Roboyo

One project that exemplifies the concept of decentralised production in fashion is the Solemaker.io. It is a project that proposes to change the way shoes are produced culminating with an ultra-customised pair for and by each customer. The digital fabrication involved in the process enables ultra-personalisation, localised production and facilitates new recycling possibilities. Such a methodology is only possible thanks to aspects of the INDUSTRIE 4.0 and in particular the 3d printing technique.

Image Credit: Solemaker.io

Taking A Closer Look At The 3D Printing Process

One of the key technologies involved in INDUSTRIE 4.0 revolution is 3d printing, also known as additive manufacturing. It is a technology that differs a lot from traditional manufacturing techniques because instead of using a process that mostly relies on the use of several machines for the removal of materials by cutting or drilling, it uses only one tool for the entire process.

The 3D printing is a process that allows for complex shapes to be printed in one piece. A great example of this comes from the design company Nervous System, who used it to create the “Kinematics dress.” It is a dress that is composed of thousands of unique interlocking components printed as a single folded piece that requires no assembly. The dress draws a new approach to manufacturing while integrating design, simulation, and digital fabrication to create a sophisticated, customised product.

Image Credit: Nervous System

To understand how 3D printing works we need to analyse a few manufacturing processes. At the moment products can be mainly made in four ways. The first way is subtractive manufacturing. This is when you start with material and carve the final form out of it by removing material. A good example is a marble statue. The second way is through forming manufacturing. In this technique, we apply force to a material to obtain a specific shape. A good example is a lump of clay.

The third way is through Casting. Casting is a technique that you pour a liquid in a mold that solidifies. Chocolate Bunny is an example of such a method. Finally, the fourth way is addictive manufacturing or 3d printing. Here the machine starts with nothing and deposit layers of the material until it forms the desired shape. This method allows the creation of designs that could not be done otherwise.

Image Credit: Julia Koerner

A great example of 3D printing at work is the “Venus dress”. Designed by Julia Koerner, the dress is based on her research on the analysis of the deep-sea sponge, that adapts to its surroundings. The 3D printed dress was made using the 3D body scan of the wearer and heat-mapping technology that created a connection with the emotional state of the wearer. She also used a biodegradable polylactic acid (PLA) filament.

Another fashion approach to 3D printing is the one led by designer Danit Peleg. She initially developed a fashion collection that she entirely printed in a “3d printing farm” at her home. Recently she developed an online tool on her website that allows anybody to design their own 3D printed fashion and have them printed. Peleg’s approach makes us wonder about a future where we will be able to download and print our clothes instead of going out shopping or order them online.

ALSO READ: Stratasys x Ganit Goldstein: Fusing Cutting-edge 3D Printing Technology With Traditional Design

The versatility of 3D printing has also been widely used in prosthetics due to its high need for customised parts. The company Open Bionics is creating life-enhancing prostheses like bionic hands that can be designed and printed at a lower cost than a standard prosthesis. The fact that it is 30 times cheaper than other available alternatives and helps to make robotic hands accessible to a broader audience. The prosthetics also counts with sensors that control the movement of the 3D printed hand.

“For those concerned with this [more use of plastic], I have good news. The time where it was only possible to use polymers has passed.”

Maybe one of the first ideas that cross our mind when we think about 3D printing is that it will only create more plastic. And we do not need more plastic. For those concerned with this, I have good news. The time where it was only possible to use polymers has passed. Nowadays several materials can be used in the process of 3D printing. We can now use plastic to bamboo, from conductive filament to biodegradable PLA, aluminium, and Titan. In fashion, the most well-known material is the filaflex from Recreus. This material is rigid yet flexible, perfect for designs that should conform to the body. The material is also easy to use and does not require special equipment.

The Versatility of 3D Printing

3D printing opens up opportunities to share production capacities between different companies, thereby better-utilising assets. It also supports growth by accepting customer orders that otherwise could not have been taken due to capacity restrictions. Research projects such as Gemini 4.0 in Germany have been working on creating such business models.

Additionally, online companies offer a service of searching the closest manufacturer to you and giving you options of places where you can have your product printed. I can recommend www.3dhubs.com or directly from the printer company as www.shapeways.com

Image Credit: FabLab

Another place where you can investigate how to print your design is Fab- labs. These centres of digital fabrication exist around the globe and are composed of a helpful community and appropriate services prices. You can check one near you just googling the name of your city + fablab.

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Ricardo O'Nascimento

Ricardo O'Nascimento is the founder of POPKALAB - a design/research studio focused on innovation in the field of wearable technology. He is an artist and researcher in the field of new media and interactive art. He investigates body-environment relations focused on interface development for worn devices, interactive installations, and hybrid environments.