Oct 26, 2008


I see textiles as an industry ripe for a new manufacturing model that is more adaptable, customizable, much cleaner, more socially conscious, and smaller-scaled. Yes, smaller-scaled.

The common wisdom is that the exodus of manufacturing and capital to China (and other industrializing countries), is the wave of the future. But I believe that the manufacturing model being implemented in many cases (massive factories, massive pollution, mass production) is a dead end, like the Neanderthals.

Mass production doesn't work anymore. It's an early industrial model that uses too many resources, and creates too much pollution, to produce goods that sit on warehouse shelves growing outdated, or getting shipped around for discount reselling (creating yet more pollution).

I'm convinced that the future of manufacturing, including textiles, is in collective design and 3D printing (aka rapid manufacturing, digital manufacturing). The following ideas and links are largely inspired by a fascinating TED talk by MoMa design curator, Paola Antonelli, on her 2008 MoMa exhibition "Design and the Elastic Mind." Watch it!

2D digital printing is already revolutionizing print manufacturing. 3D printing, which sounds like the stuff of Star Trek or The Jetsons, is already being used for product prototyping, and is beginning to be used for small-run production of real goods.

Designer Janne Kytännen, describes himself as a "Pioneer in Design for Digital Manufacturing." His company, Freedom of Creation (FOC), is already producing "laser sintered" textiles and hard products using 3D printers.

"Chain mail" textile produced by 3D digital printing. Designer: Janne Kytännen, FOC

Tray produced by 3D digital printing. Designer: Janne Kytännen, FOC

Last month, Seed Magazine published an account of RepRap, the self-replicating rapid prototyper, which costs a couple hundred dollars to assemble, and uses open source software. Its creator, Adrian Bowyer of the University of Bath, says that the technology of RepRap will lead to the “decentralization of all industrial production.”

Child's shoes, made with RepRap 3D printer, Adrian Bowyer, University of Bath, UK

Google's Open Source Programs Manager, Chris DiBona says, "Think of RepRap as a China on your desktop."

In the USA, Evan Malone, Ph.D., has developed another 3d Printer, called the Fabber. Malone has also made his software open source, and has consciously worked to make the purchase price of the printer as low as possible, to encourage as much user experimentation as possible. (The current price of a Fabber kit is about $2000.) A variety of materials can be used for fabrication (i.e. silicone, wax, plaster, epoxy, chocolate, etc). Listen to the podcast about the Fabber on Phorecast. You'll be blown away.

With 3D printing technology improving quickly, the availability of open source software, and non-proprietary materials, 3D printers for small-businesses are becoming a real, and immediate, possibility. If you think that's far-fetched, consider what happened to the personal computer in the span of a few decades:

A precursor to the mini-computer, PDP-1, 1960. Price-tag: $120,000.

The mini-computer now, Apple MacBook Pro, 2008. Price tag: about $2000.

Here's a picture of one 3D printer, currently used for prototyping. Look familiar?

RM machine, Phoenix Analysis and Design Technologies, 2008

Besides the "Ooooh, cool" factor of digitally printed 3D objects and textiles, this technology has incredible potential to actually improve products and reduce waste through collective design and mass customization.

Bruce Sterling compares the new model of "mass customization" with the old model of mass production. Mass customization is a production process where different entities, including the customer, are involved in the manufacture of the product. Dell, Inc., already uses this model successfully. The customer "custom-builds" the exact computer she wants using menu items on the website, and the final computer is assembled only after she places the order.

Some benefits of mass customization and collective design, are:

  • The customer gets exactly what he wants;
  • Natural, energy, and people resources are not wasted on unwanted products;
  • Transport pollution is minimized: product is shipped once – directly to the customer;
  • Overhead is lowered, as warehousing finished products is eliminated;
  • Products do not become outdated, because they are not made until they are purchased
Adding 3D printing technology to the equation:

  • Designs and products can be adapted on every level as new information and needs arise;
  • No need to re-tool machines for design changes -- all changes are made in programming;
  • Internet and PC technologies make global business possible even for small businesses;
  • Short-run production and "originals," are possible;
  • Natural resources are further preserved by eliminating pre-manufactured components.

I believe that it is only a matter of time before 3D printers are able to create a variety of tactile qualities, textures, weights, and colors, opening the way for beautiful design and a brand-new model of production that is adaptable, portable, and green. That is hope for the future.


SK said...

pls take a look at www.jujups.com to see what is being done with 3D printing this Christmas

Jen said...

Dear SK, thanks for the link... I'll check it out. I love the Irish proverb at the top of your "just a test" blog, too.

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