Materials Science Is the New Black: 3D and 4D Printing the Future

A jet engine, a racecar and a running shoe walk into a bar.

Well, not really, of course, but all three are benefiting from futuristic concepts and innovations coming out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Self-Assembly Lab, a cross-disciplinary research facility that operates under the school’s architecture department and is busy developing disruptive new programmable materials that potentially could upend the performance apparel industry.

The Self-Assembly Lab’s work is on the forefront of a frenzy of activity in recent technology-driven apparel design and manufacturing, as evidenced by a slew of 3D-printed garments and accessories littering the fashion week catwalks last fall (including Iris van Herpen’s architecture-informed collection and luxe 3D-printed fabrics produced by Pringle of Scotland in partnership with material scientist Richard Beckett). Athletic performance brands including Nike, Under Armour, adidas and New Balance have all made a splash as well with the odd, one-off 3D-printed concept product: a Super Bowl football cleat here, the Armour39 heart-rate tracker there. Performance and luxury seem to be the best fit for 3D printing, a market that Canalsys predicts will grow from $2.5 billion in 2013 to $16.2 billion by 2018.

Francis Bitonti, perhaps best known for the Dita von Teese dress designed and manufactured in collaboration with 3D printing technology provider Stratasys for Ace Hotel during fall/winter New York Fashion Week 2013, might be the poster boy for the new kinds of designers flocking to 3D printing as their preferred technology. “I’m 100 percent committed to 3D printing as a manufacturing process,” says the designer, who hails from an architecture background that’s ideally suited to inform the highly structurally driven designs typical of the 3D printing niche.

In November the New York-based designer unveiled a colorful 3D-printed chunky, pixellated wedge shoe produced in a partnership with Adobe Systems at a show in London. The innovation here is the use of color — lots of it, from the aubergine soles to rich aquatic blue and greens and solar flares of the “upper,” if you will — in a world in which 3D printing largely has been limited to cream, white or black. When Adobe began tweaking its CAD software to improve color calibration for 3D design and printing applications, Bitonti was intrigued. His Adobe shoe collection was created to demonstrate the capabilities of the software maker’s color grading innovations, he explains. A second shoe was produced later that month, and the third and final footwear product is still in the works. Each shoe in the collection takes roughly an hour to print, says Bitonti, while shoes created with other 3D processes and printers can take up to eight hours.

Many applications for active materials
In the Self-Assembly Lab,  researchers focus on smart programmable materials, taking existing materials including textiles, carbon fiber, and even wood, and print, inject or laminate active materials onto the fabric, for example, to create highly active and transformable materials, explains Skylar Tibbits, a research scientist with a background in architecture, computer science and design computation who runs the lab. Tibbits began investigating 4D printing several years ago and launched a collaboration with Stratasys.

Initially, the lab set about “augmenting” existing materials with its smart properties by using two different approaches. The first involves printing materials with various properties, including traditional ones such as flexibility and rigidity, and creating materials of varied sizes and shapes that lend themselves to mechanisms such as shrinking, folding, stretching, and curling. Tibbits likens this approach to the prestressing process that concrete goes through: concrete is subjected to energy, and then that energy is released. When custom materials of differing thicknesses, widths and grain directions are released from the printing machine, they “jump into place,” Tibbits explains, with highly granular control over what sort of shape they take. “You can have flat things self-transform into three-dimensional things,” he adds, with the potential cost savings of shipping a flat item and “activating” it upon arrival at its destination.

The Self-Assembly Lab also enhances existing materials by printing active materials that act like sensors and respond to different energy sources, enabling the materials to expand and contract. In a 4D printing application, active materials responding to moisture, for example, can expand by 150 percent. These developments drew interest from a number of industries, including construction and footwear and apparel, but companies wanted to see the technology applied to “everyday materials” and not just “super weird plastics,” Tibbits explains.

So the lab came up with programmable materials as a potential solution to what interested parties had in mind, creating programmable textiles — which Tibbits calls “textile composites with active capabilities” — carbon fiber, and even wood that display characteristics and capabilities similar to the materials that respond to energy. “With different energy forms you can trigger these materials and they transform physically,” says Tibbits. “They fold, stretch, curl, and shrink, and we can precisely control how much they transform when going from one structure to another.”

To date several performance and athletic apparel brands have approached the lab about its developments. These cutting-edge technologies are a great marketing tool for athletic brands, Tibbits points out, because “people want novel capabilities.” While Nike and its ilk historically have done low-run 3D-printed product concepts, “you can guarantee they’re working in this space, trying to make it viable,” he adds.
One of the big challenges of many smart materials today is their prohibitively high cost or very niche application, and some can be difficult to assemble or expensive to manufacture into viable products. The lab hopes to change all of this with technologies that can be applied to a host of different textiles and materials.

But as with any new technology, Tibbits’ team faces a number of hurdles, from generating sufficient consumer interest and adoption to passing rigorous testing and standards to achieving a marketable price point and improving manufacturability. The lab is also trying to expand the materials that can be printed as well as the energy types and sources used for the transformation process. Airbus is working with the lab on a lightweight component that cools its jet engines while supercar company VAC is collaborating on creating panels that morph and adapt to improve racecar aerodynamics.

Printing pros and cons
3D and even 4D printing aren’t the be-all, end-all of manufacturing technologies and they certainly aren’t the answer for everything; they’ll never compete on price or time, for example, with injection molding or traditional manufacturing processes, notes Tibbits.  But the Self-Assembly Lab has demonstrated with printed carbon fiber and textiles that creating these smart materials are comparable in cost and production time while delivering new capabilities and benefits.

“Our programmable materials are going to kill the wearable space in terms of cost because these materials don’t have electronic sensors and motors, so they’re far more beneficial economically in that space,” Tibbits says, while they also are highly manufacturable and less prone to failure. “There’s a huge advantage to use this type of technique if you combine apparel with the wearable space rather than our traditional notion of robotics.”

According to Bitonti, the limitations with 3D printing today have less to do with the materials and more to do with software. Creating something layer by layer, which 3D printing technology vendor Makerbot does with a continuous line of filament, is enormously different from what most designers are used to. 3D printing compels designers to think about form and how the product will exist in cross section. “The problem with the design tools we have right now is that they encourage us to think about carving away solid pieces of material because that’s how industrial manufacturing works,” says Bitonti.

By contrast, 3D printing is based on the drastically different logic of “design by addition” that affords near-microscopic control over materials, enabling designers to cultivate or embed new material behaviors that make normally rigid plastics flexible, for example. “You’re kind of playing material scientist a little bit,” explains Bitonti. “It’s a role that designers haven’t played yet.”

The democratization of fashion?
With 3D printers dropping in price, print-your-own technology is becoming more accessible to wider audiences, and Bitonti sees 3D printing as potentially having the most significant impact on the luxury space, enabling fast-fashion labels to print products of near-equivalent high-end quality. In short, 3D printing could be the key to democratizing the craft of creating luxury products. “It’s the very classic definition of disruption,” says Bitonti. “You have a product that’s less expensive but comparable in quality, so eventually what’s the point of having the luxury product?”

There’s still some uncharted terrain in the 3D printing world; Bitonti admits that he’s still trying to figure out how to protect his design work. It’s possible, he says, to obtain a patent on a “range of possibility” because his designs are based on customizable software, and it’s also possible to get a copyright if it’s the software that actually makes the product. But ultimately, the industry likely will shift from thinking about “products as objects to software as offering potential,” he explains.

“Brands will be thinking about roles of cocreation with consumers,” Bitonti notes. “I think that the idea or need to protect an individual product is going to be diminished and you’re probably going to see designers acting more like software companies.”

Piracy, he says, will be the true barometer of the demand for and value of 3D printed designs and technology. Bitonti draws a comparison with the digital music industry, which steadily slashed download prices until consumers stopped stealing so much music. “How much is music worth?” quickly became a question of “how much are people willing to pay?”

Even if average Janes figured out how to use the design software and operate a 3D printer, most everyday people are far too busy to bother with printing their own clothing and shoes, Bitonti believes, and even then, they’d likely focus on meeting functional needs (by printing, say, a t-shirt or simple accessory) rather than trying to extrude high-fashion designs.

“You might not want to go to a red-carpet event wearing something you downloaded,” Bitonti says. 

Jessica Binns is a Washington, DC-based Apparel contributing writer.
This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds