3D printing as a technology gets more and more attention thanks to the impressive possibilities it offers in numerous industries. In the fashion world, it allows the creation of innovative structures, or interesting customization options. But knowledge regarding this technology, also called additive manufacturing, is often incomplete. How does a 3D printer work? What are the existing technologies? What can we make now with a 3D printer? A post in collaboration with 3D printing company Sculpteo, to better understand the potential applications, present or future, of this technology.
What is 3D printing?
3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, is a technology which creates objects layer per layer, from a 3D model, made with a CAD software (Computer-Aided design). Indeed, the part is produced thanks to the addition of printed layers of material, contrary to classic subtractive manufacturing methods where you remove material from an existing material block. For now, various 3D printing technologies exist, which can create objects in many types of materials: plastics, metals, resins, etc.
But how does 3D printing work concretely? Everything depends on the technology you’re using. Indeed, there’s quite a vast choice in terms of techniques. For instance, you can’t 3D print titanium as you would 3D print plastic, due to each material’s inherent constraints. Here’s an overview of the main 3D printing technologies to help you get a better understanding of these options.
An overview of the 3D printing technologies
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)
Fused Deposition Modeling is one of the most used 3D printing technologies. The process is simple: the machine makes a filament melt thanks to heat, and then deposits it layer per layer with a printer’s head. It’s the most used technology for personal 3D printers, mainly because it is easy to use and not expensive. On the other hand, it is less used in the industrial world because it creates parts that are less robust and less precise than the ones manufactured with professional 3D printers.
The most used materials with this technology are ABS, PLA and polycarbonate, which are all plastics.
Stereolithography is a 3D printing technique where a UV light selectively heats parts of a liquid photopolymer reservoir, layer per layer, in order to solidify it accordingly to the 3D model. This technology allows the creation of parts with a nice surface quality and good details. On the other hand, objects are fragile and can easily break. They also react badly to a long exposition to light. Thus, stereolithography is mainly used for artistic projects or non-functional prototypes.
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
Selective Laser Sintering is the most used professional 3D printing technology to build plastic parts. A laser fuses plastic powder particles layer per layer. Once it’s done, you need to wait for the printing batch to cool down, and then extract the part from the powder, before removing the remaining particles.
This technology can work with numerous materials, each one with diverse properties. Among them, there is Nylon, the most used plastic in professional 3D printing, Glass-Filled Nylon, more robust, or even PEBA, a flexible plastic. The parts are usually quite strong, at a reasonable cost. Another major advantage is that numerous finishing options are available.
For instance, this technology has been used by Exocet to manufacture the 3D printed parts of their bags.
Multi Jet Fusion
The Multi Jet Fusion technology has been recently launched by HP. Thanks to it, you can 3D print plastic parts from a batch of powder, like with the SLS technology. But the parts are 3D printed faster, because the powder needs less heat to be fused than with Selective Laser Sintering, thanks to the use of a binding agent which completes the action of the laser, and thus makes the fusion process easier. As a result, the heating and cooling time is strongly reduced. Moreover, the quality of details is also better thanks to a detailing agent that the printer projects on the plastic powder during the fusion step.
Only downside, the choice of materials is quite limited for now, even if new ones should be launched soon. Indeed, you can only 3D print parts in grey or black Nylon, with a reduced choice of finishing options.
With the Polyjet 3D printing technology, you can create high-quality resin parts, with a smooth surface. It kind of works like a 2D inkjet printer: the printer projects small drops of a photopolymer liquid which is instantly cured thanks to UV light.
It is possible to create parts in numerous colors, as well as translucent parts, thanks to a polishing process.
Launched by Carbon, the CLIP technology (Continuous Liquid Interface Production) creates high-quality resin parts, at a revolutionary speed. Indeed, it is possible to 3D print complex parts in less than 10 minutes. A continuous sequence of UV images is projected on a liquid resin bath, which solidifies it, while the build platform goes up continuously until the end of the process. The major innovation here is that, unlike with other 3D printing techniques, the object is built continuously, and not layer per layer.
Different resins are available for 3D printing with the CLIP technology, some being totally flexible, similar to rubber, others being totally rigid. As a result, the potential applications are numerous.
This 3D printing technology was chosen by Adidas to manufacture the revolutionary sole from their Futurecraft 4D shoe.
With the Colorjet technology, you can create multicolor 3D printed objects, from a fine mineral powder, similar to plaster. The paint is directly applied by the printer during the manufacturing process of the part. Thus, it’s the fastest technology to get a colored object, without extra finishes.
Its applications are mainly decorative due to the fragility of the objects. For instance, this technology is broadly used to print 3D scans of people or objects, made with dedicated apps.
Selective Laser Melting (SLM)
Selective Laser Melting is a metal 3D printing process. A laser fuses metallic powder layer per layer, making it melt totally. Since you need to reach the fusing temperature of metals, the heating and cooling times are quite long. On the other hand, the objects made thanks to this process are extremely strong.
Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)
Direct Metal Laser Sintering is another metal 3D printing technology. It is very similar to Selective Laser Melting, but here the powder is not totally melted, just sintered, like with the SLS technology. Thus, you need less heat, which reduces heating and cooling times.
Binder Jetting is another metal 3D printing technology, created by ExOne. It is significantly cheaper than other metal 3D printing techniques because it uses a very different process to fuse the metal powder. Indeed, a binding agent is deposited on the powder before it is heated to be fused, which reduces the need for high temperatures for the process to be efficient. Thus, heating and cooling times are shorter.
Casting, or lost-wax metal casting, is a technique using 3D printing to create metal parts, broadly used for jewelry applications. A first version of the desired object is 3D printed in wax, then a plaster mold is made after it. Then, liquid metal is injected inside the mold in order to get the final part.
Which applications for 3D printing in fashion?
3D printed shoes
3D printing starts to be more and more used in the shoe industry, due to the numerous possibilities it offers. First, with it you can create innovative designs which would have been impossible to build without this technology. For instance, that’s what Continuum Fashion does. But additive manufacturing is also a good solution to create high-performance shoes that you can customize. Adidas understood that very well using 3D printing to manufacture the sole of its Futurecraft 4D sneaker, custom-made, with great sports performance. Indeed, with additive manufacturing, it’s possible to create customizable clothes and accessories with no extra cost, which perfectly matches the growing demand for products that fit the exact individual needs of each consumer.
Bags and 3D printing
3D printing is also interesting for bag manufacturing! Indeed, it’s possible to create innovative designs thanks to this technology. For instance, that’s what Exocet Paris demonstrated with its 3D printed animals, integrated to the design of their bags. Each customer can personalize its 3D printed structure, which is another interesting example of individualized product.
3D printed jewelry
With additive manufacturing, you can create unique jewelry parts, customizable, with innovative designs. The boom of metal 3D printing contributed a lot to the growth of this use. It is now possible to create silver or brass jewelry parts, thanks to 3D printing techniques such as casting, for instance.
3D printed glasses
3D printed glasses are also booming. The major argument for using this technology in the optical sector is the freedom of design it offers, which helps creating innovative frames. Another major advantage: it’s possible to create custom-made glasses for each customer, which is way more comfortable. Moreover, frames are usually lighter if they’re made with 3D printing, which also helps improving comfort.
As you can see, 3D printing can be used in many ways in the fashion industry, either for customization needs, or for its strong potential in terms of design. The only thing is that you need to know how to choose the right technology for each project in order to make the most of additive manufacturing. Do you need some help to understand better 3D printing? Feel free to go to Sculpteo’s 3D printing blog to learn more on all the existing technologies!