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What are the opportunities for 3D design and print on the European apparel market?

Takes about 15 minutes to read

In the apparel industry, 3D design and printing are a hot topic, but they have not yet created a lot of business. This fact is mainly because they do not yet match production and wearability requirements. With much ongoing research into materials and technologies, and with 3D printing growing large in other industries such as toys, robotics, prosthetics and car parts, it is likely that this technology will gradually meet more and more of the demands in apparel production.

1 . Product description

3D printing has its roots in the production of simple plastic prototypes. It builds up three-dimensional objects, one layer at a time, following digital designs loaded into the printer’s memory. The process of adding material to build up an object is known as “additive manufacturing”. It is the opposite of “subtractive manufacturing”, in which material is cut away to produce a final piece.

Figure 1: 3D printing has not yet moved from the catwalk to the high street


3D printers tend to use various polymers as a feedstock, including acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polycarbonate (PC), polylactic acid (PLA), high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polyphenylsulfone (PPSU).

These printers can produce prototypes without the need for time-consuming and expensive retooling. In addition, they can often utilise cheaper materials such as plastics rather than high-performance alloys. At present, some 120 plastics and combinations of material are available.

Figure 2: A 3D printer producing smartphone covers

Figure 3: How 3D printing works
Source: T Rowe Price, Connections, 3D Printing, May 2012, Objet Inc.

Advantages of 3D printing

  • rapid prototyping and lead time reduction: product development falls from 6 months to 1–2 weeks;
  • marginal cost: producing a second object is no different to producing 100,000 items;
  • production on demand: single demand is leading rather than anticipated demand;
  • limited investments: small firms do not need to spend money on heavy machinery;
  • reduction of capital equipment;
  • elimination of waste: fewer raw materials, lower energy consumption;
  • cleaner and faster production processes;
  • manufacturing flexibility;
  • more applications on existing products: easy to test and create;
  • extension to unlimited creativity;
  • accelerated design cycles.

Promising new developments in 3D printing

A more recent 3D printing technique is known as carbon printing. Carbon printers use a process called digital light synthesis, which uses a software-controlled chemical reaction to grow parts. In the apparel industry, Adidas has teamed up with tech company Carbon to use this technique for creating “the next breakthrough in athletic footwear”.

This digital light synthesis overcomes two common problems of 3D printing. First, it is up to 100 times quicker than existing polymer-based printers. Second, it knits together the different layers of material more effectively, making for a stronger product with a smooth surface and a reduced need for additional processing (Source: “3D printers start to build factories of the future”, The Economist, 29 June 2017).


  • Read up on 3D printing to find out about the technology and its pros and cons. For example, check this article on “What is 3D printing?” or this video on “How 3D printing is revolutionising fashion”.
  • Check this article on “The Best 3D Printer that you can buy” to gain an idea of consumer solutions already on the market.
  • Talk to your representatives in government and trade bodies about their concepts of 3D and your sector.
  • Build both horizontal connections (with other partner-suppliers) and vertical connections (with buyers further up the supply chain).
  • Link up with horizontal partners in finance, logistics, retail banking and loan processing.

Current applications of 3D printing

3D for modelling and production replacement, or for the initial testing of product developments, has started to find its way into numerous sectors and industries such as automotive, consumer products and medical equipment.

2 . What makes European apparel an interesting market for 3D printing?

Worldwide, 3D printing is a growth market. A study by the International Data Corporation (IDC) suggests that global revenues for the 3D printing market will reach over $35 million by 2020. As revenues for 2016 are estimated at just over $15 million, this figure means a doubling over a five-year period. The compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for the same period has been forecast at around 24%.

Europe is a high-tech hothouse

Europe is an interesting market for 3D printing because of its strong position in technology. European apparel brands such as Adidas are already experimenting with it.

Germany, France and the United Kingdom (UK) are among the leading countries in the world when it comes to filing patents for 3D printing, robotics and nanotechnology. Germany is the largest European investor in additive manufacturing, followed by the UK, according to the IDC analysts.

Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) is also investing hundreds of millions of euros in 3D printing hardware, software, services and materials.

European industries are excited about 3D printing

European players in other industries are also excited about 3D printing, with major industry names such as Siemens, Lockheed Martin (LMT) and Rolls Royce becoming large users of 3D technology. This trend will have a trickle-down effect on other industries, such as apparel, and on consumer expectations. However, it is expected that this process might take another five years at least.

Europe is a hot target market for exports of 3D-printed apparel from developing countries

Europe is an equally interesting target market for exporters from developing countries who use 3D printing technology. For many developing countries, especially in Asia, relatively low-cost and high-potential technologies such as this one offer a way of keeping up with industrialised countries.

Lowering the barrier to manufacturing

An article on the Autodesk Sustainability Workshop puts it this way: “3D printing's greatest promise for developing nations is likely the same as in rich nations: empowering small businesses by lowering the barrier to manufacturing. 

Dozens of job shops, such as Shapeways in the US and i.materialise in Europe, 3D-print small product runs that can help small companies or entrepreneurs get their business off the ground. If their products hit big, the companies shift to mass-manufacturing. Since 3D printers have no tooling costs, one printer can manufacture different parts for different companies a few at a time, or a few hundred at a time


  • Brainstorm with staff, colleagues, branch associates and advisers on how you could use 3D printing to create new products, accessories or production equipment. Consider setting up an experimental production line for 3D printing.
  • Keep a close watch on how 3D printing and related technologies are spreading from the manufacturing industry to other markets.
  • Study the ins and outs of 3D-printed apparel and footwear initiatives, such as that of Adidas and Carbon.
  • Monitor general market developments in our study of Trends in European apparel.

3 . Which trends create opportunities for 3D design and printing in European apparel?

Although 3D printing uptake remains slow in the apparel sector, there are signs that it will create exciting opportunities and challenges on the European apparel market by tapping into important demands.

Shaking up production and outsourcing

3D printing, combined with other emerging technologies such as robotics, has the potential to revolutionise mass manufacturing. For example, it can:

  • reduce labour;
  • reduce waste;
  • reduce transport;
  • make it a lot easier and cheaper to change the colours, sizes and shapes of printed objects.

These are top-of-mind concerns for apparel manufacturers in Europe, which means that any technology offering answers will appeal to them.

The Adidas-Carbon initiative mentioned above illustrates how 3D printing may shake up footwear and parts of apparel production. According to the aforementioned report in The Economist, “Adidas intends to use 3D-printed soles to make trainers at two new, highly automated factories in Germany and America, instead of producing them in the low-cost Asian countries to which most trainer production has been outsourced in recent years. The firm will thus be able to bring its shoes to market faster and keep up with fashion trends. At the moment, getting a design to the shops can take months. The new factories, each of which is intended to turn out up to 500,000 pairs of trainers a year, should cut that to a week or less.”

A shift to on-demand manufacturing and self-manufacturing

3D printing suggests a possible shift from selling what you can manufacture best to manufacturing what consumers want most. It may even enable consumers to manufacture what they want right in their own homes. Affordable 3D printers are already on the market. They can produce small objects at low cost and the accompanying software is easy to use. In this way, it can answer consumer demand for personalisation and control.

3D printing as a manufacturing tool and for textiles

Tapping into the demand for cheaper, easier and innovative tools for manufacturing, 3D printing can also play a role; for instance, in creating moulds for various purposes:

  • moulds for trimmings, accessories, buttons, branded and embossed; labelling and packaging;
  • production moulds for collar plackets and cuff plackets;
  • moulds to repair and replace machine parts – a cheap solution to reinforce automation;
  • moulds for digital pattern-making;
  • moulds for cutting sections.


  • Assess what your company is already doing, or can do, to reduce waste, labour costs and environmental impact. Ask yourself whether 3D printing might help you in these areas.
  • Do the same with regard to the personalisation trend.
  • Find out whether 3D printing can save you money or time in creating your own moulds or other manufacturing tools.
  • Ask your buyers how they view the relocation possibilities afforded by 3D printing and tap into these developments.
  • Follow new developments in 3D-printed fashion, such as those presented at the 4th international 3D printing competition organised in 2016 by Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU). NTU is a global pioneer in 3D technologies and launched the Singapore Centre for 3D Printing in 2013. The 2016 event focused on wearable fashion and other sectors.
  • Study general market developments in our report on Trends in European apparel.

Opportunities: panels, accessories, hats, footwear

One promising opportunity is the combination of 3D-printed panels with traditional textiles (see Figure 4). A technical challenge is that the panels easily come off after repeated wearing and washing.

Another opportunity is lamination of fabric parts and seam-sealing.

Fashion accessories, jewellery, hats and footwear also represent major opportunities. Feetz footwear, for example, promotes its 3D-printed shoes by emphasising the sustainability of its production method. Designer Milliner Gabriela Ligenza launched a collection of 3D-printed hats in 2014.

Figure 4: Textile dress with 3D-printed panel

4 . Which requirements must 3D-printing technology comply with on the European apparel market?

Many fashion insiders hope for a day when clothing will emerge from a box that sits next to a home computer (or already hangs in your closet) in any print, size, cut and style desired. This situation would eliminate the troublesome aspects of shopping, while allowing you to create your personal preference on the spot, on demand and in your own time.

However, until now, 3D printing technology has one major disadvantage as far as apparel is concerned. Most – if not all – of today’s printable materials tend to be stiff with little or no breathability and drapeability, making them far less wearable than conventional apparel materials. As a result, the main challenges that 3D printing must overcome to gain a solid place on the European apparel market are:

1. Material choice

The synthetic materials currently available for 3D printing, such as polylactic acid, are not comfortable or flexible enough for clothing. Coming out of the printer in solid state, they are not breathable unlike textiles, they do not absorb body moisture and they are not drapeable.

2. Design

As for design, researchers are still trying to figure out how to make 3D apparel designs with good drapeability and translate them into clothes that consumers will actually want to wear.

For example, the presentation of dancer Dita von Teese in a 3D-printed gown in 2013 (see Figure 5) caused a lot of excitement in the media and fashion world. The black-lacquer, floor-length nylon gown was made using selective laser sintering (SLS). With this technique, material is built up in layers from plastic powder that is fused together. Around 12,000 Swarovski crystals were embedded in the dress using the 3D technique. However, several years later, this kind of clothing remains far removed from consumer lifestyles.

Figure 5: Dita von Teese in June 2013, wearing a 3D-printed gown

Additional challenges

The issue of IP property and piracy is another challenge faced by 3D printing. After all, how can you retain control over designs that are being sent to individuals, manipulated to taste and printed out in the privacy of their homes? The industry will have to resolve this issue as it progresses.

Innovation and technological improvement

Innovative designers, meanwhile, are trying many different approaches to using 3D printing for fashion production. Designer Danit Peleg’s home-printed fashion collection, for example, shows that there is a lot of room for experimenting and innovating with 3D-printed apparel. As the technology evolves and challenges are overcome, it is likely that we will see this technology blended with apparel production more and more.

Figure 6: Will accessories and footwear take the lead in 3D-printed apparel?

Textile 3D printing

3D printing solutions in textile are mostly geared to creating 3D effects in which the final product/fabric is still flat or flat-bed. A recent example is a 3D-printed undergarment made in three seconds by UK firm Tamicare under the brand of Cosyflex, a feminine hygiene product. The firm has created a bio-degradable and completely customisable fabric (see Figure 7) that comes in any desired shape, with no fabric waste.

Figure 7: 3D-printed fabric by Tamicare

The company makes use of a spray technique: liquid latex, cotton or other fibres are seamlessly extruded to form layers of breathable fabric, ideal for usage in sportswear, bandages and undergarments. The printer can churn out a pair of briefs in less than three seconds, meaning that 10 million can be made annually.

Spray-on fabric

Spray-on fabric is the subject of other experiments in apparel as well. Innovator Fabrican (see Figure 8) has replaced the traditional spinning process, in which fibres are connected by spinning, with spray techniques using binders such as polyester to connect fibres. This process creates a liquid that consists of 95% fibre. Because it is liquid, it can be sprayed in any shape. Using a dissoluble binder makes recycling of this composition very easy.

Figure 8: Spray-on fabric


  • Keep in step with developments in 3D printing, or you may suddenly find some of your European production orders being relocated to 3D printing plants in Europe.
  • Understand the technology, so you know how to compete with it or adopt it in your own production processes.
  • Look for opportunities to combine 3D printing with conventional techniques such as panel printing, or to produce fun and exciting accessories, hats or footwear alongside your apparel collection.
  • Co-create with fabric suppliers and keep track of the latest fabric developments.
  • Get in touch with suppliers of trimmings and plastics manufacturers to test new accessories for garments.
  • Identify suitable providers for fabric finishing, processing issues and packaging intelligence.
  • Explore whether 3D printing may offer solutions in terms of packaging materials.
  • Look outside your own industry for new concepts and ideas.
  • Track down potential partners.
  • Read our study of Buyer requirements on the European apparel market.

5 . What competition does 3D printing technology face on the European apparel market?

Realistically, 3D-printed apparel cannot yet compete with conventional apparel, as it is still too experimental and has challenges to overcome first. However, this fact may change in the coming years. In footwear, accessories and hats, we are already seeing signs that 3D printing has the potential to take a major place.

Another area in which this technology may affect competition on the apparel market is home manufacturing. In time, the largest competitor to regular garment producers – and especially to fast fashion – may be the individual consumer printing their shoes and garments on a home-based 3D printer using personalised measurements. Although the feasibility of this concept is still some 5–10 years ahead of us, the manufacturing industry for fashion and garments cannot ignore 3D developments, especially those techniques and applications that are already being put into practice today.

What it takes to compete

Producing countries eager to be the most competitive in integrating new 3D printing applications must take numerous requirements into consideration, for example:

  • strong government support for the implementation of new technologies;
  • solid preproduction services, managing the supply chain in sampling, testing, pattern-making and quick sampling lead times;
  • strong production in technical items – sportswear or technical workwear in niche segments with tailored, individual pattern services;
  • experience in body and shapewear;
  • attractive conditions for foreign direct investment (FDI);
  • a strong technological drive;
  • good integration in the sector with both horizontal and vertical collaboration;
  • educated workforce;
  • strong IT input;
  • locally produced fabrics;
  • locally available plastics and components industry;
  • strength in embossing and printing techniques.


6 . Through which channels can you tap into 3D printing opportunities in European apparel?

Because of the premature state of 3D-printed apparel, the best way to explore segments and channels for it on the European market is to look at those examples that are in place for other apparel segments (see the Tips below).

Creating a 3D printing supply chain

If you want to get your 3D-printed apparel products on the mainstream market, you have to create a platform that includes the following market parties: designers, product owners, manufacturers and customers. A good example of such a platform is Beamler. This crowdfunding initiative for the 3D market was developed to connect all of these supply chain links. By creating a global network of players in 3D printing, Beamler hopes to facilitate design and manufacturing worldwide.


7 . What are the end-market prices for 3D-printed apparel?

Typically, the retail price for apparel is 4.5 to 6 times the Free on Board (FOB) price, which means that the cost of delivering the goods to the nearest port is included, but that the buyer is responsible for the shipping from there and for all additional shipping fees. Because of its innovative and experimental nature, 3D-printed apparel will typically be more expensive in its early stages. The exception to this rule, of course, is when 3D printing makes manufacturing certain products – such as accessories or footwear – cheaper, easier and quicker.

Figure 9: Stages in the trade channel in which a margin is applied

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