Itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny 3D-printed beach bikini: herald of the fashion singularity?

Paul Raven @ 07-06-2011

N12 3D-printed bikini from Shapeways3D printing just isn’t going away… which has interesting implications, given that the economy’s still deep in the tank and manufacturing is becoming a race-to-the-bottom industry in terms of labour cost. “But you can’t print anything useful and everyday with ’em, Paul! Who needs another tchotchke of their World Of Warcraft avatar, anyway?” Well, sure, we’ve probably all got more bits of purposeless plasticky crap than we need, but the technology is maturing fast, as demonstrated by Shapeways announcing the N12 3D-printed bikini from fashion house Continuum.

Obvious caveats up front: one look at Continuum’s Shapeways store-page will show you prices that aren’t going to undercut high-street retail’s sweatshop textile prices any time soon – the halter straps alone are around €20 each!

And – call me cynical if you like – the N12 strikes me as being far more about raising the public profile of Shapeways, Continuum and 3D printing in general than it is about selling bikinis; it’s a powerful media vehicle, and not just for the novelty/titillatory value that the tabloid editors will seize on (or that those who still find the need for even the most vestigial excuse to print a picture of a skinny model in very little clothing will seize upon, at least).

The fabric and design of the N12 are both “native” to the technology used to create them; you couldn’t just buy the fabric and stitch the clothes together from it manually, as the announcement page explains. This is about revolutionary design potential, a hint at the possibilities ahead as the technology matures and the costs come down.

There are cultural considerations to think about, too. The rise of “fast fashion” houses based on the hypercheap and quickly-changed sweatshop designs reflects a cultural desire for fashion as another medium through which the individual consumer can create and communicate their personal identity quickly and cheaply, as discussed in this excellent essay at N+1:

As the fast in fast fashion implies, the companies’ comparative advantage lies in speed, not brand recognition, garment durability, or reputable design. They have changed fashion from a garment making to an information business, optimizing their supply chains to implement design tweaks on the fly. Zara “can design, produce, and deliver a new garment and put it on display in its stores worldwide in a mere 15 days,”2 and this flow of information is by far the most significant thing the company produces, far more important than any piped pinafore, velveteen blazer or any of its other 40,000 yearly items. The company’s system of constant information monitoring allows it to quickly spot and sate trends and at the same time largely avoid overproduction boondoggles and the need for heavy discounting.

Unlike earlier generations of mass-market retailers, like the Gap’s family of brands (which includes, in ascending order of class cachet, Old Navy, Gap, and Banana Republic), companies like Zara and Forever 21 make no effort to stratify their offerings into class-signifying labels. They also don’t adopt branding strategies to affiliate with particular luxe or ironic lifestyles, à la Urban Outfitters or Abercrombie & Fitch. Instead they flatter consumers in a different way, immersing them in potential trends on a near weekly basis and trusting them to assemble styles in their own images. Clothes reach stores with practically unspoiled semiotic potential, and consumers are invited to be expressive rather than imitative with the goods, to participate more directly in fashion. We become the meaning makers, enchanting ordinary cardigans and anoraks with a symbolic significance that has only a tenuous relationship to the material item. We work in lieu of advertisers to reconfigure trends and remix signifiers, generating new and valuable meanings for goods. The more new clothes come in, the more creative we can be.

The problem with fast fashion, as already alluded to, is that it depends on highly exploitative labour. This will remain the case until (or, if you’re more of a pessimist, if) fabbing technologies reach a point where they can compete on both unit price and the rapidity of concept-to-product process. At that point, the resistance in the positive feedback loop between consumer and designer becomes almost negligible; everyone becomes a designer/remixer, and the textile factories go out of business almost overnight. Now scale that level of disruption out into all the other industries where 3D printing and fabbing could replace human workers once price parity is reached… that’s something of a singularity, in that it’s a hypothetical point on the future timeline that’s very hard to imagine our way beyond.

In the near-term, I expect 3D printed clothing will remain a catwalk and network-culture novelty for a while, worn more for what it represents than what it looks like, and bought as an expression of futurity in opposition to the still-dominant cultural mode of retroism, as well as a badge of affluence. But as the technorati set grow in their influence as celebrities in their own right, and as the notion of a new form of authenticity (uniqueness through truly bespoke design rather than through unattainable vintage rarity) takes hold, that may change quickly.

US and China to have manufacturing costs parity by 2015?

Paul Raven @ 09-05-2011

I’m going to offer this with a large pinch of salt, given that it’s a press release from a consulting firm, but the boldness of the claim is pretty impressive [via NextBigFuture]:

Within the next five years, the United States is expected to experience a manufacturing renaissance as the wage gap with China shrinks and certain U.S. states become some of the cheapest locations for manufacturing in the developed world, according to a new analysis by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG).


After adjustments are made to account for American workers’ relatively higher productivity, wage rates in Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Tianjin are expected to be about only 30 percent cheaper than rates in low-cost U.S. states. And since wage rates account for 20 to 30 percent of a product’s total cost, manufacturing in China will be only 10 to 15 percent cheaper than in the U.S.—even before inventory and shipping costs are considered. After those costs are factored in, the total cost advantage will drop to single digits or be erased entirely, Sirkin said.

Products that require less labor and are churned out in modest volumes, such as household appliances and construction equipment, are most likely to shift to U.S. production. Goods that are labor-intensive and produced in high volumes, such as textiles, apparel, and TVs, will likely continue to be made overseas.

Talk about a mixed bag of news. The prospect of working-class jobs returning to American shores must be something of a relief, but implicit in that return is the socioeconomic status of those “certain U.S. states” (and I think we can all guess which ones) as equivalent with China, the great economic enemy and exemplar of all things unAmerican. And it puts the lie to the notion of the unity of the US, too; sure, the top 1% of the country is rolling in money, but the bottom layer of the population pyramid is competing with China for the chance to make tchotchkes. Kinda puts the whole “USA! USA!” chanting from last week into perspective, doesn’t it? If this is a victory condition, I’d hate to be losing the game. (Note use of sarcasm as a way to blunt the pain; things over here on Airstrip One are looking grimmer by the day, too.)

Also implicit in the consultant’s outlook there is that the methodology of manufacture will remain essentially the same. Four years doesn’t look like a long time, but things move fast these days, and the 3D printing and fabbing industry is edging closer and closer to the point where it becomes a big grenade in the labour punchbowl. Still, I guess someone’s gonna have to make the 3d printers… up until the point where they can reliably self-replicate, anyway. (Shorter version: economics of mass production looking pretty screwed in the long term with respect to job creation. Profitability looking much better, but the 0.01% of the population who’ll benefit from it don’t need me to tell them that, I expect.)

We can reprint you

Paul Raven @ 21-02-2011

Speaking of news reappearing a year later (we’re risking some sort of multi-node self-reflective temporal singularity here at Futurismic, folks, so hang on to your hats): this time last year The Economist ran a piece on “printing” human organs for transplant; this week, we have a piece at Discovery on a bioprinter that takes a few cells as a sample and knocks up a sheet of new skin [via BigThink]. All good news… though it’s worth remembering the spectre of genetic intellectual property disputes lurks in the wings awaiting its musical cue (I’m thinking bassoons with a hint of cello, plus stabs of Moog voluntary), meaning that spats about the copyright status of fabbed creations may shift from discussing physical reproductions of optical illusions to claiming someone cloned your liver without your permission. As snarkily suggested last week, at least there’s plenty of work in the pipeline for the legal professions. Shame we can’t just print them off when we need them and then churn them up for feedstock, hmmm?


Paul Raven @ 16-02-2011

Old Duchamp would be proud, I like to think… though given the responses of other postmodern artists to similar events, I’m probably being overoptimistic on that point. Nonetheless, the future shows no sign of waiting for us to reach an accommodation with it, and you can now get yourself a fabbed facsimile of Marcel’s iconic “readymade” urinal museum piece [via BoingBoing].

Fabbed Duchamp urinal clone

As mentioned before, copyright on physical objects is a lost cause, though I doubt that’s going to stop a phalanx of windmill-tilting IP knights charging into battle as the terrain churns like liquid beneath the hooves of their horses, and the lawyers slip in to their vulture costumes off-stage.

And hey, 3D printers are getting pretty close to the point where they can print copies of themselves, too… so at least the futile carnage should be short lived.

The Universe of 3D Possibility

Brenda Cooper @ 22-09-2010

Don’t forget that for the rest of this year, I’m revisiting topics, updating research, and chatting about possibilities.  I hope you’ll add to the discussion.  So, here goes:

There’s been a lot of 3D print in the news lately.  There’s some cool things that are now easy to do – you can upload your designs at (although I have to say, the “i” in front of EVERYTHING is as bad as the “.COM” behind every business’s name just before the .com bubble bursting.  But I digress.  i.materialise is catchy.  I’m personally waiting for i.teleport). After you upload and pay, your new object is printed and mailed to you. You can drop by for the same service.  If you don’t feel like making your own designs, you can buy them from other people.  I like the math art piece Interlocked Moebius.

So that’s how I decided to re-visit 3D printing – just in time for Christmas if you start planning now!    I bet you could be the first in your family to design a Christmas ornament and have it printed. I might even have to try that this year… if I can find time.  It sounds like math is involved. Continue reading “The Universe of 3D Possibility”

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