3D printing: challenges for the fashion business

Author: Eddie Powell

This article was published in The Times on 20 October 2016

The industry must embrace the technology while investing in resources to protect intellectual property rights

Last week, retailer Long Tall Sally, which specialises in clothing for taller women, unveiled a 3D-printed mannequin based on a real customer’s body. Happily for the customer concerned, she need not worry about being the basis for a clone army of mannequins, as the printed version will be used at the retailer’s design studio, to check the fitting of future designs.

3D printing is the process by which three-dimensional articles are created by laying down successive layers of material. The item to be printed must be in a computer readable format (known as a computer-aided design (CAD) file) that can be created using CAD software or with a 3D scanner.

3D printing in the fashion world is not new: 2013 saw the unveiling of the world’s first entirely 3D printed dress, designed and 3D modelled by Michael Schmidt and Francis Bitoni for burlesque star Dita Von Teese. Since then, a number of brands, including Nike, Under Armour and Chanel have showcased 3D-printed products. It may be a while before 3D printing enters the mainstream clothing area, but the effects are likely to become apparent more quickly in “wearables” and other accessories.

So, does the technology herald a new era of innovation for the fashion industry? 3D printing could have ramifications for the design process — fashion designers may be able to be more creative than was possible using traditional manufacturing methods — but the real impact is likely to be felt in the process of buying clothes.

Rather than buying finished product, for example, a customer could buy a CAD file of their chosen item and print it at home, possibly with the ability to customise items to their specific size and requirements. I might be able in future to buy a bespoke suit in the UK, by sending a scan of my body to a tailor in India, which he can 3D print to measure and fit the suit.

But for all this opportunity, the emergence of the technology poses significant challenges for the fashion industry in terms of protecting intellectual property rights. The risk of counterfeit or pirate goods being produced and entering the market is likely be exacerbated by 3D printing.

Counterfeiters will be able to create inexpensive replica items either by acquiring (legitimately or otherwise) the CAD file or by scanning the original object (a process known as reverse engineering) and affixing a logo to be sold as a cheap knock-off. As 3D printer prices drop, we could see a rise in digital counterfeiting, where customers are sold an illegal copy of the CAD file, and print the item themselves. This would bypass many of the traditional policed gateways for counterfeits.

Added to this, if clothing retailers store specific body dimensions for their customers, they also have to remember that information may well be subject to data protection laws.

So should fashion designers and retailers just write off the technology as being too risky? Other industries, particularly media, have found that ignoring digitalisation of a product leads to disaster. If there is one lesson that the music industry learnt the hard way, it is that you cannot hope to stop the flow of illegal digital materials if you do not provide a legitimate alternative.

Fashion businesses ignore this lesson at their peril. They need to avoid this trap by investing in resources to deal with the IP and other issues inherent in 3D printing, while not shirking from leading the way in embracing and commercialising the technology.

Eddie Powell, Partner, Fladgate LLP (epowell@fladgate.com)

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