Image: Flickr/Ed Schipul
3D printing is one of those new things that gets hyped all the damn time. Retail UPS stores carrying pay-per-use printers, MakerBots in every school, a "new brick in the Great Wall," and guns, guns, guns, to name a few examples.
It’s not for nothing. As noted futurist and self-proclaimed technology oracle Ray Kurzweil said at Google’s I/O conference yesterday, the hype, while partly a result of the boom-bust-recovery theory of capitalism, should be taken seriously—at least for the sake of fashion.
In less than ten years, you’re probably going to be able to print your own open source clothes for a few cents, he told the audience, presenting more upward trending graphs than a keynote at a hot air balloon convention.
And he’s probably going to be right, as he has been with many of his other educated guesses about what the future will hold for us, technologically speaking (three quarters precisely correct predictions, he said).
As of 2014, digital fabricators that make clothes, such as knitting machine OpenKnit, are already available and inexpensive; it costs about $700 to build your own OpenKnit machine, with both the hardware and software still in the do-it-yourself stage. Naturally, you can print a bunch of the parts to make the digital loom with a 3D printer.
There’s also an online repository for open source digital patterns already up and running. Called Do Knit Yourself, it’s currently got four designs available that have the “I’m in the Matrix on the Nebuchadnezzar” type of thing going on around the edges, but nevertheless look like legit prototypes. Imagine what could happen with millions of dollars of R&D, refinement, and much better printers and software.
Eventually, printing clothes is going to be as easy as ordering a burger and fries from your smart watch. Print green t-shirt, wear for a day, throw in the recycler, print blue-t-shirt (with recycled clothes matter) for tomorrow.
The cheap printing of socks and underwear doesn’t look that far off, except that, unsurprisingly, the fashion industry isn’t too comfortable with fledgling designers and home-based fashionistas disrupting the way we make and buy clothes like Martin Starr's character Gilfoyle disrupted that hotel bathroom in Silicon Valley. One fashion company already made OpenKnit edit their branding out of its promo video.
Kurzweil said transnational fashion enterprises aren’t into it because, like other industries, they’re afraid their bottom line is going to suffer—that somehow, giving people the ability to create their own clothes is going to destroy the industry. Just like the home sewing machine has?
The techno-futurist pointed out that, like other industries, Big Fashion had damn well better get used to the idea they’re going to need to change, evolve, and create new and better products that add greater value—a cornerstone of the capitalist enterprise.
After all, just because I can build a computer (and I have in fact built every desktop I’ve owned), it doesn’t mean I’m going to have the time and resources to build some of the bleeding edge mobile computing hardware available today on the cheap. So too for fashion.
Printing socks and underwear may go on to reduce the difficulty of making jeans to making toast, but at least in rich countries, we’ll still buy snow pants and tuxedos from someone else.