The pandemic found companies that were reliant on third-party manufacturers scrambling to fill gaps as key suppliers were unable to fulfil orders or simply went out of business. Enter 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, which can offer cheaper and quicker alternatives than relying on complex or international supply chains.
Material extrusion, or fused filament fabrication (FFF), is one of the most common types of 3D printing, whereby a heated nozzle ‘prints’ a layer of melted filament on a specified design path where it cools and solidifies, repeating layer upon layer until the object is formed. The additive process means no waste, as you don’t have to cut away excess material. For consumer brands, this ability to quickly prototype, test and then iterate on designs in-house can drive rapid innovation and fresh thinking. The increased flexibility is just one of the reasons why the 3D printing market is booming right now. Spend is expected to surge from $12.1bn in 2019 to $34.9bn in 2024, according to manufacturers’ network 3D Hubs.
Lily Arkwright, a jewellery brand based in Manchester, England, was using 3D printing long before Covid, creating prototypes of rings in-house before casting ring mounts. But what was once an innovative way to speed up production turned into a customer- facing tool in light of social distancing restrictions. ‘Covid-19 necessitated the closure of our showroom and stopped all important face-to-face interaction, especially with our bespoke ring design service,’ says Philip Dawson, the brand’s managing director.
As a result, Lily Arkwright started sending out 3D-printed prototype rings to customers to try on at home before they committed to a purchase. ‘We can now tweak a design, print and post to our customer the next working day. It’s a hugely efficient service and one that our customers really value,’ Philip says.
There are also a handful of brands using 3D printing to completely reinvent how more traditional products are made. Ben Fainlight, director of global cultural marketing at sneaker marketplace giant StockX, played with the concept of ‘streetwear furniture’ – taking a classic design and flipping it on its head – to create the Flat Pack Jeanneret, a reimagining of the iconic wood and cane Easy Chair designed by renowned Swiss architect and designer Pierre Jeanneret in the fifties.
Through his own creative practice, temporary.company, Ben’s version – a 20-piece, flat-packed chair in vibrant-blue FFF plastic – is a bold take on the original. ‘3D printing came to mind when I was concepting this piece because it works in much the same way as clothing fabrication. Parts of the end piece are made separately and then assembled for the final piece to come together – just like the panels of a T-shirt,’ Ben says.
‘I also think 3D printing is the most forward-thinking and readily available production method for your regular designer or aspiring designer, which removes a lot of the barriers to entry to design and furniture, whether that’s education, professional experience, cost, etc.’
He says that when it comes to iconic pieces, such as Jeanneret’s Easy Chair, it’s all about the origin of the material or the fact that the furniture is handmade. 3D printing, on the other hand, removes those constraints. ‘I think 3D printing can achieve the same democratisation and access to design and expression that the T-shirt already has in the fashion and streetwear worlds,’ he says.
Elsewhere, Silicon Valley bicycle brand Superstrata has broken the mould with a new range of manual and e-bicycles, where unibody frames are made from a single piece of 3D-printed carbon fiber thermoplastic composite. With no need to glue or bolt different parts together, the frame is impact resistant yet lightweight. The fact that the frames are 3D-printed also allows the bikes to be made bespoke, tailored to the individual customer’s dimensions and riding position.