Disclaimer: I originally wrote and published this article while working at MaRS Discovery District. The original article can be found here and has been reposted on meganstulberg.com for portfolio purposes. Words have been slightly altered to correlate with the date of publication.
In July 2015 I attended Electric Runway, an evening that brought together high-fashion designs with hardware accessories to explore the intersection between fashion and technology.
I was blown away by the runway show’s visually captivating elements, like the peacock-inspired outfit by little dada of Site 3 coLaboratory. However, I was most intrigued with the show’s purposeful wearables, including the LED turn-signal gloves by Zackees, the heart rate–monitoring smart earrings by Ear-O-Smart and the electroluminescent-filament hooded sweatshirts by SOVO. Even the event’s attendees were decked out in lit-up wearables: their own handmade LED name tags.
When Amanda Rebecca Cosco, the curator of Electric Runway, announced that Daniel Christian Tang‘s elegant line of precious metal jewelry was 3D printed, I was in disbelief. He creates the jewelry by pouring molten silver or gold into a plastic mould of a 3D printed wax model.
Daniel’s work is groundbreaking. Since most basic and early 3D printed wearables actually look as though they are 3D printed, they are often treated as novelty trinkets that don’t resemble fabric or metal closely enough to be worn on a daily basis by the average consumer. However, Daniel’s fine jewelry demonstrates that the ongoing advancements in 3D printing are resulting in a paradigm shift to a 21st-century consumer-oriented focus that allows for biotechnologies and do-it-yourself (DIY) culture to flourish simultaneously.
3D printed wearables are quickly evolving from mostly theoretical plastic garments worn on the runway to soft fabric-mimicking materials that consumers can wear in daily life.
AFFORDABILITY AND SUSTAINABILITY ARE HOLDING BACK THE 3D-PRINTED WEARABLES MARKET
Many consumers cannot justify the high and ongoing cost of printing 3D filament, regardless of whether it is for professional or personal use. Plus, technological obsolescence—even for 3D printed prototypes—is inevitable. It’s part of the human condition to perpetually crave new things. Even if a gadget still works, it will soon be replaced by something newer and shinier. For example, there’s a good chance that the second-generation Apple Watch will be released by 2016. What do you think will happen to the first-generation models? They’ll likely end up in a landfill somewhere, just like most unwanted technology.
Is there a way to move forward in this industry without seriously damaging the environment and our bank accounts?
REDETEC’S SOLUTIONS IS SIMPLE: RECYCLE
Dennon Oosterman, the CEO of ReDeTec (Renewable Design Technology), explains the benefits of ProtoCycler, the company’s new desktop 3D filament recycler. Instead of having to continually buy expensive new filament, ProtoCycler users can substitute waste plastic.
This waste plastic can come from the 3D printer itself, from rafting and support materials or even from printed prototypes that are no longer wanted, or it can come from post-consumer waste such as coffee cup lids and plastic bottles. ProtoCycler grinds down the plastic waste, then extrudes it all into a spool of filament. The filament (an ink equivalent) is compatible with most 3D printers on the market today.
ReDeTec has printed trinkets, flowerpots, shower curtain rings and a prototype print of the ProtoCycler machine itself in its lab.
PROTOCYCLER’S ROLE IN 3D PRINTED WEARABLES
Although ProtoCycler doesn’t specialize in wearables, Dennon vouches that it can cover a full range of recyclable plastics, including flexible ones.
“As long as it’s in plastic, you can literally print anything,” he says.
ProtoCycler has been used to print stretchy wristbands and their friend in the business Structur3D has printed orthotics. Dennon used ProtoCycler to 3D print his own cufflinks from plastic and then “spray-painted them with a chrome finish to look like metal, as the plastic is strong enough to hold the sleeve together,” he explains.
Dennon also notes that you can transform 3D printed wearables into smart wearables by embedding a Wi-Fi chip or something similar into the item.
ProtoCycler allows for 3D printed wearables to have an at-home exchange policy. If you 3D print a wearable and it doesn’t fit quite right or it’s not your style, you can just “toss the old prototype in there, grind it up and try it again a little bigger or smaller until it’s perfect for you,” says Dennon.
Users can customize their wearable’s colour and style as many times as they’d like. This is a huge technological innovation for the future of fashion, allowing for limitless creation and personalization.
ProtoCycler has applications in the practical realm of health as well.
It belongs “in classrooms for the education market, for fanatics who run their own small businesses making custom goods, and in the wearables world. [It belongs] where a prototype needs to fit and be uniquely creative, like for prosthetics for children who outgrow them too quickly, and for animals that you otherwise couldn’t buy them for,” Dennon adds.
“The world has a huge push on sustainability for a very good reason right now,” says Dennon.
“It’s hard because, as a culture and as a species even, we like new stuff and want to progressively move forward. Imagine if you were wearing the same clothes now that you were wearing 10 years ago. That would be ridiculous! But think about all of those clothes from 10 years ago. What ends up happening to them? We want to be able to take anything—clothing, electronics, cars, buildings, really anything—and reuse those materials as efficiently as possible. You could have a new outfit every single day of your life that’s unique, genuinely new and fits you perfectly.”
ACCESSIBLE TO WHO?
The two places where ReDeTec sees ProtoCycler really making a difference are classrooms (for students of all ages and in all disciplines) and homes.
“Kids love to learn by doing—they love to learn by making things. Since there’s a huge push for STEM and STEAM fields of education, 3D printing is being incorporated into curriculums all over the world,” explains Dennon.
For consumers who already have an interest in DIY culture, weekend projects or even woodworking, investing in a 3D printer (and a filament recycler) is the logical next step.
ONGOING POTENTIAL OF 3D-PRINTED WEARABLES
Considering its environmental and financial benefits, ReDeTec’s ProtoCycler has the potential to change the future of wearable technology.
“We live in this world where you can literally, with the click of a mouse, turn garbage into anything, and that’s really cool,” adds Dennon, optimistically.
3D printed wearables are still in their honeymoon phase. This is all just the beginning, with a bright future to come. 3D printers are the latest home investment piece for wearables and I’m considering them 2015’s equivalent of a sewing machine. Incorporating a recycling system into 3D printers just makes them that much more functional, creating a “worth-it-in-the-long-run” mentality.