3D printing – a risk or an opportunity for the fashion industry?

19 Jan 2017 , 2:34pm

The fashion industry need to wake up to the risks as well as the opportunities of 3D printing, say Eddie Powell and Michael Beaber of Fladgate LLP.

The era of 3D

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 model, Dita Von Teese.   Since then, a number of brands, including Nike, Under Armour and Chanel have showcased 3D printed products. Karl Lagerfeld’s 2015 Paris show for Chanel used 3D printed materials combined with conventional fabric, proving that the change could be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.    More recently, high street retailer Long Tall Sally, which specialises in clothing for taller women, unveiled a 3D printed mannequin based on a real customer’s body for use in the design studio.   

Challenges ahead

While it may be a while before 3D printing enters the mainstream clothing area, the technology is out there to produce 3D printed fabric (Electroloom had a working concept but went out of business because they could not secure sufficient financial backing) but the effects are likely to become apparent more quickly in ‘wearables’ and other accessories;  the emergence of the technology poses significant challenges for the fashion industry in terms of protecting intellectual property (IP) rights and maintaining competition in the market place.  However, some commentators suggest it also offers opportunities for those who are willing and able to adapt to the changing landscape of the fashion industry.     

So what is 3D printing?

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) which can be created using CAD software or with a 3D scanner.  

IP and other risks 

The fashion industry is already familiar with the rip-offs of designs appearing soon after fashion shows or launches, and the risk of counterfeit or pirate goods being produced and entering the market will be exacerbated by 3D printing.  Counterfeiters could soon 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 the file, and print the item themselves.This would bypass many of the traditional policed gateways for counterfeits. It is easy to see how a CAD file could be obtained, whether illegally through hacking or by scanning a product which has been purchased legitimately.
The fashion industry will therefore need to learn the lessons the music and film industries learned a while ago, and start looking out for digital infringements.  Unauthorised creation or use of a CAD file would infringe copyright, and action could be taken against sites distributing the files or even individual users (although such a step can attract negative PR).  

Problems may also arise where items are produced for non-commercial purposes by individuals for private use, which could fall within the personal use exception to infringement. Added to this, if clothing retailers store specific body dimensions for their customers, they also have to remember that information may well be covered by data protection laws.  

Opportunities

Some commentators, however, suggest that 3D printing will enable fashion designers to produce more creative items which will in turn drive innovation and push the boundaries of fashion.  There is also opportunity to exploit the digital file sharing market; CAD files could be sold or licensed by brands to a consumer to print their goods at home. Consumers may relish the increased choice of being able to create their own goods, customising items to their specific size and requirements.  The example above of a mannequin being printed out could also make it easier for designers to provide bespoke garments to customers in different countries without the need for multiple, physical fittings.  
This approach is not without its risk, of course, as illegitimate copies of CAD files could be made and distributed to the wider public, so appropriate anti-copying technology should be used.  But if there is one lesson the music industry learned 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.    

Conclusion 
One thing is for sure - 3D printing is not going to go back into the box; players in the fashion industry need to consider resources to deal with the IP issues, while not shirking from leading the way in embracing and commercialising the technology.  

 Eddie Powell (Partner) and Michael Beaber (Trainee solicitor) practise at Fladgate LLP