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Once a Semester Activity: 3D Printing and the Apparel Retail Industry

While many will proclaim that “retail is dead,” (in reference to the archaic department stores we all grew up with) I beg to differ. I’d argue that retail is simply changing. My love for the apparel retailing industry began over the course of a summer job as an Anthropologie customer associate. I watched as the brand I loved most had to react to a shifting industry climate. They made strategic decisions to close down locations, and instead, open larger format “experience-based” stores that allowed customers to create custom furniture, shop for clothes, and learn about different types of garden plants, all under one roof. So in a time when traditional brick and mortar retail is supposedly dying, I find myself fascinated by what the future of retail actually looks like. I therefore chose to research the intersection between technologies like 3D printing and the apparel retailing industry in more depth.


Most people automatically associate 3D printing and retail with the idea of 3D printed clothing. Luxury fashion designers have toyed with the concept, however, current 3D printing mechanisms have proven better suited for accessories such as jewelry or eyewear. “The evolution of materials for fabrics in 3D printing has been slow and there remains a trade-off between stiffness, robustness and comfort. Because the technology involves fusing layers of melted plastic one on top of another, a 3D printed fabric does not behave the way a woven textile adapts its shape to the body” (Sim, 2017).

Although the idea of 3D printing clothing items may seem impractical or gimmicky to customers, startups like Ministry of Supply are fighting to change that perception. MIT graduates Aman Advani and Gihan Amarasiriwardena cofounded the clothing company that specializes in 3D printed knit garments. They use materials like “Merino wool and NASA-engineered Phase Change Materials, so you literally get the best of both worlds: the best properties of natural fibers and space age temperature regulation” (Leighton, 2017). Their knits are not only more comfortable and movement-enabling, but they also create less waste and are more durable. According to this video, they can print a blazer in around 90 minutes:

Because the garments are printed without seams, they do not have weak points that are more vulnerable to wear and tear. They currently use a Japanese 3D knitting machine called Shima Seiki, which has been used by manufacturers but has yet to be widely adopted by retailers at a storefront level.

Retailing Practices

Looking beyond fashion, it is clear that 3D printing has many implications on the other segments of the apparel retailing industry:

Inventory Management

The most obvious change seems to be in the form of inventory management. Dealing with excess inventory in the face of unpredictable consumer demand is one of the key challenges that retailers face today. “Imagine walking into a store that carried only enough inventory so that customers could try on garments and touch the material to ensure it meets their demands and expectations. Then, images of the garment in various colors and textiles would be made available to the consumer. Perhaps some stores will even carry swatches. Once the shoppers decide which one(s) to buy, they pay for the item and wait for them to be printed” (Sedhom, 2015). This will also impact the supplier-retailer relationship. “We find that cost-sharing contracts can coordinate the supply chains where 3D printing is used in-store and the supplier controls the raw material inventory” (Chen, Cui, Lee, 2017).

Product Customization

In addition to better inventory management, retailers can rely on 3D printing to drive better customization. Companies like Nike have already embraced this by printing custom-fit shoes for world-class athletes, however, it is likely that this trend will catch on among apparel retailers as well. “Indeed, customization will change fashion as we know it, as 3D printing will allow companies and brands to create, in real-time, items tweaked and personalized by the consumer. Imagine yourself walking into a store and changing the length of a handbag strap, lowering the neckline on a shirt, or selecting a color for your dress! The frustrations attendant with shopping from what’s available versus shopping for what you want will end. 3D printing will facilitate contemporaneous customer-designer or customer-store collaboration” (Sedhom, 2015). Customization has long been a trend impacting retailers’ approaches—according to the “State of 3D Printing” report conducted by Sculpteo, retail profits from custom 3D printed goods is projected to increase 91% by 2020.

Intellectual Property Protection / At-Home Printing

            As designs and the overall apparel retail distribution network go digital, intellectual property theft is emerging as a top concern within the industry. When it comes to the overall retail landscape, luxury brands have the most to lose. They already face competition from creators of knock-offs. “With global imports of counterfeit goods already estimated to be worth $500 billion a year, it is likely 3D printing will only add to that figure. The growing threat of counterfeit 3D printing stems from the increasing availability of cheap 3D printers, printing materials and design specifications for items ranging from bags, apparel and jewelry” (Sim, 2017). More affordable brands may also face challenges as 3D printers become more ubiquitous among households. Customers could eventually design and print their own clothes from the comfort of their own home, eliminating the need for retailers at all. Designer Danit Peleg, who has worked extensively with 3D printed fashion designs, foresees a future where this is possible. “In the future, when these printers are in your house, I can send you a file and you can immediately adjust the file to speak to your measurements. You can choose the material, whether it’s cotton or wool. And while you’re getting ready in the morning, you can just press print and have the dress done by the time you’re done getting ready” (GE Reports, 2017).


After conducting all of this research, I’d still stand by my argument that retail is far from dead. I think it’s easy to paint an apocalyptic picture of a future where everything is automated and 3D printing completely takes over. However, even in a world where all clothes are 3D printed, I still believe that retailers will play an integral role because we live in an experience-based economy. They will simply have to differentiate themselves through capabilities like unique designs and customization. Even the most “DIY” oriented customers will want to be able to see designs for themselves, or reference available swatches that retailers can provide. Therefore, they will simply have to rethink their position within the market. Manufacturers and distributors will also have to reposition themselves, perhaps shifting towards cost-sharing contracts. All in all, 3D printing does have the ability to permanently alter the apparel retailing landscape, but it will take time and the outcome is uncertain for members across the value chain.

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