3D printing has revolutionized multiple industries in recent years, and now it may be changing the way we produce textiles. This article will look at the key role 3D printing techniques are playing in the modern textile industry.
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What is 3D Printing?
3D printing, otherwise known as additive manufacturing, is a recent innovation that has fast become one of the most important manufacturing methods. In this process, products are constructed layer-by-layer according to a specific computer-aided design from extruded materials.
There have been several different types of 3D printing processes developed over the past few decades, including fused deposition modeling, stereolithography, selective laser sintering, selective laser melting, digital light processing, and fused filament fabrication.
3D printing methods possess several benefits over traditional manufacturing, including cost-effectiveness, time, resource, and energy savings, significantly less material waste, and enhanced design freedom. Several industries including manufacturing, aerospace, transportation, the space industry, and construction have extensively explored the use of these methods and widely implemented 3D printing technologies.
How Can 3D Printing Help the Textile Industry?
The field of 3D printing fabrics is in its infancy, but there are some key benefits that producing textiles with these methods could bring. The textiles industry is a major consumer of water and material resources, which gives it a massive environmental footprint. Currently, the global textiles industry is extremely unsustainable, and scientists are constantly exploring new avenues to improve methods utilized in the industry.
3D textile printing has the potential to significantly reduce the number of resources needed to produce fabrics for uses such as clothing and furnishings. Processes can be streamlined, use less raw materials, chemicals, and water, and moreover, the amount of waste materials produced is significantly curtailed using 3D printing methods.
Other benefits include reduced energy needs and consequent carbon emissions, cost savings, and enhanced design freedom. Multi-material printing capabilities provide opportunities for advanced, innovative material design that is not possible with traditional manufacturing techniques.
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Another key innovation that 3D printing makes possible is the manufacture of “smart” materials with embedded functionalities and unique structures. In short, 3D printing is a revolutionary solution for the textile industry.
3D Printed Textiles: Problems with Flexibility and Wearability
One key challenge with 3D printing fabrics is their relative stiffness compared to traditionally manufactured textiles, which limits their wearability and comfort. Some 3D printed textiles have been introduced into the market in recent years, but the widespread commercial viability of these fabrics is limited by this issue.
A few solutions have been proposed to overcome this limitation and impart properties such as stretchability, softness, and flexibility in 3D printed fabrics. The three main approaches are printing flexible structural units, printing fibers, and printing on textiles.
Several studies have explored this problem, providing different routes to fully flexible and wearable 3D printed fabrics. For instance, studies have explored the development of fabrics with chainmail structures, geometric structures, and bionic structures. Other studies have explored the direct deposition of 3D printed polymers on traditional fabrics to produce fabrics with unique structures and functionalities.
Knitwear is produced the world over, but the process of producing clothes using traditional knitting methods is incredibly resource-intensive, contributing massively to the textile industry’s carbon footprint. 3D knitwear has been investigated in recent years, with machines that can 3D print individual fibers developed by companies such as New Industrial Order.
This technology promises to improve the circularity of clothing manufacturing. Clothes can be manufactured to order with savings on cost, materials, energy, and waste. Seamless construction allows the re-use of yarn to manufacture new garments.
MIT’s Work on Soft Fabrics
Researchers at MIT have developed soft fabrics from TPU. Focusing on the structure of printed materials, they were inspired by collagen, one of the main proteins in biological organisms which possesses an intertwined structure with enhanced flexibility and strength.
The researchers have proposed that their innovation could be used in the textiles industry as well as for use in the medical field as cardiovascular stents, surgical mesh, and braces.
Heat-Wicking Materials: Producing 3D Printed Fabrics with Enhanced Cooling
Scientists at the University of Maryland have developed 3D printed materials with advanced heat-wicking capabilities. The material’s innovative structure, composed of polyvinyl alcohol and boron nitride, maximizes thermal conductivity, pulling heat into the material in one way and expelling it out the other. Essentially, this turns the fabric into a low-cost, powerless air-conditioner with applications for sportswear and everyday clothing.
NASA’s Scale Maille Project
The field of space exploration requires materials that can handle the rigors of extreme environments. NASA, which is at the forefront of 3D printing technologies, has sought to develop fabrics that provide enhanced insulation and protection against the harsh environment of outer space.
One ongoing project from NASA is the production of “scale maille” which can be printed in one piece from innovative flexible metal. It resembles scale armor and possesses enhanced thermal control, flexibility, foldability, and strength. Both geometry and function can be printed, which has led scientists at NASA to term it “4D printing.”
The smart chain mail fabric that can stiffen on demand
Video Credit: nature video/Youtube.com
Materials with Enhanced Protective Performance
One study by Wang et al. has produced an innovative 3D printed protective material using selective laser sintering. This material is composed of interlocked granular particles which can switch between a soft, flexible, and wearable state and a hardened, protective state.
When pressure is applied, the particles interlock and form a hard, chainmail-like structure with twenty-five times more stiffness than its relaxed state. Analysis demonstrated that in this hardened state, the material can bear loads of more than thirty times the weight of the material.
3D Printed Electronic Materials
Zhang et al. have created an electrically conductive material using 3D printing. The material is composed of a conductive core of carbon nanotubes and a silk fibroin dielectric sheath. This smart material has been proposed for use as a bioelectrical harvesting fabric that can be used in multiple wearable electronics devices.
3D printing has offered some innovative solutions for the textiles industry and associated fields. Whilst still in its infancy, the number of projects already presenting intriguing solutions to current commercial needs demonstrates the potential of the field. As the field progresses, there will no doubt be continued innovation in the manufacture of 3D printed fabrics.
Further Reading and More Information
Xiao, Y-Q & Kan, C-W (2022) Review on Development and Application of 3D-Printing Technology in Textile and Fashion Design Coatings 12(12) 267 [online] mdpi.com. Available at: https://www.mdpi.com/2079-6412/12/2/267
Hay, Z (2019) 3D Printed Fabric: The Most Promising Projects All3DP [online] all3dp.com. Available at: https://all3dp.com/2/3d-printed-fabric-most-promising-project/
New Industrial Order [online] new-industrial-order.com. Available at: https://new-industrial-order.com