3D Printed Wearables Are Out of the Lab and Taking Over the Streets


When Nike started custom designing sprinting shoes for top athletes, Innovation Director Shane Kohatsu used 3D printing to go through 12 iterations of prototypes in only 6 months. Compressing the product development cycle allowed Nike to be first off the line when it came to the lightest, fastest, and most technically advanced sprinting shoes for top pro athletes. At the time Kohatsu was developing the ultra-light shoes, 3D printing was not sufficiently advanced for production runs of each shoe. Times have changed.

General Trend: More 3D Printed Products for Mass Markets

Companies like People Footwear are selling footwear with 3D printed portions to a mass audience. No longer restricted to one-offs, 3D printers, when optimized for the task, are proving to be sufficiently fast and consistent for middle tier mass market goods. Company founder Damian Van Zyll De Jong, an experienced footwear designer, realized that 3D printing not only expanded the kinds of designs he could offer his customers, but would cut down on waste as an added benefit. With reduced material waste, and limited labor, he has been able to market shoes with 3D printed mesh uppers in the $60.00 price range.

Even students are creating 3D wearables. One of the great promises of 3D printing is how it distributes the capabilities for product creation to smaller companies or individuals. A perfect example of the “production to the people” concept is Nadir Gordon, a fashion design student in Panama. When tasked with creating a futuristic look for a bathing suit, Nadir dove into 3D printing with gusto. Working together with 3D printing expert Jonathan Guerra, the pair created a flexible mesh with 14 parts using a mid-level 3D printer, the MakerBot Replicator 2.

After several hours soldering the sections together, the pair had created a haute couture bathing suit combining technical fabrics and stylish design. Whether or not the bathing suit is wearable, it still shows the direction 3D printing is headed – into our closets soon.

Challenges in Production Rates and Consistency

A common refrain from detractors about 3D printed wearables is that the finished products are often compromised because of inconsistent quality, and cannot be produced with the same variety of textures as traditional fabrics. The trend, however, is towards 3D printing becoming more of an option for creating never before imagined fabrics, even if they are custom created rather than mass produced.

MIT professor and Media Matter founder Prof. Neri Oxman pushed wearable tech another step into the world of merging organic and inorganic materials with her Mushtari project. Employing a Stratsys Object 500 Connex3 advanced printer, capable of producing wearables from multiple materials and at a high level of consistency and finish, Mushtari merges living organisms into the structure of the micro tubular fabric. By printing a flexible structure of tubes, approximately 1 mm to 2.5 cm in diameter, Professor Oxman, with the assistance of Stratsys R&D, developed a fabric and garment that would allow micro-organisms to thrive. Adding to the impact of the already futuristic attire, Oxman chose bio-luminescent living forms to inhabit the fabrics interior matrix. The end result is a living, shimmering fabric, lighting the way to the vast possibilities high-level 3D printing creates for fashion, space exploration, defense, and almost any other human endeavor.

Although the Mushtari product is exciting and innovative, it still keeps wearables in the category of too advanced for broad appeal. Emphasizing this point, Gartner Research marked 2014 as the year that the hype surrounding wearables peaked, with the trough of disillusionment directly ahead. Known as the “Hype Cycle” the graph suggests that even with more 3D printed wearables hitting the market each month, broad market adoption is still several years in the future.

The high rate of quality issues with 3D printing appears to be getting under control, as demonstrated by People Wear. An executive with Autodesk suggested that as many as 70% of 3D printed components did not meet quality standards early on, but that number appears to be dropping rapidly as companies like Stratsys and others fine tune both the printing technology and the distribution methods.

Technology Drivers Include Flexible 3D Printing at Nanoscale

Korean engineers have created a system for 3D printing ultra-thin fabrics down to 0.001 mm for both electrical circuits as well as wearable applications. Professor Park Jang-ungof the Ulsan Nation Institute of Standards and Technology made the breakthrough with his team.This development casts aside a critical barrier for using 3D printing in electronics: resolution. Printed circuits demand high density fabrication that until this development, was largely impossible with standard 3D printing methods. Now that the resolution required in the most precise manufacturing arena in the world – integrated circuit production (IC)– is available from 3D printing, new fabrication options are possible now. 3D circuits could eventually supplant the 2d systems loaded with connectors. Entire matrices of chips would be possible because the 3D printing system scales in directions beyond typical lithographic systems.

Besides allowing for high resolution 3D printing, the new system, called “3D electrohyrdodynamic inkject printing,” can produce materials without resorting to extremely high temperatures. High temperatures created another stumbling block to implementing 3D printing in the IC environment. Temperatures high enough for printing, were too high for the substrates and the existing circuits to survive or for maintaining quality standards. The new methods circumvent this issue by relying on technology similar to inkjet printing without requiring substrate materials to be near the melting point.

Instead, Park’s new system can produce 3D wearables at room temperature. Textiles and standard plastics can now be applied directly to human skin with this process, or created to adhere to a formed mold.

Merging of 3D Printed Textiles and Circuits for Wearables

As the iWatch has amply demonstrated with about 1 million units sold the first day, consumers have an insatiable appetite for wearable tech. Communications and tracking is high on the list of utilities embedded in the wearable electronics. Perhaps more for the government’s desire rather than consumers need, the UK’s University of Kent is going a step farther integrating tracking systems into wearables than either Apple or the android watch marketers.

Applying 3D printing methods, the research group has developed a bracelet combining a power amplifying antenna and an RFID chip for tracking the bracelet, and anyone wearing it, throughout the country and perhaps soon, the world.

The bracelet is more in line with the promise of 3D printed wearables because it is produced as a finished product, not as a group of 3D printed components. All the electronics are embedded using a multiple head printer that is specially designed with a turret for rotational printing. This unit is similar to that of University of Texas-El Paso’s method of printing with copper wire embedded into plastic substrates rotating on a turret.

By integrating the entire manufacturing process, from bracelet fabric, batteries, signal processing, RFID chips, and antennas, into one 3D printing process, the bracelets can be reliably produced without assembly steps. This level of 3D printing sophistication enables rapid production of the bracelets. Finally a mass produced product combining 3D printing, wearables, and electronics has reached the goal of end-to-end 3D fabrication.

By combining all the steps into one process, 3D wearables, with or without electronics, can reduce labor costs, increase design flexibility, and get unique products to market in weeks instead of months. The bracelet is only the beginning. Developments on the way include bracelets with more advanced and flexible chips capable of handling many of the same tasks as smart phones. The possibility of combining Prof Park’s 3D electrohydrodynamic printing with University of Kent’s flexible bracelets creates watch and phone possibilities even Apple has probably not considered.

Wearables Become Medical Devices

Beyond the fashion world of wearables, the medical market has adopted 3D wearables for supplanting the venerable standard band-aid. A team from the National University of Taiwan created a 3D printed band-aid out of NinjaFlex material that goes well beyond anything Johnson and Johnson ever offered.

Not only will the band aid cover a wound, but electronics inside the flexible strip will monitor a patient’s vital signs and wirelessly transmit the data to a doctor via a smart phone or tablet. Called the BioScope, it is capable of tracking heart rate, temperature, and movement as well as electrical activity at the skin surface. All the sensors are embedded via 3D printing, but designed so the sensors can be removed and replaced as needed. Roughly the same size as a standard band-aid, the team even included a microphone capable of listing to the patient’s internal organs, and perhaps anything else close by. Though all the components are integrated with 3D printing, the Bioscope does require separate printing steps for each component.

Ph.D student Cheng Yuan Li sees future developments of the bioscope that rely on full integration of all components, allowing for mass production.

From Wearable Devices to Wearable Generators

While Li is focused on monitoring temperature, a team from Sweden wants to harness our body’ss temperature swings to create energy through wearables that will power all of our electronic devices. Dr. Christine Muller of Chalmers University in Gotenberg, Sweden

Muller received a 1.4 Million Euro grant from the European Research Council to develop textiles for capturing energy from the human body to power other wearable electronics. The code name for the project is ThermoTex.

Already Solepower, a shoe that converts our energy while we walk around for charging phones and other devices, has demonstrated that this application for wearables has potential. The trend for energy generating clothing has been developing even before 3D printing boosted wearable tech. Solar panels attached to normal jackets or back packs have been available for more than a decade. The big step forward is the level of integration. New energy converting fabrics like wearable triboelectric nano generator or WTNG, are made of silver coated and zinc oxide coated fabrics with a form of silicon between them. When the person wearing the fabric moves, the two layers flex and create electricity. South Korea’sSungkyunkwan Universitydeveloped the fabric. Though it is far from capable of powering a smart phone, the fabric could charge a battery over time that may power a smart phone.

With all of the advances in 3D printed wearables, from universities, government research centers, fashion students, and industry, we may all soon be walking to charge our phones, tracked by our bracelets, and have our health monitored 24/7 by our shirts. Or, as Gartner’s Hype Index suggests, we might not see any of that technology for another decade or more. Either way, 3D wearables are coming on strong.