Within the expanding ‘maker movement’ there is a segment, a hub if you like, of creativity that uses a machine to make things following digital instructions. It just assembles a finished object, additively, using only the material it needs. It uses an open source version of technologies that have been around for a long time.
What we are talking about this time, though, is not based on FDM/FFF 3D printing processes. It is called OpenKnit and represents the revolution of Soft Digital Fabrication. An OpenKnit machine is in many ways similar to an FDM/FFF 3D printer, except it makes clothes. It uses needles and a needle carriage instead of an extruder head. The carriage is controlled by an encoder that moves it and knows its exact position at any time. Instead of filament there are three threads, one for each tubular section of the garment (for example two sleeves and a bust section), and three thread guides that move them along.
Like many 3D printers, OpenKnit is controlled by an Arduino Leonardo board, and just like a 3D printer it follows instructions from a digital file. Gerardo Rubio created the machine, that he intends to sell for less than €550 as a mean to counteract current clothing industry dynamics, that have concentrated on mass fabrication of textile goods and low costs through precarious (and in some cases even slavery-like) working conditions, with an inevitable and damaging impact on society and the environment.
Starting from raw textile material, the OpenKnit machine can use the Knitic software (any maker movement linked to digital fabrication needs both open source hardware and software). The collaborative project is still ongoing, both at a software and hardware level, but its potential is clear: to offer users the opportunity to create their own bespoke clothing from digital files, designing and producing digitally and locally.
Rubio says he was inspired by the RepRap project and refers to the OpenKnit machine as a printer. Lately the definition of 3D printing has become fuzzier. For sure this can be considered a digital manufacturing additive process and that may be enough to consider it 3D printing. Some time ago I ran into another interesting project describing itself as 3D printing of textiles.
The Appalatch custom fit sweaters conducted a successful Kickstart campaign to create a machine that could produce sweaters right from the raw cotton and wool, grown and harvested locally. Just like OpenKnit it used a digitally controlled knitting machine to tailor-make sweaters according to exact measurements from each single individual.
While the Appalatch campaign project focused on American made products, The OpenKnit introduction video jokes with the typical southern European manic attention to brands: Rubio visits many famous Spanish clothing chains such as Desigual and Zara, and replaces the clothes on the mannequins with his own OpenKnitted ones. The concept is clear: you can make something yourself and it can look just as good as industrial made items. Brands are not necessary, especially if you consider that most mass produced clothing, both high and low cost, is made in Asia.
Personally, what I am most fascinated by, when discussing digital clothing manufacturing, is the concept of wearable electronics. Last November I had the opportunity to visit scientist Roya Ashayer-Soltani at the british National Physics Laboratory. She and her team have developed a system to transform cotton fiber in conductive circuits through the use of silver nano particles. This means that the cotton retains it elasticity and softness properties while being able to transmit electronic signals.
Now imagine this: a digitally fabricated conductive cotton T-shirt coloured using OLED paints and thus able to portray a digital moving image, in real time, right on your belly. Ashayer-Soltani confirmed that it could be achieved by combining these technologies.
Forget Google Glass and Samsung Galaxy Gear: digital textile fabrication of conductive fibres, may not, strictly speaking, be 3D printing, but it is, in my opinion, the only way to true wearable electronics.