Future City Production, Economic Regeneration and Democratisation: The Case of 3D Weaving

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Centre for Operations and Supply Chain Research

Dr Gary Graham is an Associate Professor of Operations and Supply Chain Management, as well as being a member of the Centre for Operations and Supply Chain Research. He is also a visiting research scholar at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Centre for Transport and Logistics. Gary is the co-ordinator for Future Transport and Smart Cities Network (a membership of 40 international scholars and business practitioners, and community workers). Additionally, he was involved with collaborative research on “Distributed Manufacturing” with the Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge. His work to date focuses on the impact of the internet and digital technologies on supply chains, logistics and distribution operations.

Hands holding a 3D printed object

Textiles has always been considered to be a “sunrise” industry (eg one which would grow quickly and be of importance) and indeed it played a critical role in the industrialisation of Britain and its former Empire colonies such as India. After 30 years of decline, there is potential for the industry in the West Ridings to be revitalised. One of the ways this could be achieved is through 3D weaving. 

3D weaving combines traditional weaving with 3D printers. It enables the interlacement of three orthogonal (involving right angles) sets of yarn, as opposed to two which creates ways to weave materials such as wool and cotton in three dimensions before they are sealed to maintain a rigid structure. This is important as 3D weaving enables the development of advanced fibre composites. The tensile and comprehensive strength of such composite structures is stronger than those made from 2D woven or even knitted fabrics. 

While 3D weaving is used in the production of speciality industrial fabrics (eg construction, ballistic, automotive) there are consumer applications which are starting to emerge (eg shin guards for football, protective headgear for skydiving, cushioning for shoes). 

In the future, 3D weaving manufacturing also has the potential to revitalise existing means of fashion production in four ways:

  • Re-shoring and repatriating (bringing back to the UK) high quality, design-led products.
  • The re-building of a democratic manufacturing community within post-industrial society and in particular within former industrial communities.  
  • The development of new manufacturing organisational forms and business models, as the eco-system evolves from communities of practice (hobbyists and makers) into industrial capacities (batch production runs).
  • Providing innovative routes out of austerity.

Reshoring and repatriating textile manufacturing

The dominant pattern of fashion garment manufacturing is based on scale economies and low costs per unit of production. It is based on the transport of stock from the Far East using ships and this stock is funnelled through two or three major sea ports into the UK. Existing global models of textile worker exploitation will be under threat as 3D printing social movements rapidly evolve. With the rise of a new middle class of fashion conscious consumers, the way in which the material needs of consumers have been traditionally met – readily available consumer goods mass-produced within a linear system of production from East to West - is no longer fit for purpose.  Reshoring is a key policy item for the Alliance project - a not-for-profit organisation aimed at repatriating textile manufacturing to the UK. The economic case for reshoring is clearer where: 

  • The demand for short lead times is acute, quality control and provenance is important, and where manufacturers have a significant design input. Critically, where a retailer charges a premium for these characteristics, high enough margins can be made by manufacturing in the UK.
  • As a result of costs and consumer drivers, high-end and mid-market apparel, fast fashion, luxury clothing and homeware products are the areas where the proposition for reshoring is strongest. The more added value in the manufacture process, from design, to digital and panel printing, jersey and jacquard, embroidery and knitwear, the more the market can be made in the UK.
  • There are viable markets in other segments, particularly where the product is low spec and can be manufactured in a highly automated manner like hosiery and socks. Hence the on-shoring that has, and is, happening in this sector.

Working with colleagues, we are designing the ‘Future city production system’ which combines distributed manufacturing (3D weaving), logistics and spatially dispersed units. These co-operate and communicate over processes and networks in order to achieve the optimum localised manufacturing output (per day) to meet city demand. It is designed to ensure firstly that there is a close proximity of manufacturing to urban customers and this would certainly remove one of the main obstacles to meeting the fast delivery requirements of consumers and retailers. For instance, a current operational problem for many luxury fabric manufacturers is the time taken to transport products from the manufacturer to the customer. Mass manufactured goods may be cheaper and have certain advantages, but they cannot evolve designs as quickly as can be facilitated by 3D weaving. The mass manufacturing globalised system will therefore not be able to solve problems as efficiently as an eco-system based on high volume and high velocity information input.

Re-building a manufacturing/production materiality

To achieve this there needs to be a shift in the production materiality in the former areas of textile industrial production.  Manufacturing is traditionally organised into factory units that are controlled and organised by owners and functional managers. Within the 3D printing eco-system the individuals no longer have a managing class controlling their creativity, production scheduling and work patterns; they will be free to create and design products and self-organise their own independent production units. Within an environment of 3D printing-driven social spaces an eco-system of manufacturing weaving innovations would organically develop from citizen-driven curiosity, energy and their own individual passion for design.  

High streets in northern towns could be revitalised by bringing production back into city centres through the establishment of 3D printing mini-factories. More people would be working in the vicinity of the high street and vacant shops could act as distribution points. The diffusion of 3D weaving technologies would create jobs in 3D weaving through the development of new fashion designer houses, small production units and retail outlets.

This will require a mixture of social and industrial policy. For instance, my colleagues and I propose that the availability of 3D printing technology is “free” in social spaces together with subsidised printer supplies and raw materials (like graphene and plastics). This could be funded through joint “public-private” initiatives and would utilise libraries, science museums, community centres, schools, village halls, student unions, bus and railway stations for example. 

Distributed manufacturing with careful state management could lead to ordinary citizens having access to their own means of production and become designers. Whilst mass manufacturing multinational corporations would have less power and control over product design, production and distribution. Such a diffusion of small sized, affordable 3D printing capacity would promote a model of environmentally sustainable technological and economic development. 

New organisational forms and business models

With the advancement of 3D weaving, the role of local citizens will evolve from being purely consumers and/or prosumers (people who both produce and consume the product) in their roles as peripheral designers (such as through co-creation and crowdsourcing on the outer boundary of the firm) into actually pro-designing production and distribution. 

This could be with new forms of retailers, manufacturers or through the emergence of citizen-driven business models.  Furthermore, incumbents will increasingly be based on new forms of organisations and business models that are based on sharing design and weaving facilities. Textile production facilities would be decentralised to emerge in social spaces (as a social policy action) where digital printing and online publishing technologies would facilitate the production of meaningful and acceptably designed textile products. For instance, 3D Hubs is a platform that allows designers once they have created 3D software files to find 3D printer owners in their locality who, on payment of a fee, can print out the desired textile materials. At current levels of growth, by 2020 everyone in the West Riding will be within 10 miles of a 3D printer.  

If new organisations and business models are to emerge from existing  communities of hobbyists and makers, there needs to a long run disruption of the established education curricula on design and communication medias, which is currently being offered in schools and universities, and through local community education and training initiatives. 

Furthermore, a range of initiatives are being proposed to enable school children to become more socialised with 3D printing. Makers Empire recently launched a user friendly app for the iPad and Android that seeks to make 3D modelling and 3D printing easy and accessible. Their aim is to get primary schools to use the 3D modelling and printing app in parallel with a curriculum developed by the organisation which will teach students how to model and print textile objects. As future generations are able to develop their own independent means of production, this could contribute to a changing perception of textile production amongst young people.  

The key to the success will be the ability for the innovators to work across a variety of different disciplines and brands (including economics, politics, sociology, innovation and computer science) so that they can build economic and organisational structures to support the additional production capacity being created through 3D weaving innovation.

While central government has taken out recent policy initiatives in 2014 to make 3D printing and robotics part of the national curriculum, getting 3D weavers into our local northern schools and universities (beyond the textiles and mechanical engineering departments) requires some visionary thought on both sides.  Schools and universities for instance, should seek out strategic partnerships with 3D equipment providers, while 3D printing manufacturers need to approach such institutions and provide training and educational support. 

This would provide schools with lower cost access to equipment and support services to maintain and ensure the equipment operates effectively. For instance, Ion Core is running an initiative to generate funding donations to support the adoption of 3D printing education programs by schools. Schools register on the Ion Core webpage and are then encouraged to form a community of financial supporters (parents, local communities, organisations and other public donors). As soon as the fund-raising goal is met, Ion Core then supplies a Zinter Pro printer along with an integrated education package combining discounted printing technology with training and skills development. 

Another initiative would be to create ‘open maker’ spaces in schools and in student unions at the university level.  Exploring potential partners including Fab labs, recyclers, material producers and suppliers, machine toolers, logistics providers. Within  universities there needs to more joint linkages and dialogue  between staff and students of textile and design schools with business schools to jointly develop an innovative curricula and research that builds social and economic impact.

Furthermore, CreateEducation is a 3D crowdsourced online maker initiative bringing together a dedicated crowd of designers, makers and educators (lecturers, teachers) together from around the world to share ideas, projects and financial structures (eg crowdfunding the purchase of 3D printer). The initiative’s goal it to crowdsource ideas and innovations linked to future 3D printer related design and manufacturing products (eg clothes, jewellery, fashion accessories). The international site also contains user-generated content supplied by the crowd and includes 3D model files, “how to” videos (eg calibrating printers), school lesson plans, schemes of work, online workshops and best practice projects and user centric business models. 

Innovative routes out of austerity 

The development of consumer 3D weaving networks which have begun to emerge with 3D Hubs could provide an innovative route out of austerity for some communities (eg the Technocopia plan.)

If there is to be a true democratisation of manufacturing then this will only be made possible through reductions in the costs of 3D printing equipment and materials, along with the availability of low cost or free software that enable 3D printing files to be created, modified and distributed. There are still current performance limitations of consumer 3D weaving, including the quality, limited range of materials and functionality, and these act as barriers to their more widespread adoption, along with the Computer-Aided Design skills required to create designs. If these barriers could be overcome it would provide every man and woman with the opportunity to own their own means of production. 

Rather than being dependent on moneyed interests for high quality textile products, average people could control the tools to do these jobs themselves. It would allow people to become more productive, empowered workers and providers. This will only be possible if the tools are cheap enough that students, hobbyists, and anyone interested can experiment with professional-quality production tools and learn professional skills without a major initial outlay of capital.

In summary, as Gartner identifies, 3D weaving is at the peak of the technological ‘hype’ cycle and there are still doubts whether the technology is a trend or just an abnormality to dominant global production systems. Only if there is enough creative and innovative momentum amongst young designers and manufacturers, will these obstacles be overcome. 

The challenges of adoption are balanced by several opportunities. Local textile designers could get their work into the public domain without the need for too much up-front investment. Producers will be able to open up their business to wider audiences, utilize any spare capacity and be visible on a digital platform. 

Customers are able to have an intimate understanding of the provenance of their fashion product; as they are made, finished and installed by local producers. Where possible locally sourced materials could be used as a substitute for globally sourced materials. This proximity to and interaction with the 3D weaver will give customers the ability to be involved in the production and customization process as well as being a (relatively) cost effective means to have bespoke items made for them.

Historical materialism tells us that it’s the material conditions that are the cause of societal change as observed in the West Riding, from its industrial past to its current mix of retailing, service, the public and educational sectors, health, warehousing and the odd shopping centre. Could it be that, while the textile mill provided society with the industrial capitalist, the masses and the working poor, could 3D weaving provide for a more equally distributed post-industrial society? A world where big fashion retailers and exploitative globalized textile factories would be redundant and everyday citizens could print or work with local designers to have the textile product they need and wanted. 

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University business school or the University of Leeds.