L Brands' (NYSE:LB) Victoria's Secret pushed the boundaries of fashion last week during its hotly anticipated annual fashion show. The finale featured a one-of-a-kind snowflake ensemble worn by supermodel Lindsay Ellingson that was 3-D printed and dusted with Swarovski crystals.
Ellingson's wings, corset, and headpiece were made from a 3-D printing process called selective laser sintering, or SLS. SLS is an additive manufacturing process, which means that it creates an object layer by layer by using a finely tuned laser to selectively melt a bed of extremely fine powder, which bonds to the previous layer; after a few thousand repetitions, the object is formed. SLS is known for its level of detail and strength over other 3-D printing technologies. In this instance, the material chosen was nylon, and although it looks extremely delicate, it's surprisingly durable and light weight.
Behind the scenes, Shapeways, the 3-D printing service provider hired by Victoria's Secret, used an SLS 3-D printer made by EOS, a privately held German-based company that's well regarded in the industry. The American SLS equivalent, 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD), recently released a new line of equally capable SLS printers at EuroMold 2013, which should improve its competitive positioning in the marketplace.
A custom fit
When 3-D scanning is incorporated into the mix, 3-D printing can be a great solution for custom-tailored applications, whether it's in fashion, jewelry, prosthetics, orthotics, or anything else that could benefit from a custom-tailored fit. To ensure Ellingson's one-of-a-kind 3-D printed costume would be as form-fitting as possible, the design process incorporated a 3-D scanned image of her body. Ultimately, this process could pave the way for 3-D printing to usher in a future where one-size-fits-all is no longer the status quo.
Sparking a movement
With 3D Systems' $399 Sense 3-D scanner, the maker community holds the power to affordably push the boundaries of 3-D printing in custom-tailored applications. In fact, anyone can upload their customized designs to Shapeways and use the same SLS 3-D printing process that Victoria's Secret employed. Since the widespread proliferation of this technology has only just begun, it's likely we're only in the early stages of possibilities here. There's really no telling where the maker community will take this.
Given the additive nature of 3-D printing, one of its greatest advantages over conventional manufacturing is that it can make complicated objects that would otherwise be extremely difficult to create. This invites a higher level of creative freedom into the design process, which of course makes it a natural fit for high-fashion applications. Although you won't see your favorite garments 3-D printed anytime soon, Victoria's Secret's use of the technology has certainly inspired imaginations, which could one day lead to 3-D printing playing a bigger role in fashion. After all, what designer wouldn't want to integrate a technology that could easily adapt to the always-changing seasonality of fashion?
Despite being around since 1986 in industrial settings, 3-D printing is still new to many people. The widespread proliferation of 3-D printing is changing the way the world views and approaches the technologies' possibilities. From an investment perspective, it likely means there's still plenty of runway left for 3-D printing to spread its wings and fly.
Fool contributor Steve Heller owns shares of 3D Systems. The Motley Fool recommends 3D Systems. The Motley Fool owns shares of 3D Systems and has the following options: short January 2014 $20 puts on 3D Systems. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.