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3D Printed Guns Won’t Hurt You – but Jobs of 50 Million Women Could Be in Danger

Advances in 3-D printing technology may threaten the global fashion industry’s largely female workforce.

Garment workers at a foreign-owned factory in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. (Photo: Cedric Arnold / The International Herald-Tribune)

The good news is that your imminent death because of advances in 3D printing technology has been greatly exaggerated. Homemade guns are the scare tactic of choice these days, but the looming threat of job losses stemming from the erosion of intellectual property rights, which the creative industries want you to believe is related, comes a close second. The bad news is that most of the folks who really are in danger don’t read glossy news weeklies or live in the developed world. The majority of them work in garment factories in nations struggling to convert to global capitalism – or, in some cases, struggling to resist it. They’re mostly women, usually brown and all poor, so news magazines haven’t noted the danger threatening their livelihoods and lives. Target readership and all that.

The threat looms, however misplaced the concern. The fashion industry seemingly has embraced the tech whole-heartedly, with ever-more-fanciful experimentation (if not yet widespread usage). Such is the first fully 3D-printed gown Dita Von Teese wore to an event in July 2013. The gushing is infectious. “3D printing could essentially eliminate the fashion manufacturing industry entirely,” apparel industry rag Fashionista enthuses.

A less-disastrous scenario for the global economic condition of women would be to integrate the new technology into the existing manufacturing industry, but so far no such plans are on offer in developing nations. “As far as I know, there is no discussion in Cambodia between workers, unions, management, owners, and buyers about dealing with future technology at all. I think stakeholders believe that the perspective of technology eliminating jobs is far off,” says Tivea Koam, the Communications Assistant at the ILO’s garment-industry monitoring program, Better Factories Cambodia.

Let’s hope he’s right. For if the fashion industry’s wishes come true, 3D printing jeopardizes jobs for around 50 million women, spread across every continent, and in most countries of the world. That’s a full fourteenth of the world’s population – one woman in every seven – out of work. Unless someone comes up with a plan.

How We Got Here (And Where We’re Going)

Today around 60 million people work in garment factories worldwide. They uphold an economy that, according to the World Trade Organization (WTO), sees around $700 billion of global trade annually, although elsewhere this has been reported as high as $1.2 trillion. The WTO’s 2012 International Trade Statistics report further notes that the garment industry grew 17 percent globally between 2010 and 2011. Bangladesh alone increased its trade that year by 27 percent. China remains the largest exporter of textiles (32 percent) and garments (37 percent), while the US (21 percent) and the EU (45 percent) are the largest importers of clothing.

The WTO’s numbers run low, partially because it tracks the trade of member nations only. But because the organization played a significant role in building the global garment industry we know today, its numbers are useful. In 1974, the Multi-Fibre Arrangement (MFA) was introduced, essentially a quota system whereby poorer nations entering the clothing production industry were guaranteed a certain volume of orders from richer nations. When the WTO was founded in 1995, this agreement – and others that govern trade practices around the world – came under its jurisdiction.

The MFA was a good gig for developing economies, because garment manufacturing is a cheap and easy-to-start industry primarily in need of a dedicated labor force and space on which to build factories. (Everything else can be – and often is – shipped in.) For poorer nations, the enticement capitalized on two underutilized resources: the half of the population with smaller hands and fewer alternative jobs, and land. New factories offered opportunities for foreign investment, which, in turn, supported tourism.

The garment industry that emerged in many nations also had positive effects beyond capital gains. Gender roles for women began to shift as the formerly home-bound labor force got jobs in one of the only growth industries around. Domestic violence decreased and rape reporting increased. Women in some parts of the world began running for political office. It would be short-sighted and wrong-headed to attribute these changes to a trade agreement – they were made by women eager and ready to demand expansions of their civil and human rights – but women around the world smartly used the opportunity provided by the MFA as leverage toward gender equity. And it worked.

The MFA ended January 1, 2005, when its less-glowing effects became clear. With the protection of a quota system gone, the incentive for factory owners to allow working conditions to erode, pay increases to stall and health concerns to go unaddressed in an effort to attract corporate buyers with low labor costs was strong. To retain the growth industry – particularly after the global recession of 2008 – governments became complicit in ignoring concerns at best, or covering them up entirely at worst. Soon it became clear: A global industry had been forged, reliant on a largely feminine workforce often constrained by very recent tradition to avoid calling attention to themselves as problems. Equally concerning, the textile industry’s rapid and thorough expansion under the MFA had made even the most conscientious consumer complicit. (Folks willing to dig, and pay a bit more in the EU or US can avoid outsourced automobiles, toasters and even food production in a way that anyone who wears clothes, or purchases the fabric to make their own, cannot.)

Still, many feared the MFA’s end would kill the global garment industry, stalling the development of emerging nations. It didn’t. At a near manic pace, clothing manufacturers began increasing production at a rapid clip: 17 percent over the course of 2010, to be exact, a number that is significantly higher in certain parts of the world. In Bangladesh, for example, garment exports nearly doubled between 2005 and 2010. And in Cambodia, according to the Phnom Penh Post, garment exports rose by 34 percent in 2010 alone. By the end of 2011, the industry had grown an additional 10 percent, according to Reuters, bringing in a total that year of $4.4 million. (It is Cambodia’s third-largest industry, after agriculture and tourism, but the wages workers receive support the largest industry, because workers send more than half their monthly wages back home to family farms.) In 2012, Cambodian garment exports rose another 8 percent, and the first half of 2013 indicates another spike: 32 percent over last year.

Yet – sorry Reagan – those numbers don’t trickle down. Between 2010 and 2011, there was a 7.5 percent increase in the number of active factories and only a 3.6 percent increase in the number of workers, according to the Cambodian Ministry of Commerce. On the retail end, too, new stores are opening at a rapid clip and expanding into new markets. (Some, weirdly, in the same poverty-ridden nations where production occurs – some even in the same towns.) Inditex, owner of Zara and seven other brands, opened 483 new stores in 2011 and planned 520 more in 2012, according to the BBC. As of writing, 6,058 Inditex stores are in 400 cities on five continents.

It’s called fast fashion, and production increases mean a store’s entire stock can turn over in as little as two weeks, one H&M retail employee told me. Compare this to a few years ago, when four seasons of clothing meant 22 fewer stock turnovers per year. The “fast” in fast fashion isn’t just a reference to fast food: it reflects a speed-up of labor, on both the retail and the production sides, with no commensurate increase in the labor force, nor in the wages workers take home. Looking at Cambodia’s numbers, this means a measly 3.6 percent more workers met the increasing demands from 8.3 percent more retail outlets in 2011, the most recent year for which full data is available. Minimum monthly pay in Cambodia has risen from $45 to $75 since 2005, although record numbers of strikes, facility failures and widespread public health incidents precipitated negotiations and strikers’ requests for a living wage – now around $100 per month and rising – continue to be scoffed at by management. In Bangladesh, 3.6 million garment workers today take home a minimum of $38 per month, the average wage since mass protests won an increase in 2010. Officials agreed to another increase in May 2013, following headline-grabbing factory disasters, but no agreement has yet been reached on what the new minimum will be.

Fast fashion has its toll – worldwide demands for wage increases, the Bangladesh factory collapse, mass faintings in Cambodia – but for some, it’s still not fast enough. “Some of the most common complaints” of new designers in the industry, Fashionista explains, are “long lead times and huge minimum orders imposed by factories.”

Enter 3D printing. However speculative at the moment, the technology holds “several benefits over traditional manufacturing like low manufacturing cost, lesser involvement of workforce, reduced raw material wastage and energy consumption, and above all it extends unlimited creativity to designers,” according to industry tracker fibre2fashion. “Consider your dream wardrobe,” one UK Telegraph article reads. To achieve it, “you might just need a 3D printer.”

Some fashion insiders have made no secret of their hopes for a day when clothing will emerge from a box that sits next to a home computer (or better yet, hangs in a closet) in any print, size, cut and style desired, with all the most troublesome aspects of shopping (going to stores, trying things on, dealing with clerks) gone and none of the waste or wait from the offshore factory system.

This vision of utopia, however, disproportionately affects women – and not just the clotheshorses. Approximately half a million women work in fast-fashion retail worldwide. That’s around 85 percent of the industry, a number that will only grow as Zara, H&M, Mango, Top Shop and Forever 21 continue expanding into the developing world. Another 45 million to 50 million women work in garment factories. Eliminating the fashion manufacturing and retail industries might benefit affluent shoppers in the US and the EU, but it would be devastating to women’s economic vitality around the globe.

“Disappearance of the garment industry in Cambodia would have a massive impact on the economy and on people’s lives, as garments still account for about 75 percent of all of Cambodia’s exports,” says Jill Tucker, chief technical adviser of Better Factories Cambodia. “And while export garment factories employ about 450,000 workers, those workers provide support to about 2 million family members in the provinces – more than 10 percent of the country’s population. While workers strive to gain higher wages and better working conditions, even at current rates their wages play a very important role in the economy.”

The effects could be more devastating elsewhere. In Bangladesh, contacts in the garment factories couldn’t even figure out whom Truthout should ask for a quote on how pending technological advances may affect the factories. No one seemed prepared to consider the possibility.

What 3D Printing Does (And Doesn’t Do)

There are many misconceptions about the potential of 3D printing.

Media reports worked readers into a frenzy in May 2013, when a Wisconsin-based engineer going by “Joe” was said to have 3D-printed and then successfully shot – nine times – a handgun made out of $25 of plastic. In documentation first acquired by Forbes, a plastic gun is fired in succession as evening sets in over the course of a 30-second video. Dubbed the Lulz Liberator and printed on a $1,700 consumer-grade printer, it is said to be an improvement on Defense Distributed’s earlier Liberator, printed a few weeks before on a machine that cost five times that, and which fell apart after a single firing. “Any fear creeping up on you with this newest incarnation of the 3D-printed gun might actually be warranted,” Gizmodo intones in its coverage.

Not so fast, Gizmodo. It is still cheaper and likely less time-consuming to purchase a gun than to print one yourself, and the projected fear, that 3D printing will allow amoral people their sole opportunity to access high-grade weaponry, doesn’t jive with recent failures to tighten gun restrictions. Regardless, moral and amoral people alike have been making their own firearms since 14th century China, or improvising with baseball bats, box-cutters or shoes, when proper materials aren’t available. The idea that 3D printers will lead to a massive upsurge in violent crime, or gun violence in particular, is laughable. In fact, what most 3D printers are used for most frequently now is printing their own parts. (This is less funny: An object that can self-replicate, but lacks the sense to avoid doing so, is the stuff of which horror movies are made.)

When put to a slightly higher purpose, 3D scanning and printing technologies are capable of far more than reproducing objects – but we’ll come back to that. What you need to start is a design. This can be self-created, copied from something you like and use, or downloaded from any of several makers sites on the Internet. Then, reading it, a 3D printer builds your object, layer by layer, spitting out a synthetic material (other materials are occasionally available too) that eventually sets into a whole. The actual building process looks a lot like an extremely precise hot glue gun in action. It’s cool.

The trick is where users get those designs. CAD (computer-assisted design) software lets you scan an image and manipulate designs before printing. 3D printers are not merely three-dimensional copy machines, then – which is why IP lawyers are playing close attention, as they did when home video recorders were released for consumer use. CAD software lets you change, maybe even improve, a scanned object before it’s printed, as if you could switch out a character from a TV show you’d recorded and replace him with Shaun Cassidy. Except that right now 3D printing manufactures only in limited materials – as if, no matter what show you recorded, it automatically turned into a sitcom. But that’s changing fast.

The question is: how fast?

How Far Away Are We, Really?

Some who watch the technology closely claim home manufacturing can never replace global production. Still, three months ago, designers were saying “decades” when asked how far away mass-produced wearable 3D-printed garments were. Today, many are experimenting with some early possibilities.

A closet-replacing, “Jetsons”-style clothing printer is already in the works, for example, while the Dita Von Teese dress was created with an emerging process known as laser sintering. Custom-made for a 3D-fashion event by designer Michael Schmidt and architect Francis Bitoni, the innovative technique melds together layers of finely powdered nylon to, as Schmidt told, create “fluidity of joints.”

It’s a great leap forward in the 3D-printed garment world, spearheaded by Shapeways, a 3D-printing fashion boutiquery that acts like a cross between Etsy and a print-on-demand publisher. Users upload designs, choose printing materials, and order products – from their own designs or others’ – which are then manufactured and shipped out. (Shapeways was also behind the 3D-printed, uncomfortable-looking white plastic bikini that made the Internet rounds a few months back.) The company has headquarters in New York and offices in Seattle and Eindhoven, Netherlands. Striving harder than anyone else to move offshore garment manufacturing onshore, the company opened a 25,000-square-foot factory in October 2012 in Long Island City, intending to house 30 to 50 industrial-sized 3D printers and churn out 3 million to 5 million unique products per year. (The company did not respond to press queries for this story.)

However rapidly Shapeways may be expanding – and inspiring competitors – in the emerging 3D garment manufacturing field, a single business does not an entire global industry replace.

It’s no Silk Road anymore, in more ways than one. Gone, in fact, are the days where textiles came from any particular region at all: Nearly 60 percent of the fibers used globally are now human-made, according to industry tracker Technopak’s Textile and Apparel Compendium 2012. Good news for 3D printing enthusiasts, but bad news for silkworms.

Or is it? MIT Media Lab’s Mediated Matter group recently built a dome combining structural and biological engineering techniques. Called Silk Pavilion, the project guided 6,500 silkworms along a loosely structured building path, creating a truly biodegradable final product, with the aid of CAD technology. Such a hybrid approach could yield interesting results for the fashion-conscious.

But we’re still a ways off from mass-produced garments. “The thing to keep in mind is that, while 3D printing is good for a lot of things, mass production of identical things is not one of them,” cautions Michael Weinberg, vice president of the Institute for Emerging Innovation at Public Knowledge. “Even setting aside design challenges, 3D printed clothing is not going to compete with most of the clothes at your local mall on price anytime soon, if ever.”

True, but there are a lot of clothes at your local mall, and great strides are being made in 3D printing small runs, and fashion accessories, even now. “There is a lot of possibility as you move into more bespoke or shorter-run items,” Weinberg adds via email. “Designers in the business of small-run, custom (or near-custom) clothing are already looking at 3D printing. As more designers use it, more designers will get ideas on how to use it, and it will spread. And over time, some of those uses will scale up more broadly.”

How much time is the question. “I suppose the short (and not helpful) answer is that some small runs will merge soon, mass market scaling will take some time, and the merger point that matters for any one person is somewhere between the two,” Weinberg responds.

The price point comparison matters here, too. For although it may not be cost-effective to 3D-print a gun right now, it eventually could become so to print yourself a new wardrobe. The average American household spends about $1,700 on clothing every year. Right now, that’s about the cost of a 3D printer and some good filament to manufacture with.

Intellectual Property Concerns (And Why They Won’t Help)

Back to the 3D-printed gun craze for a moment: Imaginary though it may be, it’s still laying the groundwork to push through restrictive legislation – that is, control over who can access the technology and under what conditions. Predictably, there have been no calls to restrict corporate use of the technology nor production – no one has demanded a ban on weapons manufacture general. (Note the story of the Lulz Liberator didn’t break in Wired, Scientific American or Gun Nut Magazine – it broke in business monthly Forbes.) Unfortunately, such restrictions aren’t likely to protect the 50 million women in the global garment trade.

For a whole host of reasons, the global garment trade may be the perfect focal point for hopes to bring manufacturing back Stateside: the nylon that makes up 60 percent of the clothing produced today isn’t too different from the plastic filament currently used in 3D printers. It will eliminate all the pesky concerns about health and safety regulations, wages and environmental issues of the current system. Perhaps most significant: the concerns about copyrights, patents and trademarks that drive IP owners craziest when they think about 3D printing just aren’t in play here.

“The fashion industry is great because it is considered a ‘low-IP’ environment,” Michael Weinberg explains. “A large part of its creative ferment flows from the fact that you can’t copyright the cut of a dress or a shirt.” That is, fashion – unless sculptural, or couture – isn’t copyrightable. Aspects of it may be patentable or have trademarks, but clothing was considered by the framers of copyright law primarily for domestic use. In this, of course, it was gendered (nothing traditionally “made by your mom,” however much in the cultural imaginary such moms may reside, is eligible for copyright), as global clothing manufacturing still is today.

Indeed, the greatest resistance to 3D technology seems to be based in a concern about “piracy.” How can you retain control over designs that are being sent to individuals, manipulated to taste, and printed out in the privacy of one’s own home? On one hand, these can be dismissed as concerns about branding, which aren’t really of concern to consumers. On the other, an industry that fears loss of control over its intellectual products has been known to show sharp teeth. (Think RIAA vs. Napster downloaders, or Disney’s extensive lobbying in advance of passage of the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, which effectively delayed entry of Mickey Mouse into the public domain.) But the fashion industry slips through those cracks.

So do the majority of workers whose jobs would be in question. Patenting is famously gendered, with only 7.5 percent women patent-holders in the US (commercial patents are held by even fewer women – 5.5 percent). This can’t be blamed exclusively on historically gendered educational fields, either. The National Women’s Business Council found in 2010 that the US Patent and Trademark Office had record-high numbers of successful female applicants, but that “the ratio of successful women patent applicants to successful men patent applicants varies from a low 73.36% in 1986 to a high of 93.57% in 2002,” the report states. In other words, in even the best years for female applicants, 6.43 percent more women than men are denied patents.

The point is that restrictions placed on access to 3D printing technology based around IP concerns aren’t likely to address the global economic gender gap. Jobs lost because of the embrace of 3D printing in the garment trade could open up in tech, of course, but neither are those likely to be filled by women. According to the White House, women make up only 24 percent of US science and technology fields. In Cambodia in 2010, a female engineering professor told Truthout that in the decade she’s taught in the department, she had had only a single young woman in any of her classes.

A Way Forward

“My sense is that there is already a non-trivial amount of technology in the garment industry – I certainly consider sewing machines technology,” Michael Weinberg says of a future for the garment trade. “If today’s workers can learn today’s technology, I don’t understand why tomorrow’s workers could not be equally adept at learning tomorrow’s technology.”

Veronica I. Arreola, director of the Center for Research on Women and Gender’s Women in Science and Engineering Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, agrees. “We already talk to young women about the possibilities that await them in combining fashion with STEM [careers in science, technology, engineering and math]. Who else will be designing a truly wrinkle-free and stain-free pair of khakis? Perhaps even creating toxic-free dyes for denim jeans? Ditto with cosmetics – lipstick that lasts all day, keeps our lips moist and is cruelty-free. Science and engineering is key to fashion.”

In the end it may be up to the workers to keep an eye peeled for possibilities. Which is why the industry may be in trouble after all. “If [my store] started selling lumber tomorrow … I am pretty sure most people wouldn’t care as long as they got to keep their jobs. I am worried about the jobs that could be lost by having machines make clothes, because, evil or not, poverty-stricken countries at the very, very least benefit from their people being employed somehow,” one worker in a downtown Chicago fashion retail store says.

Then again, “working retail or being part of the fashion industry is not a dream of mine, so I am not sure how much I actually care what happens,” she adds.

It’s a half-joke – not unlike garment factory workers offshore, she’s underpaid but needs a job – yet the point is clear: One in every seven women in the world is employed in a low-wage, occasionally dangerous industry doing work many already find unfulfilling. They may be necessary jobs right now, but who will really fight for them if technology puts them in danger?

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