Purple Knights at 3D Print Show

For the opening of the 2014 New York 3DPrintShow Fashion Show, five gymnasts of the Purple Knights gymnastics team put on a choreographed dance performance to open the show. For this 3D printing fashion show, custom performance outfits were created for the Purple Knights based on their 3D scans.

Concept -
Backflips and Titanium.

After working with the gymnasts of the Lady Knights on an earlier promo video, we discussed making some customized accessories to bring a bit of theater and artistry to other shoots we had planned. The coach liked the sound of it. He asked about some other possibilities, and if they could perform wearing them! We had of course ruled out anything that could jeopardize a meet, but the challenge of designing for such exceptional requirements was an exciting prospect. Since I specialize in creating dynamic wearable 3D printed garments that allow the body to move freely, this was a perfect opportunity to tackle a really difficult goal. After floating the idea with the team at 3D Print Show, they were intrigued enough to consider devoting a segment of the show to a live performance.

The initial concept for the Purple Knights Armor was fairly simple- I wanted to show these graceful, powerful athletes doing their thing, and accent it with some armor-like designs that confer a mix of organic and mechanical references. There are also some more subtle components of my work in general that I’ll elaborate on in a minute. While custom armor is simple by itself, the original designs carried a lot of other ideas along and included far more exotic construction. I initially looked at DMLS (laser-sintered) titanium, but that process is actually very limited because it needs lots of support material. That material  is hard to remove from any shape but especially concave/hollow ones. While I might try that if I had access to one of those machines, the cost to outsource would be somewhere around $200,000 for each outfit, and that’s more than I was hoping to spend on this project. Considering other processes, I had the idea to first print the parts in acrylic resin using the SLA process. Those finely detailed parts were to be electroplated with a heavy coat of copper, then nickel. After removing the resin (and undergoing a few other processes), the metal shells were to be given a  structural coat of Titanium. Finally, a new process I heard about from Material Connexion involving a crystalline growth of sapphire over the surface, which makes it scratch resistant and naturally antimicrobial. The lining would have been Bamboo fleece. I was also looking into an additional external layer made of an aluminum-ceramic composite. One of the reasons the outfits look the way they do is that they are actually the middle layer between the lining and exterior plates.  Most of this did not make it into the final design, but as a concept, ultra light-and-strong Titanium Sapphire Armor is exactly what I was looking for. Combine that with the incredible athletic abilities of the Gymnasts, and you have a recipe for awesomeness. It would have been great to have more time to refine the designs, but I consider this a step in a long development process, so I’m happy to let people in on the early stages.

[Edit I'm adding the next section to offer an explicit description of what I was hoping would be a sufficient clear implicit message, but I find myself explaining this a lot, so to be perfectly clear, here is why I choose not to follow editorial standards of magazines like Vogue.]

One aspect of the show I’m most proud of does not even involve the designs, but rather how the performance relates to the context of a fashion show. The contrast between a gymnast and a runway model is pretty obvious. These girls are barely over five feet tall. They have about average body-fat percentage, but they are wrapped in a layer of muscle (30 hours a week in the gym will do that). Despite not fitting that imaginary “Ideal”, they are ideal by many other definitions, and that should be recognized.   As an aside, a very well known NYC designer launched his fall collection recently along with a video to try to capitalize on this envy some people feel toward athletes for their impressive physique and performance, but he did this by showing extremely thin models holding sports gear and standing next to equipment like weight lifting machines, when the person in the picture looks barely capable of holding their own weight. I think an exceptionally slim person can still be attractive, and the models are often beautiful, but associating that body type with athleticism is unrealistic. To associate it with health and fitness is downright irresponsible.  Body-types and other beauty standards have always been strictly enforced in fashion, and while some of it is practical (standard sizing), it is mostly a cultural echo chamber that has drifted far from the reality of what most people find attractive in today’s culture. I am proud to use diverse models in my work that reflect the reality of the world today.

When clothes – and many other products – are customized for each individual, the reviews and opinions of media suddenly lose purpose.  The old system of relying on magazines to give you your opinion is too slow to maintain an edge, and online versions of the same cannot differentiate themselves with better content than casual bloggers. You don’t need to know what’s “In” next season when what people want to wear was designed the night before. Further, the cultural innovations that inspire new designs are often produced by individuals that are not designers or celebrities, and are certainly not marketing people pushing viral content for brands. They may get clicks, but will have a hard time converting that into sales. Today’s audience is just too media savvy for old strategies.

Companies like Zara have already blown holes in the strict chronology and hierarchy in the season/branding structure and I have heard no strategy to address it but the same focus on brand exclusivity. The same tribalism and desire to imitate that served fashion during the last century may make it impossible to maintain brand value on style alone. Fashion was only “invented” in the 19th century when garments began to be mass produced. If we don’t need to worry about inventory, no bets need to be placed on upcoming styles. With the exception of a few brands that can rely on steady sales of their classic products, that leaves few options except to innovate, and to offer customization and a few other creative value-add mixes of product, service, and experience.

Ideation -
Documentation. Observation.

31 Lady Knights of the Purple Knights Gymnastics team.

I got to see the gymnasts in action during their practice in December, and later as the competitive season began in January. Documenting the season for the final video a few months later, I got to know a little bit more about the team, how they interact and work together, and more about the sport. Observation is an important part of the design process. When I speak of customization, I’m not just just referring to the shape of the body, but obviously I want the results to carry a bit of the wearer to the outside. I try to avoid doing this in a literal way with obvious references, but opt for subtle connection of form or symbolism, unless it serves an immediate goal in use or presentation of the design.

Injury. Flexibility.

One thing that stood out to me initially was the frequency and severity of injuries. Gymnastics is dangerous. The forces involved are great, and the routines can contain very complicated sequences. The smallest mistake is usually unrecoverable, and can not only harm the performance of the whole team, but cause serious injury. It is a lot of pressure to perform under and the team has been doing it consistently for years. The Purple Knights gymnastics team had won the USA Gymnastics National Championships and the East Coast Athletic Conference Championships for five consecutive years, and since that time have gone on to their sixth straight win of each. That consistency made me confident they could handle what we were planning to do, but I was also now keenly aware that there had to be a certainty that the design would not impede the motion of the performer. The design needs to be able distort easily, and even break or reconfigure if snags or extreme movements create pressure that could alter the path of the performer or her limbs. I also didn’t want the embarrassment of the design disintegrating in mid-performance in the case of a problem, so a further requirement was that if the design is distorted out of shape (reconfigured), that it automatically return to it’s original shape when possible.

Connections -

For every design I’ve made so far, I’ve designed or modified different types of fasteners. Eventually I may have a full library of whatever I need, but right now everything is very custom. With a parametric model, variations of new designs are easily produced, being sized, shaped, and angled for different parts of the design. After doing some rough math to analyze counts of connection points, fasteners, overall number of parts, volume, and time to print and finish, it was obvious that 6 weeks was simply not enough time to complete that many outfits. I really like the cross-stitch style I had used for some of my earlier designs because it is effective at resisting side-to-side motion while allowing stretching between panels. However, assembling the garment would be too time consuming and delicate for that many outfits under those conditions. Fortunately Manhattan’s fashion district is right nearby so I could get a hands-on look at other options. I also met with Becca at Chromat to discuss a project, and she gave me a review of some of the joining methods they use there. I switched to wide elastic straps instead of cord to join the sections, but used heavy cord for inter-layer connections that need to allow short-range out-of-plane movement. To actually join the straps, none of the stock detachable connection types appeared reliable enough for performance. The obvious solution was to sew the connections, but I would prefer the design was adjustable. The solution was found in an adhesive from 3M designed for assembling racing sails. It was very strong, but could be separated and re-attached by hand if needed.

Scanning -

Of the 31 gymnasts on the team, 9 signed on to be scanned.  Shortly before the first scheduled scanning date, the gymnast doing the choreography was injured at a meet. She stayed on to direct the team but obviously could not join the show. The remaining 8 were given full body scans using the fast, portable M3DI white-light scanner. This type of scanner is extremely accurate, and usually used for industrial part inspection. For comparison, this scanner is accurate to about 0.1mm, compared to ~1mm for a typical laser scan, ~1-10mm for photogrammetry, and ~10-20mm for PrimeSense (Kinect, Sense, Structure).

Each scan can create millions of data points, resulting in several gigabytes of data per person that must be processed through a pipeline of scripts, passing the scan sections through various stages of cleaning and reduction. They are all merged into individual bodies, and all the original color samples are projected back onto the skin.

Design -
Layers. Relative Motion.

To converge on a realistic solution, the final designs were restricted in size and complexity. I chose to focus most effort on what I found to be a tricky mechanical interaction between body sections. The focus areas were also chosen for suitability as a physical platform for functionality in future designs. Most of it derives from a concept of mine from 2007 that joins the chest and shoulders in a sort of utility vest, which was created for a mountaineering equipment design project. That expedition gear located a power source and wide-angle camera on the chest and multi-spectral stereo cameras on the shoulders. To generate aligned binocular vision (and extract 3D data) the relative position of the cameras must be exactly known, so the mechanical connection provides angular feedback in addition to stabilizing the platform. The motions of the clavicles and shoulder cuff are interesting, as it is one of the more visibly mechanical parts of the body. To transmit force around such a complicated joint would be an interesting challenge. Another plus with this configuration is that I find the area of the chest just below the clavicles to be an excellent site for a technology platform (electronics could be placed there without interference). This area is normally fairly flat, forward-facing and close to the bodies center of mass, so a complete understanding of any potential interference (contact with limbs, etc.) would be beneficial for future work.

Eventually the scope of the design was limited to meeting a set of requirements where each piece which must be firmly attached, yet also float gently over the body (distribute any pressure evenly) and adapt easily. It is a common assumption by people who have never worn a custom fit, printed garment that it would be uncomfortable, because we are familiar with form-fitting cloth garments that must use pressure to distort the fabric around curves. In the case of these garments, the pressure is so slight and evenly distributed, that it is actually often literally floating above the skin in many places. Perpendicular movement directions necessitated the use of multiply layers to achieve the needed articulation without passing off too much onto the elasticity of the joinery, which I believe would be a bit of a cheat. It would be easy to simply put on a body suit and glue/sew separate parts to it, but the point of the project here is to address the whole raft of issues that arises when having even a small number of rigid mechanical connections over the surface of the body.  With 3D printing one is tempted to rely on the “slop” (looseness) in the 3D printed hinges to give a fudge-factor, but in the end product illustrated by this concept, very fine tolerances would be needed to accurately locate the shoulder positions, and this information is needed to process the shoulder sensor data (to build a 3D image). We are familiar with science fiction, where powered mechanical suits are very thin and each piece seems to have unlimited relative motion (since it isn’t actually attached).  In this project emphasis was on directly addressing the issues of structure for functional reasons.

In early January, before the team was back on Campus for scanning, a complete prototype design was built over data from a non-gymnast performer with a similar body type. This gave a lot of information about part count, volume, and other things I need to know to break down the project into stages that could be analyzed. Multiplying that times the number of performers, the reduced complexity outfits were predicted to need about 300 hours of work, mostly in printing and finishing. The first week of January was already over, and the show was set for February 12th. I also had several pieces planned for the gallery at 3D Print Show, including two new mannequins, one featuring a new design that was only half done at that stage. Since that all worked out to another 150 hours, I was beginning to sweat a bit. By identifying the dependencies between critical elements, creating backups and alternative implementations, and prioritizing the many “nice-to-have” features, a robust plan was developed that could survive virtually any challenge.

Printing -

Because of the number of parts, total volume, and requirement for last minute changes, I went with extrusion printing for production. This also allowed me to use multiple suppliers for redundancy and faster execution. About half the parts were printed from ABS plastic on a Stratasys Uprint, and the rest on an Ultimaker-based system using PLA. All parts were to be given a metallic finish as a nod to the titanium of the original concept. Printing was going well until about ten days before, the Stratasys broke down [edit: actually this was previously scheduled repair/calibration I was not aware of, but the replacements for the worn parts were not on site, leading to a 3-day delay). This happened at the worst possible time, and Stratasys must be fixed by a licensed tech. Our guy in Massachusetts drove down and repaired it, but it wasn’t looking good for scheduling all these parts with less than a week to go. Once we were back up and running, by some amazing coincidence a cooling fan burned out and printing again came to a halt. To his credit, the technician from Massachusetts drove down on a Saturday to come fix it again. Thank goodness, as the only other options would have added thousands of dollars to an already sprawling budget.

Finishing -

Sanding, priming, and painting 3D prints is a lot of work. Fortunately I had two assistants, both industrial design students, to help. Everything was scheduled so tightly that we had to drop one round of sanding and accelerate curing of the finish with heat (carefully, to avoiding melting the parts). The PLA parts also required a coating of epoxy, since they had a very sparse fill pattern and thin walls. After sanding they had many small holes and need some build-up for strength and finish. They were still not cured with mild heating, since normally they would sit for a week. I had to top coat less than 12 hours before assembly, leaving the finish very delicate during the assembly process.

Assembly -

The detachable ball-joint mechanism

For the final lineup we settled on a team of five, with one backup. There were about 60 parts in the final set, and while some were similar between outfits, they are all uniquely customized, so a lot of attention had to be paid to keeping them in order, not switching them or installing them backwards. I did a quick dress rehearsal with one completed outfit to get a feel for what kind of tolerances to use on the straps, and to test the joinery and motion of the garment. The length of each strap and cord was calculated from the model, and shortened by 20% to pre-tension the strap. The dress rehearsal gave approximate values, but each joint has different requirements, and I had no way of testing until I actually put them on the performers. I could have assembled and tested the outfits, disassembled them for finishing, then re-assembled them, but that test would have required many more hours and possibly prevented the parts from being finished. If a part could benefit from a change, there was no time to modify, re-print, and finish the replacement anyway.

In the days leading up to the show, I was struggling to catch up after all the lost printing time. Due to the timing of the completion of the builds, the only solution was to make sure the parts were immediately removed and sent to processing while the next parts were started, which meant being there at all kinds of odd hours and several all-nighters. In the model shop at the University of Bridgeport, six work areas were set up with each outfit and renderings of the final design. The paint room had one mannequin being refinished, one in final stages of Bondo work, and in the furniture lab one mannequin was still a stack of raw cardboard slices needing to be laminated together. The outfits for those mannequins were also being refinished and having their elastic components replaced. In addition to all that activity, I had another designer with me who I was helping with the finishing of another elaborate 3D printed design, also for the 3D Print Show.

Performance -

On the morning of the show I took the train to NY with the team. The backstage area of the fashion show was the most beautiful sort of chaos, and exactly why I love doing this sort of thing. All these models, bless them, were tasked with displaying items that were more often wearable sculptures rather than any sort of clothing, and most designs were not ergonomic to say the least. I got the feeling many of the pieces had never been worn before. Some designers were present to see through the presentation of their work, but in some cases the pieces never made it into the show, or were not shown as intended. Some designers though, went the extra mile to ensure the show went off without a hitch, helpfully applying their experience to sort out last minute issues. Julian Hakes in particular took extra effort to repair some broken pieces. I lent him some adhesive to fix the heel of a serpentine shoe, and it was only later I learned it was not his design, but he diligently asked around the whole place trying to find a solution. My hands were very full, since the final assembly of the outfits was done on-body. I was fairly calm and focused by that time though, since there wasn’t any mental bandwidth left for anything else.

The first run of the performance was for the press. The knights did a great job, sailing through the air with ease, inches from the spectators on either side. There was mention of a dance performance on the website in the lead-up to the show, but it would have been nice to have someone MC the event and explain who we were and what we were doing, since the crowd was mostly fashion editors, and they have very narrow views of what constitutes a fashion show. These viewers of fashion shows are normally there to analyze styles that will influence buyers for the next season. As opposed to illustrating a trend, this show, and especially the Knights performance, would be better described as performance art with “fashion in the future” as a theme. The second performance also went off without a hitch. The girls hit all their choreographic cues, and every connection on every outfit held together for the duration.

This whole project went exactly as planned, and I’m grateful to the organizers of 3D Print Show for giving us opportunity to present. Thanks also go to Kim, Cailyn, Chisaki, Zhara and Lissette who performed in the show, and Erin Turner who put together the choreography. Below is an edit combining the two runs:

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