Nov. 12, 2013 -- In what undergarment observers call a first, a 3D printer has produced a pair of lady's panties—in three seconds, no less. The day when you'll be able to walk into a store and, minutes later, walk out wearing a custom-made, 3D-printed suit is not far off, says one expert.
Melba Kurman, co-author with Hod Lipson of "Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing," tells ABC News she thinks there's no reason why in five years a man couldn't walk into, say, Brooks Brothers, get scanned by a computer, and then come back in a few hours to pick up a bespoke 3D-printed suit.
"But that's not pushing the limits," she says of 3D printing technology, which already is being used to make everything from shower heads to key chains.
She envisions a near-term future where 3D printers will make possible a marriage of fabric and intelligence—which, given the clientele for men's suits, would indeed be revolutionary.
"Imagine printing a textile of some kind," she says, "and dropping in a very fine thread of connective metal—perhaps an embedded printed circuit of some kind. The result would be a smart fabric. You could walk out of Brooks Brothers with a conductive suit carrying tiny electronic components."
The suit could warn you if your heart rate rises higher than what your doctor recommends. It could tell you it's about to rain, and that you should unfurl your umbrella.
3D-printed felt, she says, is here already. And here, too, are 3D-printed panties.
The latter are the creation of an English company, Tamicare, based in Manchester. According to Bloomberg, each of the company's $3 million printers can produce 10 million disposable, biodegradable panties a year. Tamicare describes Cosyflex, the nonwoven fabric the printers produce, as a "playground for product development."
Tamar Giloh, Tamicare's CEO, tells ABC News that no one knows, right now, how big the market for the fabric may be. It's breathable, stretchable and drapes, she says. The company has received inquiries about it from industries as disparate as healthcare, fashion and automotive.
"Because of the structuring of the fabric, we can add additives for medical or sport applications—even electronic circuits," says Giloh. The company's 100 patents include one for making fashion clothing.
Kurman thinks that owing to what she calls the plummeting cost of 3D printing hardware and software, an affordable custom-made, 3D printed suit for the middle-class shopper might not be any farther off than five years.
Independent consulting firm Wohlers Associates reported in May that the market for 3D printing—consisting of all products and services worldwide—enjoyed an average annual growth rate of more than 27 percent over the past three years.
Wohlers predicts the industry will continue to enjoy "strong, double-digit" growth, and that sales of 3D printing products and services will approach $6 billion by 2017.