Ministry of Supply is betting big on the power of 3D printing

The “performance professional” brand Ministry of Supply is hoping to set a new tone for retail with its debut today of a 3D robotic knitting machine in their Boston flagship. The technology, developed in partnership with the Shima Sheiki team (creators of the first computerized flat-knitting system), will allow consumers to design and create their own blazers on demand — blazers that, like the brand’s other products inspired by activewear, will be wrinkle-proof, sweat-wicking, stretchy and machine-washable, as well as seamless to allow for easier movement.

“We’re starting off with blazers, but the beauty of the machine is that, once you develop this core product, you’re able to make extensions to it very easily,” said Ministry of Supply’s CEO Aman Advani, who cofounded the company with Gihan Amarasiriwardena.

Though the process is impressive, it’s still not as speedy as other technologies that customers have grown accustomed to. After a design phase that takes a few minutes, the printing itself takes an hour and a half, followed by another few minutes of finishing work that includes setting the fabric. The machine can only print one garment at a time, too — though the team notes that it can run overnight, allowing them to churn out any built-up orders within 24 hours.

It isn’t cheap, either. The custom-made blazers, available for both men and women, will retail for $345.

3D Print-Knit_0001_Shima Machine
Ministry of Supply’s Shima Sheiki 3D printer

Nevertheless, it’s still the first machine to print a large piece of clothing in-store — brands like Brooklyn’s Thursday Finest have previously incorporated 3D technology into their stores, but they focus on smaller items like neckties and scarves. Larger companies like Adidas and Eileen Fisher have also experimented with the printing method in less-permanent pop-up and presentation formats.

“Gimmicky sounds too negative, but it’s probably a fair word,” said Advani of these previous attempts. “A lot of folks dip their toes in this customization movement, but we think it can revolutionize both supply and demand.”

On the supply side side, the team notes that its printing process is nearly zero-waste, leaving behind only a few grams of support yarn, compared to the 35 percent of fabric that they estimate is thrown out during traditional suit creation. Skipping over many steps of that typical process, like laying out and cutting a pattern, also saves significant time.

What’s more, the speedier production process means there’s no uptick in inventory.

As for how it alters demand, Advani said: “The customer gets to be part of the process and design a garment that’s knit just for them.” 

Using an interactive display that’s on a podium by the machine, they’ll be able to choose their garment’s color from a variety of different yarns (which they can also mix to create a unique shade), as well as their cuff and button colors. Fabric swatches and sample garments will also be on-hand to help inspire them, and though sizing is generic for now, they hope to launch custom-sizing in the future. Once these decisions are made, the printer can get started.

Both men believe that such hyper-local production will have massive implications for a retail market many consider to be on shaky ground. Stores will evolve rather than die out, they said, by centralizing the various processes that are still relegated to factories, customer service offices and warehouses.

They’re betting big on this. This time last year, Ministry of Supply had only two stores — today, they have nine. But the brand is in no rush to double or triple that number. “We don’t want 150 locations. We want 10-12 elegant, unique spaces that serve the local markets in a way that the online world can’t,” they said.

It will be a while before they offer 3D printing in other stores, however. Arranging it for their Boston store took upward of two years. “If it was easy, everyone would do it,” said Amarasiriwardena, noting that, of the many challenges, one involved shutting down Boston’s Newbury Street so that a 50-foot crane could lower the 3,000-pound machine into their store. “You have to have both the passion for fashion and the engineering prowess [to achieve it].”

3D Print-Knit_0003_FeaturesA mock-up of Ministry of Supply’s seamless, 3D-knit blazer

Luckily Advani and Amarasiriwardena have both. The duo met six years ago at MIT and launched Ministry of Supply a year later on Kickstarter, in an effort to use their engineering skills to resolve the problem of uncomfortable and unflattering clothing.

“We’re the first generation going to work that grew up [wearing] Nike dry-fit, Under Armour and [all of these] performance technology brands that we take for granted now,” said Advani. “So when we showed up for our first day of work and were told we had to wear these super stiff, dry-clean-only, non-breathable, sweat-stain-inducing suits, we just didn’t tolerate it.”

Instead, they identified all the relevant problem spaces — things like body odor and movement strain — and set out to resolve them. The result is workwear separates that perform, but also maintain the style and sharpness of a fashion-forward brand — in addition to the best athletic clothing.  “You look better than you would in a traditional dress shirt because, at 4 p.m., you’re not half-untucked and covered in wrinkles and sweat stains,” said Amarasiriwardena.

Today, they have over 40 employees across the world, with 12 based at their Boston headquarters. They expect to ship 100,000 units this year and hope that today’s launch will help build their brand footprint.

They also believe it will help to democratize a technology often considered confusing or inaccessible. “We use the analogy that we are chefs who have this incredible oven that no one’s been able to tap into, and it’s our job to figure out how to scale that experience and squeeze the most out of it,” said Advani. “We think that in a couple of years, it could be a real part of our supply chain.”

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