When Alternative set up shop in San Francisco last December, we launched the second edition of Alternative Grants, looking for proposals showcasing sustainability in design and technology. After impressing and inspiring others with his project, the Electroloom, the world’s first personal 3D printer for clothes, Aaron Rowley won the community vote and was named our Grants recipient.
In addition to a cash prize, Aaron received a one-year membership to Tech Shop SF and mentorship from leaders at Alternative. A few short months later brings us to today and our first quarter check-in with Aaron, whose enthusiasm is as high as ever after a Fast Company feature that put Electroloom on the map and an outpouring of support for his passion project from people all over the world.
For those that don’t know, tell us about your background. How did you come up with the concept for Electroloom and what inspired the idea?
I studied biomedical engineering in college with an emphasis on mechanical design. I also did research focused on tissue engineering and cancer, so I primarily was working on medical technologies. The actual techniques and technology I’m using to develop Electroloom are those that I was exposed to during my undergraduate career and studies in material science and tissue engineering. We’re leveraging these things called non-woven fabrics, which I had exposure to during college, and it’s basically a rapid way to make a fibrous piece of fabric for 3-D printing or rapid prototyping of clothing.
As far as the inspiration for Electroloom, I’ve actually been asked that a few times and it’s an interesting question because it was more of an idea that grew over time. Late last summer, I was talking with friends and got into a discussion about designing clothes using a contemporary engineering toolset, and I realized that the solution didn’t really look like any other engineering solution would. For example, with a product, I might do 3-D modeling and then 3-D print the part out, hold it and look at it and decide how I like it. For clothing, it wasn’t obvious how I would go about prototyping or making something, since it involves a lot of manual cutting, stitching and bulk fabrics—it didn’t seem as easy of a process. From then on, it was constantly on my mind: how might I change it to make it easier? I started to think about the challenge in the context of 3-D printing, using that industry as a model. Over the past 3 years, it’s been booming and has opened up so many doors for people to design things that they only dreamed of, and that was sort of the transitioning point where I started figuring out how I might go about it. I figured if I could use the 3-D printing industry as a model for how to approach the creation of clothes, then that would enable a more open technology and a more open community in regards to clothing design.
It’s been a few months since you were named our Alternative Grants winner. What stage of development were you in before you won and where are you currently?
When I found out about the grant, that was when I first started talking with a group of my friends about how we could actually build or prototype Electroloom. I saw the grant opportunity and I thought it would be a really cool way to accelerate some of the prototyping processes, but also just to get exposure to more of a fashion and clothing crowd and pick their brains on it. We probably hadn’t really built anything; just had a few basic tools and were doing more conceptual work; a lot of 3-D modeling. Leading up to the actual presentation at the Grants event in December, we began to build a lot more, but still very basic stuff. You could call it a “duct tape prototype”, meaning it was sitting in our kitchen, wasn’t controlled and was very manual.
After we won the grant, we realized there was more interest in the idea than we had even thought because we seemed to have struck a chord with people. The thing that truly sort of accelerated everything, especially in terms of development, was the first piece of press that we received from Fast Company after we won. I would call that the catalyst for us starting to move into building because we had received so much interest and we wanted to help bring it to life for all those people.
At this point, over the past couple of months, we’ve actually built up some pretty good systems. We’ve made a few prototype pieces of fabric and we are working on integrating the fabric process to our existing 3-D modeling machine. We’re definitely still in the development process, I’d say the early prototyping phase, but we’re actually building the machine now. So, in terms of development progress, the grant has been huge for us because we went from really scrappy parts in my kitchen to a machine that’s almost automated.
What’s been your biggest challenge with Electroloom thus far? What about your biggest win/achievement?
The biggest challenge is kind of two-fold: there is the obvious engineering challenge of building a device. Since it uses hardware, there are electrical engineering challenges, there are software challenges, even just machining some of this stuff–we’re always going to be encountering issues that we couldn’t foresee. The other big challenge is just financing. We decided to go all-in and make this our full-time gig, but some of the key technologies that we want necessarily require funding and capital to be able to build them in the best way, so we’re exploring how we can solve and overcome this now.
The biggest win has been the reception of the idea. Electroloom was our crazy dream and after the exposure from Fast Company we had all of these people emailing us and reaching out and either praising the idea, encouraging us and even offering a way to get involved or help. What was really wild to me was that it wasn’t just Silicon Valley or LA, it was people from Paris, Vietnam, Czech Republic, England, Brazil—seriously, all over the world. It was a really surreal experience to open up my inbox and see emails from around the world with people saying, “I heard about your idea and I think it’s really cool.” Regardless of how far along we are in our development process, so far, for me, it’s been so great to know that I’m building something people care about and something they are inspired by.
How has the Tech Shop partnership helped to shape Electroloom’s development?
I rave about Tech Shop to everyone! It’s one of the only places I’ve seen that’s a true hub for people to do creative work that’s so diverse. I try to get in there as often as I can. Having access to the machines is incredible. I can do things, prototyping-wise, that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do. Being in that environment where people are super motivated and determined and want to create something really different than the status quo, that’s accelerated what we’ve been doing. It’s such a nurturing environment that I think has really enhanced the Electroloom build process.
If I’m not at my apartment, I’m generally at Tech Shop.
What is your development schedule looking like?
We don’t have a hard date. Dates are manifesting as the technology progresses, so our biggest focus for 2014 is advancing as much as possible. Our goal by end of year is to have some form of a prototype. Whether that is only slightly improved over our duct tape prototype or a fully functional, ready-for-manufacturing version, that’s still to be determined, but we’ve slated 2014 as a really in-depth development year, where we start to really understand the technology and how to advance it from there.
If you could look 5 years into the future, where do you see yourself and Electroloom?
I think whether it’s Electroloom or another technology, I would hope that in five years, this idea of rapid prototyping of clothing is credible and that people are using it. For me, it’s more about affecting the existing paradigm. Even if Electroloom does nothing more than advance the conversation and inspire people to rethink thousands of years old systems like clothing, that’s enough and that’s what I hope comes out of it.
Fundamentally, I hope that Electroloom allows people to feel empowered about design and feel that clothing design is more accessible.
Aaron Rowley will be speaking at Techshop SF Maker Faire 2014 in late May.
Written by Rachel Maniago
Photos by Daniel Morris