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Fabric and Electronics 3D Printing Firm Voxel8 Bought by Kornit Digital

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Voxel8 has been acquired by Kornit Digital, a textile manufacturing company specializing in on-demand textile production, where digital printing is applied to textiles. The Israeli firm has revenues of $179 million and over 400 staff.

Voxel8 was founded as a Harvard spinout from Professor Jennifer Lewis‘ Lab. Initially an electronics 3D printer manufacturer, the company made a somewhat bizarre pivot to footwear and fabric 3D printing. The firm launched in 2014 and has since received over $12 million in funding, got money from In-Q-tel, changed CEOs, as well as direction, and made items for Hush Puppy and other fashion-related accessories.

Voxel8’s ActiveLab system for 3D printing onto textiles. The technique can not only add color and detailing, but also change the stiffness of a material, making it possible to create shoe uppers and other items. Image courtesy of Voxel8.

“Voxel8’s innovative technologies and talent will help us accelerate the execution of our 4.0 strategy to digitize sustainable, on-demand textile production. With this advanced and proven 3D technology, we will disrupt the business of fashion, empowering completely new creative decorative concepts and never-before-seen functional textile applications, while exploring new lucrative opportunities in the functional apparel and footwear markets,” stated Ronen Samuel, Kornit Digital Chief Executive Officer.

Kornit was already moving towards the 3D printing realm, just recently announcing its MAX technology that can make 3D printed surfaces atop of textiles. So, the tie up seems like it is a logical one that could very well be beneficial to Kornit shareholders.

“Voxel8 offers direct 3D print-on-part capabilities, advanced design software that can be easily integrated with any production floor software workflow, and versatile chemistry enabling on-the-fly formulation of high-performance elastomers to change the material properties of the resulting printed structures by multiple orders of magnitude. This means reflective, high-density, silicone and metallics, as well as compression elements for sports and therapeutics, protection elements like cushioning and impact resistance, and functionality applications like anti-slip, waterproofing, and other qualities combining form and function that are key to Kornit’s vision of digitizing production in every conceivable manner,” said Kobi Mann, Kornit Digital Chief Technology Officer.

For Voxel8, I can’t help but think that there could have been much more of a future out there for the firm if it would have stuck to electronics printing. Voxel8’s inkjet-based technologies and voxel-level control could have broadly shaken up many an industry, but may yet in the hands of Kornit revolutionize fashion. It kind of feels as if Henry Ford sold Ford to a company making ice cream trucks.

Shoes featuring uppers with details printed by Voxel8’s ActiveLab technology. Image courtesy of Voxel8.

“Voxel8’s innovative and sustainable technology—tested by some of the world’s leading global fashion and footwear brands, such as Hush Puppies, which is part of Wolverine Worldwide, enables the digital creation of unique decorative and functional applications, while eliminating time and waste from the manufacturing process. Voxel8 shares Kornit’s vision of transforming the textile industry and couldn’t be more excited to be part of the journey to build the operating system of sustainable fashion on demand,” said Fred von Gottberg, Voxel8’s CEO.

Digital Embroidery by Kornit’s MAX technology.

Voxel8’s ambitions may be a bit curtailed, but multimaterial printing is now gaining traction in a huge space. The ability to print on demand with multiple materials and change the properties of these materials at every discrete location is something that has long interested designers and engineers but has so far had few actual implementations. Limitations in software, testing, machine speeds, and thinking have really lead to only few, public, implementations of multi material 3D printing and gradient parts. But in the arms of Kornit this technology could be rolled out to millions of garments.

Direct-to-garment is also something that has so far not enthused the general public. It should, however. Many garments are destroyed currently because they can’t find buyers. Much clothing is delayed landfill that is bought as a fun activity to pass the time and then discarded. Clothing wear rates by the general public are very low and many have mountains of tops, t-shirts and items hidden deep in closets. We are producing too much stuff and too much of it is being tossed. Many fashion companies try to predict just how many green wool sweaters with Santas on them Danish people will buy in 14 months. This is clearly shortsighted and inefficient. It opens companies up to fashion risk where they often have to deploy deep discounts to clear inventory or risk not having enough of very popular items.

Inditex (the company behind Zara) already can design and implement a new product in under two weeks, including the time it takes to get it in hundreds of stores. Inditex already can reorder new items overnight and mitigates fashion risk through controlling supply chain and monitoring orders closely. But, now with Kornit, and other technologies such as Shima Seiki Wholegarment knitting, the on-demand age may finally be here for fashion.

For certain items stockists and brands would be able to print the hot design when the consumer wants it. So, a company will have 1,000 t-shirts that can all be made with a 1,000 different designs printed on them, depending on what the customer wants on the day. Customers could even mass-customize items so that they would care more about them and pay more fore them. On the whole digital manufacturing close to the consumer could significantly reduce waste and unsold items. It could make the entire fashion system a bit more sustainable as well as enable greater variance in designs and styles and that could see Voxel8 have a big impact on the world still.

And we cannot write off Voxel8’s electronics 3D printing technology altogether. There may be some behind-the-scenes R&D taking place for the wearables market.

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