3D Knitting Ecosystem:
Documenting the Stakeholder Experience

2017-2020

3D Knit Ecosystem Workflow
Copyright 2022. Not to be used without permission.

Background

3D knitting refers to shaped textile products that are knit in a single piece, without seams. The goal of this study was to investigate the contributions of the designer in the 3D knit ecosystem by exploring the relationships between the three primary stakeholder groups. Stakeholders include designers (who conceptualize the products), programmers (who input design data into the knitting machine), and manufacturers (who manage and operate production facilities with multiple knitting machines). Stakeholders are not typically co-located, and must navigate product development remotely.

3D knitting reduces manual labour (no need for textile assembly as products are seamlessly shaped and assembled on the knitting machine) eliminates textile waste compared to cut-and-sew processes common in the apparel industry, and increases wearer comfort and opportunities to incorporate smart technology. Despite these benefits, adoption of 3D knitting technology in North America has been slow. Studies have explored 3D knit adoption overseas but no research has investigated the development of this industry in Canada and the United States, where the industry is young and growing.

My Role

I was the principal investigator in this project and was responsible for the research design, method selection, participant identification and recruitment, data collection, data analysis and interpretation, including designing all supporting visual materials (i.e. 3D knit ecosystem workflow, stakeholder considerations, tacit knowledge areas).

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Shima Seiki 3D Knitting Machine
Image adapted from Shapeways. www.shapeways.com

Challenges

There are few locations within Canada and the United States that offer 3D knit manufacturing on-site. This study took a user-focused systems approach to review the relationships between stakeholders and tap into their tacit knowledge, so travel was essential to visit participants at their workplaces. Funding was acquired to travel across Canada and the U.S. to meet with 18 participants at their locations and tour their sites. 

Limitations

This study was conducted in Canada and the United States and was limited by the number of 3D knit practitioners across the three stakeholder groups who responded to calls for participation. 3D knitting is still a growing industry in Canada and the U.S., and the pool of practitioners is still small. Because of this, the results reflect the opinions and experiences of the individuals who opted to take part in this study and may not reflect the experiences of all 3D knit designers, programmers, or manufacturers.

Methods

This qualitative study employed immersive, human-centred approaches to learn about stakeholder experiences and relationships, mapping out the 3D knit ecosystem to provide insights for improving innovation adoption.

Preliminary Interviews

Potential participants were contacted via public profiles on Linkedin, interviews explored key pain points in the industry.

Touchstone Tours

Tours of participants' workspaces used the work environment and tools as probes for discussion.

Semi-Structured Interviews

Interviews provided guidelines and talking points but were left open-ended to allow participants to lead the discussion.

Methods were informed by principles of storytelling (Whyte & Classen, 2012) and Critical Incident Technique (Flannagan, 1954; Bitner et al, 1994). Data types included audiorecordings and transcripts from interviews, photos, videos, sketches, fieldnotes, and miscellaneous supplemental documents.

Results

Results indicate that 3D knitting provides benefits in five categories: consumer/product, manufacturer, design and development, business strategy, and sustainability. Challenges and roadblocks were identified in four categories across all three stakeholders: costs, education and employment, design & development, and communication. 

This study mapped stakeholder considerations and identified areas of overlap where stakeholders must cooperate to achieve the product design and development goal. Key considerations are highlighted in the illustration below.

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3D Knit Stakeholder Considerations
Copyright 2022. Not to be used without permission.

Tacit knowledge was found to play a meaningful role in the performance of these skills and in the way that stakeholders relate to one another through various channels of communication. 3D knit technology amplifies the differences in tacit knowledge between the different institutions involved in this cooperative fabrication process because it brings together practitioners from distinctly different institutional backgrounds, who do not naturally share a collective understanding of work-based objectives. Tacit knowledge areas within 3D knit institutions are illustrated below.

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Tacit Knowledge Areas in 3D Knit Institutions
Copyright 2022. Not to be used without permission.

Impact

This study identified the need for more immersive training and education opportunities to bridge the gaps between technical roles and design roles in 3D knitting. 

Publications

Schaefer, K. (2022 - under review). The 3D Knit Ecosystem: Stakeholders, Innovation Management, and 3D Knitting Jedis. Creativity & Innovation Management. 

Schaefer, K. (2021). Where are the 3D Knitting Jedis? In ITAA 2021 Proceedings: Breaking Boundaries. Winner: ITAA Paper of Distinction

Schaefer, K. (2019). Diffusion of 3D knitting: The fashion designer and the digital divide. In Creating Digital Opportunity Partnership Network Conference. Toronto, ON. Website: https://munkschool.utoronto.ca/ipl/cdo-papers-and-presentations/

Reflection

I conceived, developed, and led this project as my primary doctoral research initiative. Conducting this work demanded a combination of skills, from cold-calling potential participants, navigating the research process in new locations, learning to assess a scenario to keep discussions relevant to the research goals, and practicing diligent note-taking, record-keeping, and regular organization of data. Qualitative studies produce a large quantity of descriptive data; I learned it is important to ask the right questions to target your answers as much as possible without influencing the respondents because a 5-hour interview sounds like a gold mine of relevant information but it is also a time-consuming and exhausting body of work to review and process for analysis. I also learned the importance of doing the thing that is being researched; I enrolled in a 3D knitting course to learn how to use the machines. This elevated my understanding of the subject matter when conducting touchstone tours with participants, and enabled me to ask more relevant questions and respond in an informed, thoughtful way.