Guests at Nina Tandon and Noah Keating’s wedding earlier this month received laser-cut invitations and sat at tables adorned with custom vases made from 3D-printed molds. Tandon–a biomedical engineer, CEO of the company Epibone, and a TED speaker–walked down the aisle in a gown digitally printed with a wispy pink pattern based on connective tissue found in the body. When the couple exchanged vows, Keating, a creative technologist, slipped Tandon’s wedding band next to the engagement ring he digitally designed and 3D printed for her.
Weddings have always been a highly custom affair but as Tandon and Keating’s nuptials show, digital fabrication–like 3D printing and laser cutting–are offering news ways for brides and grooms to create the personalized event of their dreams. And we’re not just talking about creepy 3D-printed cake toppers. Will the wedding industry forever change?
Weddings are often the biggest, most lavish event a couple will host. Invites, dresses, suits, tabletop decor, flowers, dinner, and a cake need to be rented or purchased. Though the ceremony is steeped in tradition, the way couples go about planning and buying these things has changed significantly over the years.
Decades ago, couples were limited to what they saw in bridal magazines, what their event planner showed them, or what they saw at weddings of their friends and families. Now, they have access to a wealth of ideas on Pinterest and bridal blogs. Social media allows a voyeuristic look at the weddings of strangers and acquaintances. Sophisticated fabrication technology lets couples find exactly what they want. “I already have an obsession with making things,” Tandon says. “I love the DIY movement and how this industry has facilitated connecting crafty ideas with people who can make them. It unleashed our creativity.”
Since digital fabrication is part of Tandon’s work–Epibone uses 3D modeling to grow bones from patients’ own cells–it made sense to become a central theme in her wedding. It started with the 3D-printed engagement ring Keating designed for her (it’s based on the pattern of cardiac tissue, which was the subject of Tandon’s PhD) and then “it was a little bit of a snowball effect,” Tandon says.
Collaborating with her friend and wedding planner, Jaimie Rae, Tandon found ways to riff on the 3D-printed theme.
Grant Goldner, a New York-based industrial designer, worked with the couple on laser-etched wedding invitations that feature a pattern based on the cross section of bones. Fashion designer Holly Renee–who specializes in STEM-inspired dresses–created a silk sari for Tandon that’s digitally printed with an abstraction of cellular tissue. (“For me connective tissue is symbolic of what a wedding is about,” Tandon says.) Rae designed and 3D printed a mold to make concrete ikebana holders for flower centerpieces at each of the tables. Kasia Wisniewski, a former designer for Vera Wang and the owner of a popular Etsy shop for brides, 3D printed poppies for Tandon’s hair and bouquet.
“If you can dream it, it’s out there,” Rae says about digital fabrication’s potential. “From something on your body to on the table, it can be used for every single element.”
As architect and jewelry designer Jenny Wu sees it, part of the shift to 3D printing is generational, but it’s more about the desire for unique things than latching onto the newest technology.
“Having something unique is important for millennials,” she says. “There is a need for a uniquely designed pieces, but if it’s 3D printed and it’s not well designed, they wouldn’t want it.”
Wu creates rings and nylon necklaces, which are statement pieces popular with brides, but her customers don’t come to her specifically because the pieces are 3D printed–they like the design and they like how easy it is to tweak it. She works with customers to create a 3D-printed wax mold that she then uses to cast precious metals like gold, platinum, and bronze. “We’re able to build in details that would otherwise be unusual for making rings by hand, like if you use raw material and hammer it in place. We can create chambers, knife edges, and ambitious forms.”
While rings are a popular 3D-printed product for weddings, the technique doesn’t stop there. “In wedding trends, you think about things that are used by the bride, but we see it for bowties and tie clips for men,” says Dayna Isom Johnson, an expert at Etsy–a popular platform for DIY wedding planners. Other popular 3D-printed items she’s seen? Cake toppers, cookie cutters, monogramed napkin rings, and cufflinks. But the most telling product for how digitization is infiltrating weddings is probably the 3D-printed wedding hashtag–a popular item for captions on Instagram.
Customization certainly isn’t anything new–it has been a hallmark of weddings for a while. But to Lauren Slowik, a design evangelist at the 3D printing company Shapeways, which has an entire portal dedicated to wedding-related products and makers, it’s about scalable customization.
“People are very motivated to make a splash and make something personal but the ability to do that at a scale, even at a small wedding, can be daunting,” Slowik says. “Finishing tying all the bows on mason jars can turn into a time suck. When you try to make your wedding personal, it can be overwhelming. What’s cool about 3D printing is you can have an influence on every part of the design, and it’s scalable–if you need more custom napkin rings, it won’t end your life. You can focus on the fun stuff.”
Weddings come at a steep price. According to the planning site TheKnot.com, the average cost of a wedding in the United States is $32,600.
The great promise of 3D printing is that it’s more affordable at scale than handmade goods since labor is limited to the prototype, not churning out 100 of the same thing. To some degree that’s true–but not always.
“Everything is possible, but it’s how much money you want to spend,” Slowik says. “Would it be wise to 3D print all your silverware? No. The process is great for smaller pieces and tokens, but a full dinnerware set would set you back. It’s still a bespoke scenario there.”
More bang for your buck is a big part of the equation for Chris Neubauer of Yonder Design, a custom printing and graphics shop based in San Francisco. In the past year, the studio has laser cut and laser etched wedding invitations and place cards on leather, marble, wood, horn, mother of pearl, acrylic, glass, paper, slate–the list goes on. So while digitally fabricating silverware for 100 place settings is cost prohibitive, creating beautiful invitations via a machine can be more affordable than some traditional methods.
“Digital fabrication is perfectly suited to weddings because the quantities [needed] are relatively low,” he says. “The set-up time and cost for many printing methods [like letterpress] is a large barrier in the wedding industry. Having access to a laser makes creating mock-ups and shorter runs very feasible. Wedding clients generally want something unique and this is exactly what we can provide using these tools.”
The lesson from Wisniewski is to use 3D printing judiciously. “It’s something that can be a little more expensive than other manufacturing processes,” she says. “If you’re getting something custom, 3D printing makes sense. If you’re getting something that could be found off the shelf, it doesn’t make sense. 3D printing a square is a dumb idea–there’s no added value.”
She also thinks that using digital fabrication is a boon for wedding designers. “It allows you to offer a wider range of products without a tremendous amount of inventory, and you can iterate quickly for a customer,” she says. “If you want something slightly changed, you’re not making a new mold. That’s a big advantage. And if someone wants to add their initials to something, that can be added easily with 3D printing.”
3D printing may be getting more sophisticated, but it still has drawbacks.
“The material limitations are still something that’s preventing [3D printing from] happening in a more commercial scale,” Wu says. “I think jewelry is absolutely ready. In terms of fashion, the material concern is wearability. It’s less about whether or not we can print something; it’s cost. It’s really expensive at a large scale. Often times the material we print in is like, a hard nylon, which would be uncomfortable to wear. It wouldn’t be a dress you can party in–it’ll look stunning but you might have to have a party dress for after the ceremony.”
Slowik agrees. “The frontier is introducing more finished materials to the industry,” she says. “The 3D printing industry, which is insular, is changing. Machine and process patents are expiring, making it more affordable for people to experiment. The industry is also realizing that people want finished product materials. In rapid prototyping, it was mimicking the form factor of a part. Now consumers have access to technology and software and are understanding printing on demand. They want the materials of real products. The more people realize those materials—like porcelain and metal–are out there, the demand is going to expand.”
Rae experimented with 3D-printed chocolate for Tandon and Keating’s wedding, but decided the results weren’t good enough. “3D printing food is another frontier,” she says. “Jewelry is okay, clothing is okay, some of the centerpieces were okay, but food is tough. It’s almost like bioprinting.”
Wisniewski thinks that to some degree 3D printing is a flavor of the month, but it’ll eventually become just another manufacturing technique. “3D printing is a hook now,” she says. “In the future it’ll be like any other manufacturing technique. You don’t got to Target and marvel at an injection-molded ball–no one cares. Now that it’s a novelty, you start off saying ‘3D-printed flower’ or ‘3D-printed jewelry.’ The hope is that the 3D-printed heading will go away and it’ll be a part of our daily lives.”
As more weddings that use 3D printing take place, Rae expects the trend to eventually become mainstream, though she doesn’t have a prediction for when. The extent to which Tandon and Keating used digital fabrication was a rarity since both of them were already fluent in the technology.
“As things really start to catch on in that section of the industry, it’ll become more and more available,” she says. “It’s so new that many people aren’t aware of it.”