Before arriving at the University of Oregon in the fall of 2015, Beth Esponnette was living the life of a startup founder in Silicon Valley. A recent Stanford MFA graduate, she was focused on finding funding for her company, unspun, a startup seeking to revolutionize clothing manufacturing from inside a Bay Area business accelerator.
But that all changed when Kiersten Muenchinger, then program director for UO Product Design, contacted Esponnette through social media. Muenchinger had heard of Esponnette’s work developing clothing manufacturing techniques that merged 3D printing and weaving. With years of experience in the textile industry and recent stints teaching sewing and laser cutting classes at a Bay Area machine shop, Esponnette seemed well-qualified for an open position as an assistant professor of product design.
“She suggested that I should apply for the job, and I thought she had made a mistake so I called her and said, ‘Are you sure?’” Esponnette recalled. “She said, ‘I was in your shoes ten years ago. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to teach and if I was ready. Just give it a shot.’”
Going from entrepreneurship to academia turned out to be a good move for Esponnette, who recently received a Faculty Research Award to further explore chemical-reactive 3D printing. Her colleagues and students inspire her with her work in new 3D printing methods and also with her startup, unspun, which is pushing new methods of “additive” textile and clothing manufacturing.
Originally from Maine, Esponnette says Eugene now feels more like home to her than the Bay Area. She is in the process of relocating her company to Eugene and continues to seek solutions to many of the same problems that were vexing her as a Bay Area entrepreneur.
In Esponnette’s view, the clothing industry has not kept up with other sectors when it comes to modernizing. Manufacturers have continued to rely on cheap overseas labor and old-fashioned “subtractive” manufacturing practices that literally leave a quarter of the materials on the cutting room floor. Esponnette, instead, is looking to new methods that could lead to savings in cost, materials, labor abuse, energy use, and time — not to mention new performance possibilities for the products themselves.
“My focus is in textiles and soft goods. I’m mostly interested in woven textile products, and trying to figure out how we can remove people from the equation of manufacturing,” Esponnette says. “If we want to bring manufacturing back to the United States, it’s only cost-effective with 3D printing and robotics.”
Esponnette says she hopes to bring people closer to their clothing. She’s doing that in a number of ways. She recently received a mention on the technology news website CNET for her inspired clothing designs, including a vest made out of sprouted chia seeds
We had a chance to talk with Esponnette about the future of clothing manufacturing, her research, her teaching and what to expect from one of the first occupants of the UO’s new downtown Eugene innovation hub, 942 Olive Street.
What exactly is additive manufacturing?
Additive manufacturing, as most people know it, is 3D printing. Additive manufacturing is a building up versus subtractive process, which is how most of the products that we have around us today are made. Subtractive manufacturing starts with a big block and chisels down to the desired product, which produces a lot of waste. Roughly twenty-five percent of fabric is wasted just by cutting, whereas with additive manufacturing, you build up from the ground. I think we should remove that subtractive process from building clothing and say “Ok, we have our yarn let’s go straight to the three-dimensional product.
Are there any other advantages to additive manufacturing?
An interesting thing that I’m fascinated by with our new woven technology is that it’s not limited by the standard loom structure because of what our robotics can do. They can be very very specific in the way they build up a fabric. You can start to potentially make a knit crossed with a woven so you can get hybridized kinds of fabrics, whereas before you had to have a different fabric sewn to another fabric. You can start to create gradients so it’s more similar to, say, our bodies, where you don’t have bone juncture with ligament, you have bone, gradient, ligament, so it really strengthens the joint. If you have things like that in the clothing we wear it’s going to make them much stronger, last longer, and be better performing.
Are there other people doing research in this area?
In clothing 3D printing I’m one of the few, and no one that I can find is working on woven tech. There are others— like for example Nike makes their fly-knit shoes, that’s seamless technology but they are knit structures, it’s a different kind of fabric. There’s another company called Electroloom and they do non-woven structures. So those are the basic three types of fabrics, wovens, knits, and non-wovens, and those other two categories are kind of covered. Ours is similar to those two applications, but the structure is a woven.
What’s the advantage of a woven structure?
Before our tech, it was not possible to make a seamless woven garment. There are numerous advantages of wovens over other fabrics. One is dimensional stability: the fabric is stronger and will not stretch out of shape like a knit will. Another is high-cover: it will cover the skin and protect it from wind, rain, heat, cold, UV rays, etc. Wovens are also low-profile and lightweight: not too bulky or thick. Being able to make seamless woven garments is huge for any kind of piece of clothing that has to protect from the elements because the failure points are at the seams. Remove the seams, and you have a much-higher performing product. Anyone who is going to be climbing Everest, firefighters, astronauts are going to have woven outer layers, because wovens are the only fabrics that can create a barrier.
Can you tell us a bit about the work you’re going to be doing at 942 Olive Street?
Our new 942 Olive Street space is a great opportunity for UO Green Chemistry, RAIN, and UO Product Design to collaborate more spontaneously than we do currently. Creativity tends to increase when diverse mindsets collide, and innovation is strengthened when unplanned. In the new space, I hope not only to hold classes and make use of the new rapid prototyping equipment but also meet and collaborate with people outside of Product Design and even outside of the university.
What was the inspiration for the chia seed vest that was featured on the CNET website? Do you have any other unusual wearables in the works?
I was inspired by biology for its manufacturing and maintenance processes: How does it produce things? How does it maintain and repair the things it has produced? And how does it deal with waste and things at the end of their lifecycle? The Wearables collection, which includes the chia vest, explores how we can use some of these learnings of growth, decay, and circular lifecycles. I also attempt to push people’s comfort zones with the materials they may be used to or not used to seeing worn – I want to start to break down the preconceived notions we hold with these materials and others. These preconceived notions can often hinder innovation because they are automatically written off before given a chance to be adapted and adopted.
Can you tell us about the Faculty Research Award you won?
I recently won one of the 2016 Faculty Research Awards, given annually by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation, with a proposal to explore new methods of 3D printing with rubber materials. The aim of this particular proof of concept study is to determine which of the possible methods is the most promising and then form a research team with which to apply to a larger research grant for further study. I am currently working with a student on the research, but am looking to expand the team in the next year. We are particularly interested in chemists and material scientists who are excited by thermoset polymers.
What’s the status of your startup company?
We are currently building out our team in the Eugene area. Our prototypes are getting closer to commercialization with every go, and we are refining our business strategy. Our company is focused mostly on the wovens aspect of additive manufacturing and 3D printing and building clothing straight from yarn. We’d like to eventually be able to turn polymer straight to a product but that’s too many steps all at once. That’s in the future. So right now we’re focusing on yarn and how do you build a woven product straight from the yarn? And it really involves some interesting potential for customization, which is a huge thing that 3D printing allows for that other processes don’t. One of many investigations we are doing is figuring out what sorts of products people are willing to pay more for to have customized.
How did you first become interested in teaching?
I worked and taught at Tech Shop in the Bay Area, which is like a co-op machine shop. Basically, people buy year-long memberships and then they have access to this machine shop. It’s a really interesting conglomeration of people who are makers, but who may be also starting their own company or people who just want to learn how to put things together. Working there was my introduction to teaching and, through it, I realized I loved teaching. I taught laser cutting and sewing classes, which isn’t that different from what I’m teaching here at the UO.
What are you teaching at the UO?
I teach a course on digital tools for physical and digital realization: laser cutting, Adobe Creative Cloud, CAD software, 3D printing and CNC machining. I also teach a large lecture course on small and large-scale manufacturing, which includes comparisons of environmental and monetary costs. In addition to those, I teach on entrepreneurship in product design, and experimenting with materials in the realm of product design.
What do you like about teaching?
How eager students are to learn. I think especially with our department there’s this very apparent excitement with learning. When something becomes very tangible you can see the excitement. I’m sure that excitement is there with other disciplines, but it doesn’t seem like people are as animated about it. Somehow that comes out and it’s just exciting to be around all the time. It’s a very inspiring kind of environment. I’m a very independent person and so far this has been a really good career choice for me because no one is breathing down my neck. There’s a lot of trust involved, you have to be self driven, you have to show up ready for class and ready to teach. No one is going to hand off materials to teach, you really have to come up with them yourself. I love that. I love that independence to teach.
What were your first impressions of Eugene?
I loved how green it was. The first thing that hit me was that there is life here, things can thrive here. The biggest thing was how open, friendly and non threatening my fellow faculty members were. They are really good people and that's been further reinforced since I’ve been here. I guess in the past I’ve heard of faculty and academics being very cutthroat and I don’t see that in my department.
What was the environment like at Stanford? How does it compare with Eugene?
Stanford is a little less industrial, a little traditional, they are a little less hands on. They pushed design thinking a little bit more, and the business side of it. I think that’s one of the reasons I started to go in that direction of fostering a company is that it’s such a big thing there. The entrepreneurial vibe is huge. It kind of draws you in, I think for the better. I think it’s good for people to be pushing new ideas and trying them out and failing. When I first got to Stanford I thought, “This is ridiculous: people decide they want to start companies before they even come up with ideas. What is this?” But then I kind of fell into that trap and I enjoyed it. I think it’s better to have a lot of people making mistakes and a few people succeeding and changing and adding diversity to the market rather than no one trying at all. Eugene is really starting to jump on the bandwagon with entrepreneurship. That was really neat and inspiring to see. The Bay area has a lot of money for it and I sometimes wonder and worry if that’s one of the reasons why a lot of people get into it is because they see that potential for making a lot of money. At least (in Eugene) it’s a little more honest, which is nice.
Earlier this year, you spoke to some young entrepreneurs at the Startup Eugene event. What did you tell them?
I got to speak to them before they gave their pitches. I spoke to them about how they really just have to go for it. My big message was that in the startup world everyone is an expert but at the same time no one is an expert. Everyone is kind of forced to be an expert in a lot of different fields —they kind of have to fake it for a while and then at some point they start to know what they are talking about because they have pretended for so long. On the other hand no one knows what they are doing because it’s a startup and it's probably going to fail anyway and they are going into the complete utter unknown.
It sounds like technology is progressing pretty quickly. How do you stay up to date?
I’m mostly on blogs. Those are huge and I’m also on my Facebook and on my LinkedIn. I’m connected with a lot of people in the industry and they’re constantly updating their (social media) statuses and adding the newest things. I have programmers to thank for me being so connected. So I don’t really have to go to official journals, although I would like to set aside more time for that. Still, there’s something to be said about blogs: they are so much more accessible and readable and, in terms of just getting things out into the world, it’s so much quicker than a full journal article would be.
Where do you see the greatest opportunities for collaboration in your area of product design?
I love to make connections across any industry because I think every connection is useful, but especially with business and with the materials science aspects. I think those are going to be very useful for my research in the future. There so much material science in product design, I don’t know if people out side of design realize that. It affects the design so much the kinds of materials that are being made but it’s especially important for 3D printing because you're changing the phase of the material as you’re building it up. In a desktop 3D printer, the material changes from solid to liquid to solid: you have melt the filament and then re-solidify it. It’s not a trivial thing to get all of those parameters just right and, just think, that kind of printing is the simplest kind of printing. There are many more complicated ways of printing and chemists, physicists, and materials scientists all have very interesting insights to give for future research. I would also like to continue to make connections at Oregon State University, especially with the engineers. My startup company’s current project is engineering-based. It’s across multiple types of engineering: mechanical, electrical, computer science, industrial design, manufacturing. It’s making a machine that makes things and it ties into many different kinds of fields.
Is changing the clothing industry a good thing?
It is a good question to ask. I’m not 100 percent sure, and do not know if we will ever know. It is complicated. If we were able to take some of Asia’s manufacturing and bring it back here, is that bad for Asia? When I worked in the industry, one of my jobs was to get the bill of materials and the cost quotes from the factory and I’d tear it apart, I’d say “They did this stitch on this seam, I’ll bet it could be done for less than that” and I would push back on them on certain things and they would have to reduce the cost. What I do know is that our emphasis on low cost hurts the workers on the ground floor who are making the product the most. They are without a say, and so they are the buffer zone. A solution to this problem, I believe, is to bring people closer to their products – to have to confront them, and an appealing way to do that is to bring the manufacturing to them.
What are a few of your goals?
There are two main focuses now in my research. As far as being an educator I really love bringing the new hot topics to my students. ‘Here’s where research is going and here’s what I can tell you about but I can't completely tell you about because it’s so new.’ I can try to introduce them to the topics, get them ready, and get them running when they are out the door. It’s really exciting to me to be teaching these things, all of these digital tools, because those are the things that are changing every week. It’s really fun for me to doing research in 3D printing and also be teaching them 3D printing. One of my near-term goals is to feel like I’m in a good place to present my 3D printing research to my students and build a team of students to work on the projects with me as a research group. I’d want that research to be focused on new manufacturing techniques to improve processes and also to improve products.