The Next Revolution in 3-D Printing: Disposable Panties

A collection of 3D digital printers on the production line during the final stages of assembly at the Stratasys Ltd. factory in Rehovot, Israel, on July 28, 2013. Photographer: Ariel Jerozolimski/Bloomberg

A somewhat embarrassing feminine-hygiene issue has led Tamar Giloh to develop a new technology that could revolutionize the textile industry.

Looking for a way to mitigate problems associated with heavy menstruation, she and a team that included her husband started working on an automated system that can produce fabrics using three-dimensional printing. More than a decade later, the Israeli couple now has functional hardware that can spray polymers and fibers in a controlled manner to produce disposable panties, sportswear, bandages and other products.

“We set out with a need to solve something and create a product, and then we realized we had developed a totally different and innovative technology,” said Giloh, the CEO of Tamicare. "This is a multi-billion-dollar market."

Tamicare has raised $10 million since it was founded in 2001. The Manchester, England-based Tamicare is in talks with Israeli contract manufacturers to assemble its fabric printers. The company, which has a dozen employees, sells its machines to cosmetic and health-care companies for about $3 million each. One unit can produce 10 million biodegradable panties a year.

Next year, Tamicare's 3-D printed feminine-hygiene product — absorbent padded underwear that can be thrown away after a single use — is expected to hit shelves in a leading pharmacy chain in Israel. Tamicare said it’s also in talks with a large U.S. company that may sell the women’s undergarments in America. The startup’s compression bandages, which will be sold by a British company, are also set to hit the market soon. Giloh declined to name the companies Tamicare is talking to or teaming up with.

Since Giloh presented the fabric-printing technology at a textile-industry conference in Denver last month, the startup has received 30 inquiries from companies interested in using the printer. A supplier for the lingerie-retail giant Victoria's Secret visited Tamicare’s office in the U.K. recently to witness underwear being printed in three seconds. “A panty created at this speed isn’t something you see every day,” Giloh said.

The market for 3-D printing is expected to continue strong double-digit growth over the next several years, especially as new use cases such as Tamicare’s emerge, according to Wohlers Associates. "This is an unusual application and certainly a first in the world of 3-D printing,” Terry Wohlers, the consulting firm's president, wrote in an e-mail.

"Making products in this way is attractive because of the design freedom it provides, but for items such as clothing, the challenge is to ensure the results are truly functional, rather than just visually appealing,” said Stephen Russell, a professor at the University of Leeds in the U.K. who specializes in textile research.

Tamicare’s innovative underwear has both covered, Giloh said. “It is like a panty with a pad in it, but it isn’t anything like the Kimberly Clark pull-up.”

Regulation for hygiene products and fluctuating demand in the cosmetic industry based on economic factors could pose challenges for Tamicare, Russell said. Still, the process used by Tamicare is “a radical departure from the traditional methods of manufacturing wearable-hygiene products,” he said. “It has exciting potential.”