Okay, so the internet lost its shit recently when Harvard biz entrepreneur Grace Choi took the stage at TechCrunch Disrupt in NY to present Mink, a “printer that prints makeup.” (Her words—watch the video presentation in the link.) The user snaps a pic of a color she likes (a friend’s lipstick color, the color of a dress, a picture from a magazine), downloads it to any photo software program, and prints an actual cosmetic product of the exact shade.
The “hocus pocus” behind the beauty industry
Print your own custom shade of eyeshadow, foundation, or lipstick? All this time beauty companies and makeup artists could just have been printing all that makeup—instantly! Don’t you feel stupid now, L’Oréal.
All it took was a disaffected business school grad who can’t even be bothered to spellcheck the slides she uses in her world-debut presentation to “disrupt” the industry!
So Choi seems to think that the $55 billion dollar beauty industry just never thought of a “3D cosmetics printer.” (Side note: 3D printing still sounds like science fiction to me, but based on my limited understanding I’m not sure the term is applicable here; what she’s describing is more like conventional printing.) She goes on to call the whole cosmetics industry “bullshit,” and to tell the printer businesses she’ll be attempting to sell this half-baked idea to that they’re “dying.”
Okay, so I know next to nothing about how makeup is made. And the laserjet I fought with for 45 minutes on Tuesday would tell you that I probably know even less about how printers work. But I do know about makeup.
If cosmetics are about color and color only, why do we have thousands of competing brands, years and years of formula research and testing, or, hell, beauty blogs and makeup professionals? Anyone who’s spent 20 minutes in a Sephora can tell you that color is just one of endless considerations in choosing the right product. A cursory perusal of any one of thousands of beauty blogs reveals infinite subtleties in formulations, ingredients, and preferences.
Grace is apparently playing her cards close to the vest, since she’s in the process of filing a patent and doesn’t want her “proprietary hardware” or idea getting stolen. The “demo” she presents at TechCrunch is a mockup of how the process might look. The way she speaks about the project doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence, though, and in response to the panel’s softball questions, all she deigns to say is, “I’m just breaking it down for you.”
Break this down
How will a machine “the size of a Mac Mini” produce liquids, creams, and powders interchangeably?
How on earth could one machine be able to produce such extremely different substances?
It’s one thing to imprint something superficially with customized “ink,” but how will the pigment and the substrate be mixed adequately?
What about the incredibly high temperatures necessary for color solubizing?
What about the cooling, setting, and molding process?
How will ingredients be regulated?
What about the chemical interactions between certain pigments and ingredients?
How can you get an exact match of someone’s skin or lip color from one pixel?
How will you account for photographic discrepancies, like lighting?
What will the color payoff be like? How long-lasting will it be? Will opacity be adjustable? How about glitter or a matte vs. glossy finish?
What about sensitive skin and ingredient allergies? How many formulas will there be?
How will the mechanism be cleaned and sanitized between uses?
Look, I’m the first person to shout, “Shut up and take my money!” at a new cosmetics innovation, but this is just silly. Maybe there will be massive technological innovations that make this kind of thing feasible in the future, but don’t hold your breath. You’ll pass out.