The speed and the way in which some technology trends evolve, takes my breath away. Take 3D printing for example. The fact that the healthcare industry is already using 3D printers to print prosthetics like artificial eyes and bone replacements, illustrates the massive potential of this technology. Within the last two years, this trend has moved from a futuristic technology that would (one day) enable anyone to manufacture a one-off item in the comfort of his or her own home, to a now ubiquitous desktop machine that is available alongside most household appliances in most electronic stores.
But while the mainstream user is still coming to grips with the full benefit of these machines, the early adopters are already finding new ways to disrupt businesses and their value chains. One of the most startling developments was unveiled just last month at the 2014 Tech Crunch Disrupt conference in New York City.
An eagerly awaited event at the conference is called, the Battlefield, a prestigious startup competition where hopeful entrepreneurs present their unseen startup concepts, and hopefully launch them – even if they don’t win the $50 000 (R525 000.00) development prize money – on one of technology’s biggest global stages. One of the startups, which didn’t eventually win, but nevertheless caught my eye, involved an innovative twist on 3D printing.
Grace Choi, a self confessed “serial inventor” and Harvard Business School graduate, presented a concept that could very well threaten the status quo of the cosmetic industry – exactly what was predicted that 3D printing would one day do. Cosmetic companies, please take note.
Her start up project is called MINK, and what it does is print out make-up, whether it is an eye shadow, lipstick or blush, in whatever colour you want. Part of her pitch to the judges was an explanation of how make-up consumers are held to ransom, in terms of choice, by the big beauty corporations. 70% of make-up, she explained, is currently bought in mass retail outlets. In order for those retailers to turn a healthy profit, they stick to generic colours that they know are popular and will sell continuously, and in large volumes. They therefore do not invest in seasonal and more fashionable or trendy colours, as the profit margins would be lower and these colours would be more expensive to produce. This is left to the boutique or luxury brands who charge a premium for more unusual make-up colours. This does not sit well with Ms Choi. She believes consumers are being unfairly charged a premium for something that is free via the Internet: colour.
Using MINK, Choi intends to completely disrupt the value chains of, not only the beauty and cosmetic industries, but also retail. MINK, most importantly, is user friendly and is aimed at young girls in their teens to early twenties, who do not have an established buying pattern or specific brand loyalty. These girls are also digital natives, so the concept of 3D printing your own make-up will be a completely logical and natural activity.
This is how it works. You see a colour you like: in a magazine, on a YouTube video or even one a friend is wearing. It does not have to be an existing make-up colour, but any colour that you would like to transform into make-up. Your colour of choice is scanned or photographed (even with a mobile phone camera) then translated into a Hex code: a 6-digit code that defines all colors on the web (for example, #FF0000 for red). This Hex code is what Choi believes consumers are unfairly charged a premium for, as all colours can be digitally boiled down to a code sequence.
The Hex code is then fed into a simple programme like Photoshop, which then instructs the MINK 3D printer to create your personalised makeup using whatever substrate (lipstick base material or powder for blush or eye shadow that is loaded into it. Choi has even ensured that the product you print, for example an eye shadow, fits into a standardized compact, which enables you to carry your freshly printed colour make-up with you.
The beauty, and irony, of her invention is that she intends approaching companies who find themselves left behind in a digital era: for example companies that used to produce paper printers. As MINK combines “mature” technology, like ink jet printing for paper, with new technologies, like 3D printing, her 3D printed make-up concept could very well prove to be a lifeline for these ailing companies. Although for Ms Choi her intention is not to save companies struggling with a digital revolution: that would simply be a strategic business decision. She intends rather, to shift the dictates of the beauty industry out of the grip of the corporations, and place them into the hands of the girls who use the products, and give them the control. Your move, cosmetic companies.
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