Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Mink: Printing makeup

Mink, a "3D printer for makeup", received a fair bit of media coverage and positive feedback after it was presented at Disrupt NY. Apparently, Mink will use inkjet printer technology to produce makeup with custom colours. Mink is expected to be the size of a Mac Mini when it is sold to consumers (13 - 21 year old girls). Grace Choi is the sole founder and only employee of Mink (TechCrunch interview). Her pitch at Disrupt NY was cringe-worthy, especially during the question and answer section. She had a rather condescending way of presenting her idea and choose some very poor words. There are better ways of describing the large margins that large cosmetic companies put on their products without calling it "bullshit". Let's also not mention her lack of spell checking when she had "convieniance" on her slide. However, let's focus on the technical issues with Mink:

Colour Reproduction

Printing the exact colours you see on a computer screen is extremely difficult. In fact, some colours cannot be printed at all! As an analogy, let's talk about the colours you see on a computer screen and the colours you see on a piece of paper produced by an inkjet printer:
  1. Colours on a piece of paper are reflected into your eyes, while colours on a computer screen are emitted/illuminated into your eyes;
  2. Related to the first point, printers use subtractive CMYK ink to create colour, while computer screens use additive RGB subpixels to create colour;
  3. Printers create the illusion of a wide range of colours by ejecting microscopic droplets of CMYK ink onto the paper and can vary the density of the droplets to produce different colours or intensities. Computer screens create the illusion of a wide range of colours by changing the intensity of each RGB subpixel; the density of the pixels is fixed because of the way the screens are manufactured.
  4. Related to the third point, the colours seen on a page are affected greatly by ambient lighting. Colours look darker in dim light, but brighter in bright light. The colours are also affected by the colour of the actual paper; i.e., how white the paper is. The colours seen on a computer screen are also affected greatly by ambient lighting, plus the contrast, brightness and temperature settings of the screen. The colours are also affected by the technology of the screen and how the RGB subpixels are arranged.


The makeup colours you see on a computer screen may not be the makeup colours you get from the Mink printer - this breaks the convenience of the WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) paradigm. Moreover, when you are printing the colours onto (into?) the makeup base (e.g., powder, foundation, creme, or lipstick), you need to physically mix the base colours that are ejected from the printer, otherwise you will get spots of CMYK. I cannot find any information about how Mink will create its range of colours as it is closely guarded secret (patent pending).

3D Printing

The idea of 3D printing is to create 3D objects that can hold their shape. I think Mink is using "3D printing" solely as a buzzword for marketing purposes. It is unnecessary to use a 3D printer to print the makeup. In fact, if you only need to add colour to the makeup substrates, then I think it is faster and easier to make makeup without using a 3D printer. All you really need is a colour mixer; custom colours is the only selling point of Mink anyway.

For example, for lipstick, isn't it easier to set the lipstick in a mould rather than using half an hour to print the lipstick one layer at a time? How do you "3D print" cremes and foundation when they cannot even keep their shape? How do you "3D print" powders without creating a cloud of dust and doesn't the powder need to be pressed before it can be picked up and placed into a case?

As Grace concedes to the investors during her pitch, the Mink demo was rigged. It did not print any makeup. This leads me to a few questions: Does she have a working prototype? How long does Mink take to print makeup? How noisy is Mink when it is printing makeup? Her target audience of 13 to 21 year old girls are not the ones to wait hours for their custom makeup to print; they want it printed in an instant! I cannot find the technical specs of Mink and judging by the way Grace answered one of the investor's technical question, I don't think she knows what the technical specs either.

At one point, Grace said that other types of makeup can be printed by using different "chips", such as a lipstick "chip", creme "chip" or a foundation "chip". I think her notion of a "chip" would be like the Gameboy cartridges that store different games, but this is unnecessary. You just need to write software (e.g., a firmware or a driver) for Mink that can instruct it to print lipstick, creme, foundation, and whatever else.


You just need a colour mixer that can mix precise amounts of base colours into the makeup substrates. By the way, saying that the idea will be patented doesn't mean the idea will actually work. Here's a patent for a Time Machine and a patent for a Teleportation Device.


Maintaining Mink so that it prints makeup perfectly without contamination is going to be difficult for Mink's target audience (13 to 21 year old girls) to achieve. If you allow Mink to print a range of makeups, then Mink will have to be able to flush out the residue of the previous makeup. This includes flushing out the colours and makeup substrate; challenging if the substrate contains oil. I imagine an integral part of Mink will have to be taken out by the user to be washed out or replaced. Mink will also need to think about how it will handle wet (e.g., lipstick and creme) and dry (e.g., powder) makeup substrates in the same machine. In traditional inkjet printers, clogged inkjet nozzles affect the quality of the colour reproduction. Mink users will have to make sure the ink does not dry up and clog the (microscopic) nozzles.


Mink will be difficult to clean.

Last Thoughts

I'm reminded of the wonderful idea of the €299 Hövding invisible helmet. As their FAQ states, "If your Hövding has been in an accident, it can’t be used again." The idea of Mink might sound nice, but coming up with a practical product is a separate issue.

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