Erpro Group's 3D printing factory

PARIS — Three-dimensional printing is beginning to reshape the beauty industry — especially when it comes to packaging production — and brings with it numerous sustainable features.

Still very much in its nascent phase, the process that works by repeatedly layering printed-out material to build 3-D forms has been deployed in the beauty sector at a mass industrial level just once so far, to produce the brush for Le Volume Révolution de Chanel mascara. Meanwhile, numerous companies are using 3-D printing to make prototypes today, and some are said to be on the verge of employing it for full-scale manufacturing in 2019.

Le Volume Révolution de Chanel mascara

Le Volume Révolution de Chanel mascara.  Courtesy Photo

“Three-D printing can actually change and dramatically improve the process for [packaging],” said Mike Stanicek, vice president of product management, plastics, at 3D Systems Corp., the Rock Hill, S.C.-based company that engineers, manufactures and sells 3-D printers.

“The development of packaging takes a lot of iterations. What 3-D printing allows is a couple of things. First of all, the design-iteration cycle is much faster; you can do multiple design examples without having to generate tooling. So you’re wasting a lot less material,” he said.

No molds are involved. With injection molding, it can take two to six weeks, depending on the complexity, to create each one. So altogether, it may take months of design turns to get an item right, versus days and — in some cases — hours using 3-D printing, which runs on less energy than a traditional machine.

Stanicek explained that with 3-D printing, parts can be hollowed out, needing less internal structures and plastics, while keeping their integrity and physical characteristics.

Three-dimensional printing opens up design flexibility and innovation that is not achievable with tooling. It allows for aesthetics, form, function, texturing and geometries impossible with traditional molding, he said.

One can run what’s needed at any time and easily make changes to elements, therefore cutting down on potential waste linked to unused inventory. That compares to the 5,000 to 10,000 parts typically necessary to produce in order to justify the cost of one mold.

The ability to manufacture smaller batches of customized parts to address very specific customer needs can be key at a time when personalization is an important way for brands to connect with consumers and differentiate themselves from their competition.

“With the digital molding that we’re talking about in 3-D printing, we like to say that your tool now becomes the designer’s thumb drive, and he or she can take it from their design station to a production unit and immediately start producing,” said Jeffrey Robbins, director of Figure 4 product management at 3D Systems. (The company’s Figure 4 is billed to be the industry’s first scalable, fully integrated 3-D printing platform, which is ultra-fast-speed.)

In other words, what used to involve multiple steps carried out in numerous locations can take place in-house, enabling companies to be more easily responsive to changing market demands while saving costs.

3D printed parts from Toly Group, a customer of 3D Systems

Three-dimensional printed parts from Toly Group, a customer of 3D Systems.  Courtesy Photo

Stanicek said the interest in 3-D printing is increasing dramatically among large and small companies. “We expect [this trend] to continue to grow,” he explained.

Robbins noted that brands are at work using 3-D printing not just for functional innovation but also for case and bottle design that can be personalized. He reckons in late 2019 there will be scaled implementation in the making of packaging for high-end beauty brands.

One major challenge in 3-D printing overall is that the materials it uses are often plastics, so not eco-friendly. “We’ve embarked on really trying to rapidly expand our material portfolio,” said Robbins.

Erpro Group, based in Saint-Leu-La-Forêt, France, is another 3-D-printing pioneer. The company in 2015 signed a development contract with Chanel for Le Volume Révolution de Chanel mascara brush. Two years later, Erpro built a plant housing six EOS P 396 printers to produce it.

“In barely over a year, we have delivered about 9 million pieces,” said Cyrille Vue, chief executive officer of the company. At the peak, the printers — running round the clock, every day of the week — were producing up to 50,000 of the patented brushes daily.

Three-dimensional printing allows for the Chanel mascara brush bristles to have tiny holes allowing for micro-reservoirs of product to pool. “That isn’t possible to do with injection,” said Vue.

Today, Erpro continues producing the Chanel mascara brushes. “We have other projects being developed in 3-D for Chanel, for other beauty brands and even for the car [industry],” he said,  hinting that further information could be revealed in a few months.

Quadpack is using 3-D printing methods, too. The Barcelona, Spain-based company recently purchased a Stratasys J750 multimaterial, multicolor printer primarily for model-making, after having had a single-material machine for about seven years. So now, Quadpack can print with up to six materials in one go in a choice of hundreds of thousands of colors, with a much shorter print time.

“We can print three, four, five different things in one bed,” said Jeremy Garrard, director of design and advanced technology at Quadpack. He explained it’s now possible to produce a model nearer to an exact replica, so there’s less post-processing involved.

A compact may take four to six hours to produce in-house now, whereby in the past Quadpack had worked with external model-makers.

“For us, that would’ve been at great expense,” said Garrard. “We might have paid a thousand euros for a model, which we can produce in-house for 200 to 300 euros, maybe a bit more. So we’ve probably halved the cost. And we’re using it a lot for what we’re going to do in the future.”

Quadpack has employed its 3-D printer for numerous beauty projects so far, including a plastic bottle that looks like it’s made of glass, for which the company assembled a pump and printed an over-cap. Quadpack has also produced beauty compacts and jars, which can be reused as candleholders.

Single-material 3-D printers’ output might be more scalable than that of multimaterial printers, with the ability to manufacture 3,000 to 5,000 parts per day, but that comes with a lot of post-processing involved, Gerrard said.

He and other industry executives believe 3-D printing is an important part of the future of packaging production. “It will go hand-in-hand with injection and other processes,” said Gerrard.

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