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July 01, 2024 | Tom Ballard

Looking for a custom nail polish color? Blank Beauty and APTUS DesignWorks have you covered.

Just 12 pigments are needed to create more than 16,000 shades of nail polish in the new automated kiosks now in three Walmart Stores.

Have you ever wanted to create your own custom nail polish color on demand?

You can now do so in minutes thanks to the ingenuity of Charles Brandon, a Memphis-based entrepreneur and Co-Founder of Blank Beauty, and the creative team at APTUS DesignWorks, an engineering company in Alcoa that specializes in bringing innovative ideas to commercial readiness.

Ben Nibali with Blank Beauty kiosk

We saw the latest version of the automated kiosk-like device during the early May “Launchpad Pitch Competition” in Maryville where Ben Nibali, APTUS Founder and President, was showing how it worked while other APTUS staff helped attendees make free samples. We took a few bottles to our granddaughters.

Named Huey, the device just made it to the Top 8 in the “Coolest Thing Made in Tennessee” contest. It’s a first-ever competition organized by the Tennessee Chamber and Tennessee Manufacturers Association, in partnership with the University of Tennessee Center for Industrial Services, Chattanooga Regional Manufacturers Association, and Smart Factory Institute Tennessee.

The winner will be announced on July 25 at “The Coolest Thing Made in Tennessee” lunch that is part of the Smart Solutions for Smart Factories Expo at The Commons at PIE Innovation Center in Cleveland, TN.

What was once a dream has now become a reality. After an eight year journey. Brandon has three of the fully-automated devices being evaluated by Walmart in stores across the Southeast. Blank Beauty also offers a robust online ordering process that can offer customized colors for $9 a bottle.

So, you are no doubt wondering about what sparked the initial idea.

Brandon told us that he was a freshman at the University of Mississippi when he walked into a Walmart store in the Magnolia State in 2016. That’s when he observed the custom paint mixing systems. “Thousands of paint shades are available in minutes,” says Brandon, “but the store doesn’t have to inventory any specific colors.”

The paint mixing equipment was right across the aisle from the cosmetics. “I wondered why someone couldn’t do this for cosmetics,” he said of the process by which base colors are turned into vibrant colors through precision dispensing and mixing. When he learned that cosmetics, including nail polish, are formulated in a very similar fashion, the lightbulb went off, and he saw a business opportunity.

Brandon considered several different strategies to produce custom cosmetics before settling on nail polish as his first effort, and his Co-Founders put together a prototype machine. Blank Beauty’s chemistry team, led by Jenny Lam, determined that just 12 pigments were needed to create more than 16,000 shades of nail polish. To go from prototype to a commercial version, Blank Beauty turned to APTUS DesignWorks to develop the kiosk-like device, appropriately named Huey, which Brandon says is a play on the term Hue and its relation to colors.

APTUS was given just eight months to deliver the first commercially available version, and it did so on schedule. As Nibali stated, that was accomplished in spite of quite a few technical hurdles. The demanding pace required every aspect of the project be done inhouse, from plumbing to robot programming to the touchscreen user-interface software.

“We had to implement solutions as fast as we could invent them,” explains Nibali, adding, “There was no time to write a specification for an outside vendor. We had to overcome a big challenge in terms of material compatibility. Nail polish solvents are constantly trying to dissolve everything they touch.” This means no rubber seals or tubing could be used in the fluid system.

“We were also very limited in terms of space,” adds Brandon. The smaller the machine, the more likely it was to be used throughout the Walmart system. “They gave us the narrow end-cap of the cosmetics aisle, which is a great place to be in terms of retail visibility, but it’s a tiny footprint to fit an automated machine in.”

Another feature that was important was making the kiosk fun to watch, something Brandon says is described as “retailtainment” by Walmart. This led the design team to include a small robot as part of the plan early on. The robot dances around to attract attention between orders, and has a smiley face painted on it to help it embody the personality of the machine.

One of the biggest innovations of the project came in the final mixing of the product.

“We had to figure out how to mix nail polish inside a bottle without leaving a messy mixing paddle behind after every transaction,” stated Nibali. The team at APTUS experimented with a number of methods, and eventually perfected a system that uses spinning magnets to mix the polish from outside the bottle. This clever solution is now protected by a patent owned by Blank Beauty.

“It’s also one of the coolest things to watch when you order a bottle; this rainbow of pigment layers suddenly transforms into your color within just a few seconds,” Nibali says. “It’s a huge part of the entertainment value.”

Finally, there were challenges related to the automation itself.

“We had to create a system that can reliably run without intervention for weeks at a time, in a public space, dispensing fluids accurately. That required tremendous attention to detail, in spite of a very compressed schedule” explains Nibali.

On the plus side, the fully automated device is tamper-proof, avoiding the challenge of shoplifting while also providing thousands of color options that would be impractical and impossible to stock in a retail environment. The process starts with selecting a color from a pallet on the screen or using a smartphone to get a photo of the desired color. Then it’s as simple as inserting a credit card and watching the mixing before the bottle is dispensed.

“Retailers love how it fits in a small space,” Brandon says. “Eliminating shoplifting and entertaining customers is a bonus.”

If you have shopped for nail polish at the bookstore at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, you have no doubt purchased the Vols custom color.

In describing the young, Memphis-based entrepreneur, Nibali says, “He’s one of the most impressive founders we have worked with in our 17 years.” Brandon returned the compliments, saying that the team at APTUS DesignWorks “treats its customers like the project is their own.”

Being located in Memphis provides just the logistical service that Blank Beauty needs to ship nail polish around the country, and having its innovation hub in the Knoxville area, courtesy of APTUS DesignWorks, has allowed the team to collaborate effectively.

What’s next for Blank Beauty? You don’t have to think any further than what Keurig has done for coffee with its one-cup countertop machine. “What we created here uses micro-batch manufacturing technologies that can be applied to a whole range of cosmetic products,” explains Brandon. “You won’t believe where we are going from here.”

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