A specialist in additive manufacturing, Erpro 3D Factory notably produces Chanel’s famed Volume Revolution mascara brush. Cyrille Vue, CEO of the Erpro group, deciphers 3D printing’s 4.0 mode of production.
How is Erpro 3D Factory positioned in relation to Erpro group?
Founded in 1997, Erpro group comprises six companies and five factories and employs around 100 people in France. In terms of our customers, the automotive industry (carmakers and equipment manufacturers) accounts for about 50% of our turnover, luxury for 5% and cosmetics for 15%. Erpro 3D Factory, one of our six companies, is focused solely on additive manufacturing, of which about 20-30% concerns industrial scale production. The rest is prototyping and development.
In Erpro group as a whole, additive manufacturing on an industrial scale accounts for about 30-40% of the activity—a figure that is set to grow, as prototyping is quite mature today. That’s not to say that prototyping is stagnating, but it will no longer see the same growth as additive industrial scale production.
What is your approach to the luxury market?
At Erpro 3D Factory we are not really into the push approach. We are more attentive to the client who is looking for new functionalities for their parts or products and we work in a collaborative way. When our clients come to us, they know what they are looking for and we know what disruptive elements we can bring to the table.
All the constraints that clients can encounter with conventional manufacturing methods don’t exist in our context. If you want to make components that are truly different, you have to think about them differently. We are here to be agitators and to help our customers avoid reproducing the same patterns.
What are your points of differentiation when it comes to additive manufacturing?
One of our areas of expertise is our competence in parametric design: a method where we program the behavior of an object. Instead of simply drawing, we add one after the other what are called parametric bricks, which are bits of mathematical formulas that are connected to determine the part to be manufactured. The possibilities are endless with this technique.
We also do topological optimization; in subtractive manufacturing, or machining, we take a block and remove material while with additive manufacturing, we add material. Topological optimization is used to calculate the structure of the parts to get just the right amount of material needed. This has several advantages: it is sustainable and since in additive manufacturing the more material is added, the more expensive the part will be, using less material makes for a more favorable economic context.
What about your production capacity?
To date, we produce about 10 million pieces per year. Our eleven machines (a 12th is being installed) can work 24/7. Today, they mainly manufacture mascaras for Chanel. At Erpro 3D Factory we also have the only Carbon machines in France. Technically, the pieces that come out look like injected parts with that very same smoothness. We also just acquired a Stratasys printer, the G850 (the first on the French market), which allows us to print color parts with Pantone certification. This will help us in product development: models and prototypes, but why not also finished products.
At Erpro 3D Factory, cosmetics represent the major part of your activity.
Yes, it accounts for about 90% of our turnover. Given that we started the activity with Chanel’s mascara brush, it will take a little time for other projects to dilute the sales achieved.
What are some other recent projects in beauty?
For Chanel, we’ve redesigned a dozen new exclusive brushes for the E.Y.E. program, an in-store personalization service that couples a brush with a formula. We also signed a strategic and commercial partnership with Albéa last fall; the first fruit of this collaboration is four new mascara brushes, two of which are patented, as well as caps for fragrance bottles. For us, this partnership makes sense as certain brands, such as the indies, won’t purchase 3D-printed components because they are looking for full service. This is a lost opportunity for us because we offer the engine, but not the whole car. Hence the interest of working with Albéa because together we can offer both!
What is the potential for additive manufacturing in cosmetics apart from mascara brushes and caps?
Applicators in general have a lot of potential. In 2007 Chanel filed its first patent protecting the production of 3D printing applicators in the cosmetics industry across all product sectors (eyes, lips, complexion, etc.) and three others followed. Today, a brand that wants to manufacture a cosmetic applicator via 3D printing falls under Chanel’s patents, unless it goes through Erpro 3D Factory, because we hold the licenses. This was the counterpart for having given them exclusivity until January 2019.
And apart from beauty?
We also have a significant activity in the automotive and medical sectors. Another interesting project is our collaboration with MyFit Solution, a Lyon-based startup that invented custom adapters for earphones. With a smartphone you scan your ear, which generates a 3D file and each design is then printed via 3D printed. Erpro 3D Factory is the exclusive manufacturer for this product.
Do you see luxury as being more cautious than other industries?
Not really; after all it was Chanel who took the lead. We needed a first company to go to the moon and I think others will want to follow suit by using 3D printing as a vehicle for growth, innovation and creativity.
Does additive manufacturing mean the end of traditional plastic injection?
It’s impossible to predict what will happen in 50 years, but in the next 10 years definitely not. We mustn’t forget that it isn’t only R&D in additive manufacturing that is progressing; other industries are also moving ahead!
Isn’t 3D printing prohibitively expensive?
Additive manufacturing remains a technology that can be relatively expensive, so to have a better chance of seeing industrial scale-produced parts, it’s better to work with smaller components.
In addition to traditional resins, do you work with bio-sourced materials?
All of our polymer mascara brushes for Chanel are made exclusively of polyamide 11, a 100% bio-based material based on castor oil that is sustainably sourced and supplied by our partner Arkema. We also have 3D printing machines that are starting to use bio-sourced materials such as algae, oyster shell and starch.
With technologies advancing at such a fast clip, isn’t there a risk of investing in new machinery that could quickly become obsolete?
Yes, it’s a real risk. Since I discovered Carbon, I decided I wouldn’t invest in any more stereolithography machines. A large part of my time is spent monitoring technology to make sure I’m making the right decisions as the risk factor is high.
How do you see additive manufacturing in five to ten years?
That’s a tough question as additive manufacturing is a constantly evolving ecosystem with new innovations and new materials. In five years we will probably reach 50 million parts per year in-house. After that, will they be mascara brushes, shoe soles or eyeglasses? Maybe a little bit of everything.
This article was originally published in our Formes de Luxe sister publication.