The robots changing the face of beauty: Inside Unilever’s Materials Innovation Factory

By Amanda Pauley | Published: 11-Apr-2023

How automated robots, AI and quantum mechanics are being used at the giant’s facility to deliver game-changing beauty formulations for brands such as Dove and TRESemmé

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As our writer stands in the centre of Unilever’s Materials Innovation Factory (MIF) in North West England, UK, it is clear to see that beauty robots are fast becoming the driving force behind the conglomerate’s incredible beauty and wellbeing R&D output.

Automated performance testing robot Ariana (named after the American singer-songwriter) is buzzing away preparing 200 single hair fibre samples for the facility’s researchers in just 30 minutes – a task which would usually take a human around eight hours to do. 

She is also testing the fibres for stretchability, damage prevention and longevity. The data she produces then goes through vigorous analysis by researchers in the lab.

A robot called Shirley, meanwhile, is testing the multinational consumer goods company’s new shampoo and conditioner formulations on hair samples by mimicking consumer use, washing an incredible 120 hair pieces in 24 hours. 

It is definitely not about replacing human jobs. The MIF is home to more than 250 of the best and brightest researchers.

Shirley also rinses, detangles and dries hair swatches to improve the consistency, repeatability and reproducibility of the beauty giant’s product testing. It is a long and laborious task which would usually take a researcher days to perform. 

Unilever, which owns beauty brands such as Dove, Tatcha and Hourglass Cosmetics, has invested heavily in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) for use in its product testing and development since the MIF opened in partnership with the University of Liverpool in 2017. 

Over the past two years, more than €100m has been pumped into the multinational’s 120,000sqft facility to drive material innovation in beauty, including Living Proof’s Triple Bond Complex, TRESemmé’s Keratin Repair and Dove’s Intensive Repair.  

“Our robots’ ability to generate robust and reproducible data faster than traditional methods not only frees up researchers time from repetitive lab work, but also frees up their minds to focus on the next generation of new ideas,” says Dr Samantha Samaras, Global Vice President of Science and Technology in Unilever’s Beauty and Wellbeing Division. 

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