About two years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to Braun’s R&D centre in Germany. The trip proved to be quite interesting, showing that the humble electric shaver has more technology in it than we give it credit for. Since then, I have been very interested in looking at all kinds of research and development procedures. So when Gillette, Braun’s sister company, sent me an invite to go see their process in Reading, there was no way I was going to refuse.
Our guide for the trip was Dr. Kristina Vanoosthuyze, who is the Principal Scientist, having worked with P&G (Gillette’s owner company) since 1997. She has worked with Gillette since 2006. With a background in skin care expertise, she has been to apply her expertise in male and female razor design and shaving technologies.
Gillette Innovation Centre, Reading – a brief introduction
The Gillette Innovation Centre has existed in Reading for 55 years, though unlike Braun, the R&D facilities have only been opened up for site visits (such as mine) in the last two years. This means that I was part of a very lucky group that is first in the world to have a look at what was going on.
Over the last 55 or so years, this site has led the fundamental research behind market leading razors such as the G II/Trac II, Countour/Atra, Sensor, Sensor Excel, MACH3, Venus, Fusion and Fusion ProGlide.
The site is a pure R&D facility. This means that they work on only development, engineering and research. It does not work as a show room, and hence it does not host any of the Sales or Marketing teams. This means that what you see is a raw, unpolished version of how Gillette really develop their razors and products for the consumer.
Major development at the site includes that of razors, which we saw, but also includes development of shaving gels and other such products.
Gillette is part of the P&G group, and they have a long history of development and R&D. Having been around since 1937, they operate their development operations in 80 countries, sell in 180 countries, and have 4.8 billion consumers worldwide. Their staff includes over 1000 PhDs, over 8000 scientists, and global innovation centres across 5 continents. They invest over 2 billion USD in R&D annually, which puts them at the top of the innovation cycle in the world.
As Troy Nimrick, the Director of Global Blades and Razors R&D at the Gillette Innovation Centre talked us through the various aspects of the site and the work that goes on there, he told us that the number 1 priority for them was to delight customers. Gillette has proved over and over again that they can introduce new disruptive products to the market that redefine the shaving experience. As he finished his introduction, the followed words stayed with me:
We don’t do anything that’s not big!
The test philosophy employed by Gillette:
- Razors are tested in naked form.
- New technology is put in razors that look like old razors. Then it is tested on consumers to check how it works, rather than how it looks.
- It is rated for at least 2 weeks per test subject.
- A technology will only go to further development and production if it is rated at least twice as better than the previous best product.
- After that, the new design is sent to Boston, where is it then developed for manufacture.
The human hair, face and skin – wonderful specimens of nature
The human hair is a very interesting specimen of nature. It has the same strength as a copper wire. This means that the razor needs to be extreme strong and sharp. Then again our skin is extremely fragile, and vulnerable to changes in temperature, humidity, dryness and other such items.
Hair also grows in different patterns for different people and on different parts of the face, and as man who has ever shaved their face, we have interesting contours all over, such as the jaw line, the neck, as well as the chin area.
This means that the razor has to provide the consumer with a fine balance.
The science is about protecting the skin, which involves support, stretching and lubrication, while being very hard on something that has the same characteristics such as copper wire.
It isn’t all about the sharpness of the blade though. Gillette has also focused on how to deal with sensitive skin, and in the process developed technologies as well as published papers to help through the process.
Now that we had talked the talk, it was time to walk the walk.
The journey begins – test subjects
Remember those good cop bad cop movies? Where each goes in turn, and the other one silently observes from this one-way mirror? If so, you’ve already figured out what’s going on in the above image. Only difference is that here a man silently shaves himself, while a team of Gillette scientists observes the process, through the mirror, through cameras, and other instruments.
Every day, 5 days a week, Gillette employ over 50 men who come in shave. These men act as the test subjects for various Gillette products, and interestingly, most Gillette employees at the site also shave on the site. The test subjects belong to various groups of life, including ages, ethnicities, professions, skin types, hair types, etc. They are all paid, and more men are recruited if needed.
Here the team of scientists characterize various aspects of shaving, such as skin, the habits, and a long term relationship with these men is formed.
All the shaving happens in a temperature and humidity controlled environment, and various aspects are observed.
The men may spend anything between 5 minutes to 3 hours on the site, depending on the feedback and their shaving habits.
During the process, some men are given instrumented razors, that have built in software, which further characterize items such as time, movement, etc. Other things that are measures are nicks and cuts, analysis of the skin via HD photos and of course, behaviour. Afterwards, a questionnaire is presented to the men to answer, and a complete 360 degrees photo is taken for analysis.
This proves that Gillette always puts the consumer before its technology.
Understanding the human face
The next phase is to understand the human face, from a scientific point of view. Characterise skin, the shape, the contours. What works and what doesn’t. For this, Gillette have a 3D scanning technology, which allows for a detailed understanding of the shape and contours of the male face.
Each face is different, and everybody’s hair growth as well as strength is different too.
Combining the analysis of the human face, as well as the test subjects, the idea is to present a product that presents a universal solution that works for all.
The first step to all new products is some ideas, and inspiration.
These often lead to some sketching and modelling. The models are often items such as cardboard developments. These let the scientists and engineers to explore, share and develop the concept.
The beauty of these cardboard models is that it only takes about 30 minutes to make one, while the feedback you get is immensely useful.
The sketches are then turned to cardboard styled prototypes, and then based on what works, the concepts are then shifted to CAD. The CAD allows you to see the model in various angles, analyse it, and most of all, lets you prototype it.
From there, razors can then be 3D printed to analyse shape, comfort and handling of the razor itself.
This begins the innovation cycle.This follows the path of design, learn, refine, and repeat.
Each development goes through prototype, test and redesign process.
Taking the Flexball as an example, various elements needed refining, specifically the pivot, such as the maximum angle of movement, stiffness, damping and specific direction of movement.
The essence of every Gillette Razor is the blade of course. Gillette use electro-discharge machining (EDM) to produce razor prototypes. Wire EDM uses a high precision wire carrying an electric current to cut through metal. This is used to produce steel moulds for plastic injection moulding of cartridge components.
The blades themselves are cut to the smallest measurements, and have a huge number of welds. All of which, the naked eye just cannot see. Since a lot of technology for the processes didn’t exist, Gillette had to invent a lot of the technology that goes into making the blades so sharp and stable.
Once the initial processes are done, razors can be prototyped. The RIC has an extensive precision prototyping facility to build the razor prototypes, which is then evaluated. A variety of equipment is used in this task, including computer controlled welding and cutting lasers, mills and plastic injection moulding equipment.
Looking at the Flexball as an example, the following phases of protypes were seen:
2004 – MK 1 – 10 odd prototypes
2004-5 – MK 2 – Changing pivot angles etc.
2008 – MK4 – 100s of prototypes, designed for finishing – measured performances
2010 – 10,000s of models made for extensive testing
2013 – final industrial design
And how do they know if it works? There is consumer feedback and scientific data, which measures everything from contact of skin to cartridge to how pleased the test subjects were.
High speed filming and testing
As the prototypes shift through various phases, the testing gets more and more intense. High speed filming, as shown in the image above lets skin experts analyse the shaving process. The cameras provide a magnification of 50 times as well, big enough to see both dry skin flakes as well as every individual hair.
The speed can be as month 1 million frames per second, though the usual is about 20-40kilo frames per second. This allows them to measure various aspects of shaving such as blade stability, any drag on skin, how the skin reacts, how the blade cuts, etc.
Of course, no R&D site is free of final inspection. In RIC, every blade that is then sent out for further testing is inspected individually, through microscopes.
Interestingly, here we were given a lesson in how sharp (and hence thin) the blades really are. A simple finger or nail slide (don’t try this at home!) leaves marks on the blade, and hence reduces the sharpness and performance of the blade. Less sharp it is, the more painful it is!
Interestingly, another thing we learnt about was ‘tapping’ the razors to clean them. This is another bad practice, as that really messes with the alignment of blades. Interesting what you can see when there is a microscope to analyse things.
Well, there you have it. A brief walk through Gillette’s Reading Innovation Centre, where they have developed everything from the two blade razor to their latest innovation in shaving, the Flexball! I will never be able to pick up a razor without a moment of wonder and awe.