How robots and artificial intelligence are transforming Unilever’s materials innovation factory

Robots are part of the Unilever team at the 120,000 square meter Material Innovation Factory (MIF) in Liverpool, UK – and artificial intelligence (AI) is helping scientists examine data in record time and translate discoveries into new formulas.

Co-founded by Unilever, the University of Liverpool and Research England, the MIF has the highest concentration of materials chemistry robots in the world and is a game changer for the €12 billion Beauty & Wellbeing group. Here’s why…
Freeing up time for scientists Each machine at the MIF is designed to process massive amounts of data and maintain the consistency of all samples and tests. However, Unilever claims that this is not about robots replacing humans. Rather, they are able to take on time-consuming, repetitive tasks at an otherwise impossible pace, freeing valuable hours for our brilliant in-house experts and collaborating partners to invent, explore and create.

Take Ariana for example. This robot prepares multiple consistent hair fiber samples in seconds. These perfectly prepared strands are then used for research and testing as scientists work to develop hair care products for Unilever brands.

Dove’s Intensive Repair line, now available in the UK and US, was developed with Ariana’s input. The result is Unilever’s patented Fiber Repair Actives technology, which helps reconstruct the inner hair fibers, reducing breakage and repairing from within.
Use AI to drive progress. Artificial intelligence is an advance that is helping Unilever make rapid progress by enabling scientists to examine vast amounts of data in record time and turning discoveries into new formulas.

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Vibrant yet completely vegan, Hourglass Confession Red Zero lipstick is one such example. Red lipstick is usually formulated with carmine – a pigment that requires over 1,000 ground up bugs per product. However, with the help of AI, Unilever’s experts were able to analyze color combinations and possibilities that would have taken millions of physical experiments to replicate. The lipstick was launched in 2021.

“We are nothing without our science-based products,” said Dr. Samantha Samaras, Head of Science and Technology, Unilever Beauty & Wellbeing and Personal Care.

“The purpose of the MIF is to create a community of talented future research leaders, share ideas with academic colleagues and accelerate the discovery process. Our partnership here allows us to leverage the best minds and resources in robotics, strengthening our insights and capabilities to drive next-level innovation and scientific discovery, and to manufacture products with superior performance.”

Based on data generated at the MIF, more than 200 patents were filed between 2020 and 2022, and Unilever has invested more than 100 million euros ($123.4 million) in the innovation center over the past three years.

Learn more about the MIF by watching the video below:

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