The concept sounds futuristic, like a machine you might see in a Jetsons revival. But nail art printers — which literally ink nail designs onto fingernails like office printers ink letters to paper — are available for nail professionals and consumers today. And they are faster, more detailed, and have a larger (actually, unlimited) portfolio of designs than any human nail tech.
The printers have been around since at least 1999, when Tokyo-based Atlus Co. launched the “NailMore,” which offered users “the chance to decorate their nails with tiny designs for 150 yen a finger,” according to a gushing article in The Japan Times. NailMore was placed in public spaces in Japan, such as arcades, but was phased out by the mid-2000s when it failed to catch on. Other brands took up the nail art printer torch, and the present decade has witnessed the introduction and growth of several newcomers, including brands that are pursuing the U.S. marketplace.
Among those is Tat’z Nail’z, which was founded in 2011. “Hundreds of printers have been sold throughout the world,” says Buddy Sims, director of creative design for Tat’z Nail’z, working nail tech, and NAILS Next Top Nail Artist Season One finalist. “The trend for the best quality nail art, done as quickly as possible, has increased dramatically over the last couple of years. Sales have more than doubled each year and we know much more is to come.”
Others have had similar success. Nailae, headquartered and manufactured in France, this year shipped its first 100 units to its new U.S. distributor after conducting two pilot programs in New York. The brand currently has 30 printers running in France, 10 in Hong Kong, and others in Greece and Poland, and is in the process of having printers in place in Spain and Australia. Brand USNaily entered the U.S. market three months ago and, according to CEO Jennifer Jang, is seeing the most growth in New York, New Jersey, and Florida. “We’re focusing on California right now,” Jang says.
Making a Mark(et)
Nailae founder Alexandre Le Gallais says there is a large untapped global market for machine-printed nail designs. “I made a demonstration video and paid less than $2,000 to promote it on Facebook. In 10 days, it had 1 million views and more than 2,000 comments,” Le Gallais says. He says consumers have misconceptions about what nail art printers are (to start, some confuse the service with nail decals), and that as awareness of the unique features of the printers comes to the fore, “the hesitation to adopt the units will be gone. Right now, consumers don’t realize what these printers can do.”
Clientele-wise, the easiest sell are girls and women ages 9 to 30, according to several manufacturers; some added that it’s possible to entice older clients as well. The most obvious settings are for parties and for nail salon-goers who love nail art but might be pressed for time.
Le Gallais envisions the printers being successful at nail bars with lots of walk-in traffic as well as consumer beauty retail stores where women shop in groups for makeup and accessories. Bachelorette parties, he says, are the perfect storm for machine-printed custom designs. “With our printer’s smart phone apps, you can take a photo of the bachelorette and have it printed onto everyone’s nails.” Nailae’s technology allows the printer-ready image to be texted to everyone in the party as a QR code, which they then can take to their local nail art printer stations at their convenience.
Though older women might not don a friend’s face on their digits, Le Gallais says the printers can easily be used to create custom designs appropriate for elegant events. “If you’re wearing a leopard print dress, you can take a photo of the dress and print that onto two of your nails, matching the print exactly,” he says.
When Sims was asked if a nail salon whose clientele favors pink-and-whites would be a good fit for a Tat’z printer, his response was: “Tat’z can even print French! A basic white base and a quick print of pink will make every French manicure perfect!” So nail art printers may have a broader reach than the tween through Millennial set.
Just Press Print
The most talented nail artists can hand draw virtually any design given enough time, but the biggest advantage of nail art printers is their ability to exactly replicate any custom design uploaded into their database in a matter of seconds. The database can include photos taken by the client or nail tech, designs drawn by other artists, and the manufacturer-provided designs that come preloaded in the printers, making their art repertoire literally infinite. And for nail techs who don’t specialize in hand-drawing, the printers provide a convenient way for clients to enjoy designs ranging from simple to extremely detailed. Jang says, “One of the most amazing qualities of USNaily is it can print designs that are difficult to hand-draw. For instance, it can print photos of scenery, people, animals, etc., in just 10 to 20 seconds. Using USNaily will speed the process and ultimately help nail artists to give services to more customers in the same amount of time.”
All of the manufacturers indicate that the printing itself is completed in seconds, not minutes, though machines vary on whether they handle one nail at a time or up to four (thumbs generally print separately). But the true time is better estimated at about 15 minutes per hand, which accounts for ensuring the initial nail polish coat is dry to the touch, the application of a primer to ensure ink adhesion, protecting the client’s fingers against overspray, and top coat application.
The manufacturers say the designs stay on between several days to a week, and recommend that the client apply standard top coat every other day — so a similar time frame and home maintenance schedule as a traditional polish manicure. Designs wear best over a solid coat of white (ideal to ensure the colors in the print are fully seen) or other colored polish (though at least one brand is tested to work over gel-polish as well, which allows for the printed design to wear longer). Removal is generally simple and can be done by the client at home with nail polish remover.
While there are other alternatives to offer clients detailed nail art quickly, such as appliques and stamps, these options are limited based on what stock the salon has space to keep on hand, note nail art printer manufacturers. The unlimited designs of nail art printers are stored digitally, taking up no extra physical space beyond the machine. Some manufacturers even push out new preloaded designs seasonally, so clients get fresh options automatically without extra effort on the tech’s part.
Bot Versus Human?
So with their futuristic skill sets, will nail art printers cause real-life nail techs to become obsolete? No, at least certainly not anytime soon.
While there are some printer brands that target consumers directly and don’t necessarily promote any nail tech involvement, these printers have limited applications. Perhaps the most prominent direct-to-consumer nail art printer debuted for Christmas season 2009: A Barbie Dolled Up Nails Digital Nail Printer by Mattel that retailed for $199.99. Though it was a popular item on wishlists, Mattel discontinued it in 2011 after numerous returns and bad reviews (which can still be seen on sites like Amazon.com, which sold the machine in 2009) that stated it was too hard for its target audience (children) to figure out where to place their fingers so the printer would accurately print on the nail surface.
More recently, the “Nailbot” direct-to-consumer printer has been receiving accolades (such as being named a TechCrunch Disrupt 2015 finalist and first runner-up at Silicon Valley’s 2015 Robot Launch) and plans to launch with a retail price of $199. Nailbot’s IndieGogo page says the printer decorates nails instantly with a smartphone and that it expects to be in full production in August. Nailbot’s target audience is tween and teen girls.
Most nail art printers on the market today target the professional beauty market (specifically salons and retailers) and require nail tech involvement for the best wear. “Nailae’s nail designs look even more amazing if the client has started with a good manicure,” Nailae’s website explains. These brands encourage nail professionals to be the ones to prep the nail, apply the solid polish coat, apply the primer, position fingers appropriately in the machine, optionally add embellishments to the printed design, and apply top coat after. They are not intended to be self-service. With the nail tech expert on hand, these printers may avoid some of the user-error pitfalls that plagued Mattel’s printer.
“USNaily is designed to help nail artists, not to replace them,” Jang says. “With USNaily, nail artists can explore a wide variety of possibilities of nail art.” Sims echoes that sentiment. “Nail artists can never be replaced by a machine, but there are certain obstacles that nail artists can encounter,” Sims says. “The best nail techs have some of the largest and most amazing products to create designs, so Tat’z would only help artists complete their art back-bar ensuring no nail art task is too large. As technology and science moves forward in our industry, Tat’z really is a perfect fit for the modern nail artist and salon owner.”
Additionally, there actually are several things a live nail tech can do that nail art printers can’t (at present). Specifically, there are not yet any nail art printers that can print on toenails nor are there any that can do a basic polish change (apply a single even color coat), though Nailbot does state on its website that it’s working on automating the polish change.
Staying in the Black
Manufacturers say the biggest hesitation for nail art printer adoption in the United States is the cost. The price varies from brand to brand, but generally a nail art printer costs about $5,000. Payment plans are available, but we could not find any rental/lease options. Also, like office printers that periodically require ink and toner refills, nail art printers require refills of consumables that must be added to a salon’s ongoing budget.
For nail art printers, the consumables generally fall into three categories: ink, primer, and cuticle guards. Each manufacturer should be able to give you its exact pricing up front but here are some estimates.
> Ink: $20 to $70 per cartridge. Ask the manufacturer how many prints are expected per cartridge. Also, be sure to ask if the ink is proprietary and can only be purchased directly from the manufacturer or if it can be purchased from any office supply store.
> Primer: $20 to $25 per bottle. Some brands call this a base coat or pre-print polish.
> Cuticle guards: $40. In order to have the design go all the way to the edges of the nail, some overprinting onto the skin is normal. Though the inks should not harm your client’s skin (ask the manufacturer for details on what its specific ink is made of), the cuticle guards allow for easy clean-up.
Of course, the idea is to have the machine pay for itself in due course. Sims estimates, “Just from income based solely on Tat’z Nailz art, the printer can be paid off in two months or less. My average use is four prints per client at around $5 a nail. At that rate, less than 200 clients would be needed to pay off the machine in short order.” For a more conservative estimate, a salon owner should include the tech’s labor cost and opportunity cost (meaning, what the tech would typically be doing in the seconds to minutes that she’s helping a client achieve the ideal nail art print). Also consider that if the salon’s vision is to do prints for bachelorette parties or other large groups, then more than one printer will likely be needed to lessen wait times.
Manufacturers suggest salons should charge clients anywhere from $3 to $7 per nail for the printed designs. Le Gallais offers this pricing scale: $3 for a smiley (or any other design that prints in the middle of the nail only, thereby not requiring cuticle guards), $4 for a preloaded full-coverage design, $5 for a client photo (or other original design). He suggests at first giving clients one nail print for free to market the service.
Also important to consider are the positive marketing benefits of being an early adopter of nail art printing. For example, two Tat’z printers have brought positive publicity to Bella Dea Day Spa in Omaha, Neb., where Sims works (the spa is also attached to The College of Nail Design). “Not only is the machine featured in commercials for the salon, several media outlets have covered the machine, the students are trained on the product in school, and the sleek standout look of the machine screams for attention,” Sims says.
The Fine Print
Like any other digital technology, nail art printers are great when they work but extremely frustrating when they don’t. So be sure to do due diligence on the machine and the manufacturer prior to laying out the thousands of dollars for the purchase. Some specifics to inquire about include:
> Training: Beyond the instruction manual, is live or prerecorded training available?
> Warranty: How long is it and what does it cover?
> Ongoing support: What kinds of troubleshooting help is available in the salon’s area?
> Compatibility: How were the inks and the digital screens tested to ensure long-term compatibility with the printer?
> Upgrades: Will the software automatically be upgraded as new versions are released?
Nail art printers are still in their infancy, so U.S. nail salons are in a position to become early adopters, to wait-and-watch consumer reaction, or to simply dismiss the current growth as a passing trend (with a risk of later scrambling to catch up if machine-printed nail art becomes an in-demand service). Only time will tell whether this generation of nail art printers will ultimately become a relic of nail art’s past or a key to its future.
U.S. distribution via Ozongle Inc. Corp.
Price: $1,995 (Model ZX1)
Price: petite: $2,225; full size: $4,995 (special of $3,995.00 + free 6-month warranty extension on full size if you mention this article)
Prices are based on manufacturer website data and interviews and may be subject to change. Contact manufacturers directly for current pricing.