TAKAMATSU, Japan -- Customer feedback five years ago led Japan's YKK to rethink a product it has spent decades refining: the humble zipper.
The result was a fastener that requires only one hand to use, answering a call from people with special needs or those who are just in a hurry, like athletes.
The key lies in the fiddliest part of zipping up a coat or jacket: inserting the pin on one side of the tape into the box on the other. YKK, which ships 10 billion zippers a year, replaced this element with a magnet.
"There was a request to make the operation simple," said Yusuke Shimano, a product strategy team member at YKK, the world's leading maker of zippers. "We hit on magnets after thinking about what would be handier."
With some practice, the magnet on the new zipper can catch the other end from about 1 cm away without the wearer's eyes to guide it.
Besides helping disabled individuals or elderly people with impaired hand-eye coordination, YKK envisions a wide range of situations in which this feature would be needed. Zippers can be hard to use when fingertips are numb from cold or hands are full of groceries, Shimano said.
Though most of the zippers that YKK makes are commodity grade, special-order fasteners are its top earner. The new, magnetic zipper represents the privately held company's latest attempt at a value-added product that can command higher profit margins than typical fasteners.
The product is an improved version of click-TRAK, which YKK developed based on feedback that its zippers were difficult for some people to use. With click-TRAK, the wearer snaps the ends of the zipper together instead of sliding the pin into the box.
Designers at YKK had proposed using magnets in zippers before, but past ideas never reached the product stage. The added weight of magnets was one problem to be overcome.
Even with strong, lightweight neodymium magnets, a kind used in electric motors, YKK faced another challenge: keeping the magnet from attracting household objects.
The solution involves covering the magnet's poles with an insulating material that prevents the zipper end from sticking where it is not supposed to. The permanent magnet is washing-machine safe, according to YKK.
The company plans to begin sales of the magnetic zipper on a trial basis as early as this fiscal year.
"Clothing for athletes is our main target market," said Hisashi Yoneshima, a vice president for product development, adding that the zippers are intended for all kinds of sports. "Sportswear will probably account for about 90%" of shipments of the new zippers, "with the rest going to elderly or disabled people."