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Zip manufacturer cuts product development time using 3D printing

01 March 2018

In an increasingly global and competitive marketplace, YKK Europe Ltd. is leading the assault on product development times by investing in Stratasys PolyJet 3D printing technology.

Sacrificial die block inserts for injection mould tools that could previously take a week or more to progress through the company’s busy machine shop, can now be 3D printed in one or two hours. The impact on the business has been considerable.

Successful deployment of the PolyJet 3D printer allows the company to:

• respond quickly to product development requirements

• overcome the time-consuming barriers of conventional machining for low-volume prototyping, shortening time-to-market

• 3D printed materials prove resilient to the heat of injection moulding, delivering sufficient life to produce functional prototypes

• many additional uses for 3D printer include actual parts for fastener manufacturing machinery and oversized demonstrators for exhibitions

While the company is known for its zipper solutions, a full range of fasteners are also produced including hook and loop tapes, plastic buckles, snaps, buttons and more.

The company’s R&D centre works with customers across Europe to provide speedy product development. The facility offers access to the very latest technology, and ensures YKK innovates together with its customers to produce high-quality fastening products.

YKK’s association with 3D printing began in 2007 after the company made the strategic decision that it must do R&D faster in order to cut development times and remain ahead of the competition. Mark Davies, part of the YKK Product & Machinery Development team, was tasked with investigating how.

“Today, the world’s textile and sewing industries are seeing ever-greater diversification in consumer needs and shorter product cycles, which means we must work even harder to speed up product development and reduce production costs,” says Davies. 

The answer to the company’s development dilemma arrived in the shape of a Stratasys Eden500V 3D printer, which was selected based on its speed, accuracy and range of materials.

Davies explains: “Our decision was vindicated as the machine served us well for eight years, and was still working well when we decided to trade it in for a new Stratasys machine, the Objet500 Connex3. We picked this machine due to the potential to have up to 100 materials – including blends and colours – available on the tray at any one time. In combination with 16µm resolution, we knew this would more than cover our requirements for the foreseeable future.”

High-performance materials for fully-functional tooling

The R&D workshop at YKK is home to a number of injection moulding machines designed and built in-house that are used to manufacture product prototypes. Traditionally, the company would produce the mould tools, including die block inserts, using its CNC machine shop. However, the machine shop was extremely busy with other company demands, and often the R&D team would have to wait a week or more before its parts could be manufactured. 

Today, die block inserts can be produced in as little as 60 minutes using the Stratasys’ Connex3. The sacrificial inserts are printed in a transparent material (RGD720), which is sufficiently strong and stiff enough to withstand up to five injection moulding shots (between 1g and 5g) of polypropylene or POM (polyoxymethylene). This is enough for the R&D team to assess the form, fit and function of the prototype, and decide on its next iteration. 

“It also means we don’t have to machine four or five inserts out of metal as we work through the various iterations,” says Davies. “We can simply make our design modifications and start another 3D print. The amount of time this saves during product development is significant to say the least.”

Rapid assessment of new design concepts 

Beyond the die block inserts, YKK’s use of the PolyJet extends to the direct printing of zipper elements, also known as teeth, as well as slider mechanisms. These are often printed oversize to help confirm whether initial design concepts will be successful, before transitioning to real size prototyping using injection moulding.

“We produce all kinds of fastener parts using the Stratasys 3D printer,” confirms Davis. “The capability of the machine is ideal for our requirements and has proven to be an irreplaceable part of the R&D process. We do in fact have another brand of 3D printer on site, but we don’t use it as much as it takes two hours just to warm up. Using the Connex3 we can print a die block insert in that time.” 

Demonstrator models for exhibitions: Looking good in public

According to Davies, the benefits of 3D printing are felt across numerous manufacturing applications. This is demonstrated by a number of demonstrator models produced for exhibitions attended by YKK. With a net build size of 490 × 390 × 200mm, in combination with the ability to simultaneously 3D print multiple colours and materials, the Connex3 is ideally specified for this task.   

Aside from product development, YKK’s facility in Runcorn is also responsible for machine development. The facility supports production in 14 other EMEA countries, as well as sister R&D sites in Italy, Germany and Turkey. A high percentage of the machines used by YKK are built in-house, and 3D printing is also proving useful there.

“We are now 3D printing a number of parts for actual use on our machines,” says Davies. “For instance, we have replaced many of the metal component chutes on our injection moulding machines with 3D printed versions – it’s just so much quicker and far more cost effective.”

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