I’m a grown man, and zippers can still be tough. Lining up the slider perfectly with the very bottom of a zipper is the simplest thing in the world. . .until something goes wrong. Maybe I pull carelessly and the teeth get off by a rung. Maybe my fingers are frozen and the task becomes akin to threading a needle. Maybe I yank too hard and the whole thing just breaks.
Apparel maker Under Armour has a solution. Starting this November, its clothing will include the Magzip, an ingenious zipper that magnetically clasps automatically and still provides just enough leverage for you to zip up one-handed if you need to. Trying out a sample the company sent me, I’m amazed each and every time it works. The Magzip a testament to mechanical ingenuity in the electronic age.
But the product wasn’t originally conceived for convenience. As engineer Scott Peters watched his uncle develop myotonic dystrophy, a condition notorious for attacking the strength and coordination of one’s appendages, he saw first-hand how manipulating buttons can impossible task, and even aligning the box and pin of a zipper can become daunting.
“My mom [an occupational therapist] and I got talking how to help him, and i jumped right in—’I think i could come up with a better zipper than what the rest of the world has used for 100 years,’” Peters tells Co.Design. “So we put a few magnets on a zipper, and of course that didn’t work so well.”
But Peters believed in the idea, playing with magnets on zippers for months before he caught a break. Sitting around a campfire one evening, his idea attracted the attention of a neighbor who happened to be an accomplished mechanical engineer and designer in his own rite. Together, they took on the problem in the only way it could be—constant iteration. The eureka moment of a magnetic zipper was crucial. But the exact millimeter grooves making the process practical would require painstaking nuance.
“Magnets in and of themselves won’t work. They’ll drive components together, but you have issues of alignment, issues of holding things together without popping out—and pulling them apart can be a nightmare,” Peters explains. “We had to figure out the combination of mechanical design so it self-aligns and easily locks itself in place, enabling you to zip with one hand.”
“We started rapid prototyping, getting parts machined, and testing. We’d make a part, assemble it, and glue it on a zipper to find out what worked and didn’t work. I had one part that actually broke, and when this had broken, it kind of showed me the way. . .we were able to evolve the design to where it is today, a more open hook-and-catch.”
About 25 prototypes later, the magnetic hook-and-catch was an exciting proof of concept, and it became the system they patented. With legal protection in-hand, the team began approaching apparel companies with the idea. They received good feedback, but no one wanted to buy in—even though the zipper we all know today is a fairly flawed piece of hardware.
“One of the things we’ve found is that certain industries get a standard product in certain areas, and that’s the way it is,” Peters explains. “So when they innovate in a space, they innovate in a space that everyone else is innovating in. It’s rare you get people circling back to question the status quo.”
But in a twist of luck, Under Armour had been actively searching for innovative new ideas, and they came across the magnetic zipper patents online. The company reached out to the inventors and helped with the next wave of product iteration. The final device they created is a far cry from the original zipper-with-a-magnet-taped-on. It’s an appealing set of cylinders that protects magnets of just the right strength within. They meet, self-latch, and provide the leverage to zip up one-handed. And the unzip? It just as easy.
The Magzip will debut in Under Armour’s line this November.