by Brittany Willes, contributing writer
“There are a lot of consumer products which incorporate crystals with plastic parts, but in almost every case it involves attaching the crystal to the outside of the part after it has been molded,” explained ZoMazz COO Ron Maddocks. “That means the crystals are exposed and can be knocked off or cause negative user experiences, like scratching surfaces. Our process embeds the crystal below the part surface, ensuring the crystals are a permanent feature and protecting the user from the sharp edges of the crystal.”
An engineering solutions company headquartered in Monterey, California, ZoMazz focuses on design for manufacturing molded consumer products. When Swarovski, a high-end designer of crystal-encrusted items, began seeking a new way of adhering crystals to their products, ZoMazz seemed the perfect partner.
Creating an improved process
“Swarovski came to us,” stated Maddocks. “They’ve been putting crystals on plastic parts for a long time, and there are a variety of ways they can accomplish the task. However, it’s always been a process of crystal plus adhesive plus the plastic part, and it was always done after the part was molded, meaning that it was always a surface attachment of some sort.”
The surface attachment method had become an issue for Swarovski, and the company began looking for a way to embed crystals into its product parts. “Swarovski and ZoMazz share some common customers,” Maddocks continued. “When they learned that we work with clear films and registered graphics, we were asked to work together to develop a solution that would put the crystal under the surface of the film. Once we started down that path, it became obvious that we could develop a robust solution.”
Part of what made the process easier was the crystals themselves. Crystals are dimensionally stable, heat-resistant and known for their optical qualities. As such, “they seemed like a good starting point as we looked at integrating solids with printed media,” said Maddocks. “Swarovski is known worldwide as the leading producer of quality crystals and were the obvious choice to partner with in the development of this technology.”
Navigating the challenges
That is not to say the process was without obstacles. According to Maddocks, there were two key technical challenges: integration of solid elements with digital graphics and the high-volume delivery system of crystals to the film substrate. “Swarovski developed the automation required to precisely pick and place the crystals in high volumes,” said Maddocks. For its part, ZoMazz focused on how to effectively mix Swarovski crystals and digital graphics.
First, ZoMazz engineers focused on the adhesive itself. Development of the glue that would hold the crystals to the film was a key factor in migrating away from the surface attachment method used in the past. Most importantly, the glue would have to be capable of bonding the crystal to the film while also holding up to the injection molding process.
The difficulty came in that the glue itself had to be water-clear so that it would not diminish the effect or the physical registration of the crystal. To test the glue, ZoMazz created several skull graphics, placing one crystal in each eye socket. The ultimate goal was to make sure the crystal didn’t shift positions and end up outside of the assigned area. Registering the crystal placement to the graphic was the first major hurdle and, according to Maddocks, ZoMazz engineers went through several iterations before landing on the best glue solution.
Further challenges were presented when it came to UV curing the crystal appliques. ZoMazz would first take the printed film and place it into an SMT machine that applies glue to the film and then places the crystals on top of the glue, using an analogous software to orient the crystals with the graphics. “In our normal process,” said Maddocks, “we use several fixtures to register the film to the tools that are used to cut out the final form.”
Once the film comes out of the SMT machine, the difficulty then is with the water-like substance of the glue itself. Because the glue is not overly viscous, if the applique is tipped at any angle the crystal will slip.
“The first round of appliques that we did, we were taking the appliques out of the fixture and putting them onto the belt to put into the UV curing machine by hand,” said Maddocks. “We had a lot of fallout from crystals sliding out of place before they were cured. If someone touched a crystal briefly, or even so much as breathed on them, they would slide all over the place.”
The process of transitioning between machines became paramount. ZoMazz developed a system to allow parts to be taken from the SMT machine and placed directly on the belt to the UV-curing tunnel with minimal handling of the appliques, thereby reducing the opportunity for crystals to slide out of place.
Opening new markets
According to Maddocks, the process for embedding crystals was a natural evolution of ZoMazzs normal digital in-mold decorating (IMD) process. “ZoMazz focuses on bringing maximum value to our customers through a variety of technologies,” he stated. “The integration of solid decorative elements with digitally imaged graphics seemed a natural progression in the evolution of our technology. ZoMazz serves many industries where added effects, such as glitter and metallic effects, have become more prominent. We had been looking at using clear film for embedding for a while. The fact that Swarovski came along around the same time made it an obvious choice. It is a natural marriage between our technology and Swarovski’s product.”
Not only has the partnership been a “natural marriage,” it has opened new markets for ZoMazz. “Swarovski has a vast clientele that specialize in high-end fashion, which is not typically a market that we serve,” Maddocks stated. Through its new graphic offering, ZoMazz is able to bring unique plastic solutions to an industry that typically looks to non-plastic materials.
For example, “Consider luggage,” said Maddocks. “Those bags have little metal badges bearing the brand name on them. Overall, they’re fairly plain. Through the film we work with, we can make a plastic part that looks metallic. We can then add Swarovski crystals to the plastic badge.”
By switching the metal badge for a plastic one, the customer saves on the cost of the metal. These same customers, who are used to the high-end quality of Swarovski crystals, also incorporate the high-fashion statement that comes with them. Additionally, with the new IMD solution with which the crystals are no longer adhered to the surface of the part, customers dont suffer the issues with scratching and other negative user experiences. “We’re able to offer a different option that is more cost-effective in terms of tooling and final part price,” said Maddocks.
To demonstrate the ways in which ZoMazz can bring something new to the table, the company developed a custom injection-molded coaster, such as would be found in any bar or restaurant. “It’s the ideal size to showcase our digital graphics, as well as the ‘bling’ factor of Swarovski’s crystals,” said Maddocks. ZoMazz uses a set of “house” graphics to tell the story of its technology, but also produces custom graphics for specific customers. “It’s a quick, cheap way to give the customer something they can hold and that demonstrates what we can engineer for them using our unique technology.”
Success in partnership
New markets aren’t the only ones benefitting from ZoMazz’s newest solution. ZoMazz also is able to provide its traditional customers with a graphic solution that is more sophisticated and of higher value than what has been available in the past – all of which fits with ZoMazz’s mission to provide unique solutions to customer problems.
“When ZoMazz was originally founded, we really tried to sell ourselves as a provider of high-end graphic solutions,” Maddocks stated. “In the last few years, however, we’ve transitioned into being an engineering technology company and focusing more on developing solutions to whatever problem our customer might have, as opposed to just selling a single solution in terms of appliques.
In transitioning to a focus on engineering technology, ZoMazz has certainly made its mark. The custom injection-molded coaster the company produced as a showpiece was awarded the 2017 IMDA Gold Award for “Best Prototype Part.” When asked about the win, Maddocks affirmed, “The entire ZoMazz team is proud and honored to have won this award. Many people have dedicated countless hours to bring this technology to market, and the award validates our efforts. It is exceptionally rewarding to be recognized by our peers for engineering and technical excellence.”