Friday, July 21, 2017

Our Secret Weapon

Reports from Switzerland are generating a fair bit of feedback, mostly - if not all - positive. And then here comes one which got me thinking for a moment: "Nick, it is obvious why the Swiss are not so keen to show you their watch manufacturing facilities, machinery and processes. They simply want to show you how difficult and expensive watchmaking really is, so you'll give up, broken and discouraged."

There is no doubt that watchmaking requires special knowledge, a large capital investment and two or three generations of watchmakers working on a project. But this is not a reason to quit, rather, the opposite; to work even harder and smarter. The Rebelde project has no alternative, no plan B.  Seriously, I cannot imagine myself waking up one day deciding that 'I have had enough of watchmaking'.  I am too old for a career change and completely unemployable. And if we run out of cash, so what? I can always set up a cardboard box watch repair booth in Martin Place and do battery replacements on the spot for $5 a pop. The best office in the city, a great view and thousands of people passing by just to say “hello”; No phone calls, no staff, all income tax-free. Flexible working hours, plus a shoebox with a chessboard and a hand- written sign:  "$1 to beat homeless Master Watchmaker!"

Even if the Swiss really want me to go broke I am not worried at all. I do have a SECRET WEAPON: I have YOU. Every time you place an order for a rebelde watch, or rebelde pen, cap or even a leather rebelde bracelet, we make a profit. Every time you buy a second-hand Swiss watch from us, again we make a profit. Thanks to this free newsletter, our advertising costs are practically zero.  We work harder and smarter - because of YOU.  If one day all Australians, collectively at once, decide that they no longer need a watchmaker, then so be it. We'll bow down, say thank you, pack up our bags and move to New Zealand.

That being sorted out, let’s move to on to something truly cool: outillage.

***As I said yesterday, French is the language of horology

And since French watchmakers have no intention of learning English anytime soon (why would they?) we have no choice but to learn a word or two of French.
One thing that I noticed a long time ago was that some of the flat-watch components were clearly made by a stamping process.  So my plan was to get in touch with some small press makers. After visiting a few machinery dealers, I soon discovered that stamping is not about presses, hydraulics and materials, but rather about outillage.  The word translates as 'set of tools', which in my mind, looked like this:


In other words, a simple punch and die tooling. Yet for some strange reason, press dealers kept frantically repeating outillage, outillage !! to the point that I got a bit annoyed.  So why such a fuss?

Finally, I asked them to show me the bloody outillage. And they couldn't. Now it was their time to get frustrated – why didn’t I understand that outillage is not something you buy with the machine, but rather something you make yourself?

After a bit of googling, I finally figured out that we are talking about the same thing, except for one: punch and die, or the tooling set they call outillage is a rather high precision piece, custom-made for mass production.   Something like the two examples shown below:

In horology, the stamping process is only feasible when production quantities reach a certain level, justifying the cost of tooling and preparation (we are talking here about 100,000 pieces, up to a million). Yes, the well-made outillage can make a million identical watch components still within strict tolerances. 


And how much is the outillage? The first one around $20,000 and the second one around $45,000. That is one set, to make just ONE watch component.

Clearly, parts stamping in horology is not for a small batch production or prototyping.


Au revoir outillage!

PS: the brass-looking cylinders are high precision ROTARY STROKE ball-bearings with zero backlash. A piece of art themselves!




Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Shaping prestige, tooth by tooth


You can spend your entire working life behind the watchmaker’s bench - and even call yourself a watchmaker - without the need to ever use a metal file. Indeed, most watchmakers don't make watches but repair them by pulling them apart, solving problems, replacing worn out or broken parts and then putting them back together.  It’s only once you start making individual components by hand that you realise that your most essential tool is no longer a screwdriver or tweezers but files, drills and polishing stones, which is now clearly obvious to me.

What is less obvious is the following:  What type of file is a true watchmaker’s file?  One which will allow you to craft a precision component, a file made to last for many years, even when used daily?

If there is one thing intrinsically more Swiss than Milka chocolate it has to be the custom of naming a product by the name of the village it was manufactured in.  Then - a few decades later thanks to the product's quality and longevity - that geographical place becomes a synonym for the product itself…or even an entire industry.

Here are a few examples:  To most watchmakers, Marvin, Cortebert, Tavannes, Orvin, Peseux and Fleurier are watch brand names but, for everyone else, they are just names of some tiny picturesque Swiss villages. Just like when you say: "I left my Montblanc on the desk", you are obviously referring to your pen, not the Mont Blanc; the highest mountain in Switzerland and Europe.

To me, Vallorbe always means just one thing: a watchmaker’s file. Well, as you've guessed, I was wrong…partially, at least.  Vallorbe is not a village but a tiny municipality near the Swiss-French border where, since the late 1890s, the Vallorbe file factory is located.  In their vast range of precision files for various industries, watchmakers’ files are branded under the name Glardon. 

So which glardon would be best suited for a job?

The answer would depend on a number of factors, all to be carefully taken into consideration. Firstly, which metal you are working on: steel, brass, titanium or some other exotic alloy? Next, the file profile, which should correspond to the shape of the component you are making, with many dozens to choose from. Then comes the grade selection which ranges from very coarse to extra fine (000, 00, 0, 1, 2 ,etc, up to 10).  There are different types of files for different stages of part production:  from roughing to precision work, polishing to shaping, down to very specific operations like escape-wheel teeth work. Then there are high-speed steel and coated glardons, diamond embedded ones, carbon fibre files; down to special shaped files designed to reach unreachable spots.

Vallorbe claims to manufacture "the hardest files in the world" with a coating of 72 on the Rockwell Hardness Table.  Since I am not an expert in hardness I had to look up this value only to find that 72 is the highest value on the list.  I guess I shouldn't be surprised... sometimes you do get what you pay for. 

While a modest set of Vallorbe watchmaker’s files could easily cost over $500 this investment is worth every cent.  Yes, there is something magical about shaping the metal - and if you prefer to do it by hand in style - then do it with glardons.



Things that make us go crazy

Charles Darwin wrote: "The sight of a feather in a peacock's tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!"

What a statement! And this is precisely how I felt when a master Guilloche artisan demonstrated the fine art of pattern making during our visit to Cernier.

But before we can go any further with this it is crucial to get familiar with Cernier itself.  Cernier is the former capital of the district of Val-de-Ruz in the canton of Neuchatel, Switzerland.According to one pedantic administrator Cernier had an area of 9.1 square kilometres . Of this area, 4.98 km2 is used for agricultural purposes, while 3.44 km2  is forested.  Of the rest of the land, 0.68 km2 is settled (buildings or roads) and 0.01 km2 (2.5 acres) is unproductive land.


Talk about attention to detail...

Yes, you've got that right; a mere 9 square kilometres of land populated by precisely 2,223 people.  And, as the aforementioned administrator reports,  "...most of the population  speaks French (1,727 or 89.9%) as their first language, German is the second most common (63 or 3.3%) and Italian is the third (49 or 2.6%). There is 1 person who speaks Romansch. " 

(A small linguistic digression:  Romansch is the fourth official language in Switzerland.  I couldn't resist but to look it up: Romansh is divided into five different regional dialects (Sursilvan, Sutsilvan, Surmiran, Putèr, and Vallader), each with its own standardised written language. In addition, a pan-regional variety called Rumantsch Grischun was introduced in 1982, which is controversial among Romansh speakers.)

There you go…a district capital the size of a small Australian hobby farm with zero English-speaking inhabitants and a township where everything is measured, recorded, kept as is; the place where time has stood still for well over 800 years.

Cerniers don't rush. They don't throw things away, or hurry to modernise the way they do the craft of fine engraving, known as guilloche.  And why would they - when millions of watch enthusiasts worldwide go crazy at the mere sight of an engraved watch dial, bridge or a case?

Yann von Kaenel, a guillocher, kindly demonstrated his craftsmanship on a 130-year old machine. The trick is to go slowly, he said, and also to become one with the machine.  The rest is a matter of practice. 

I am not going to bore you with the technique itself.   In essence, guilloche is the play of light and shadows caused by intricate patterns in metal created by a movement of a sharp engraving tool - or as Yann explains - the magic which happens when shadow marries the light.

There are no two identical patterns or two identical watch dials and, as in the case of Darwin's peacock, some patterns will simply drive you crazy.




'So what do you do for living', Yann asked, looking in at my business card. 'You are a watchmaker? Are your customers interested in guilloche?'
'
Maybe, perhaps, one day - who knows?  Rebelde is as much Breguet as Parramatta is Neuchatel. But then again, who knows?  In a generation or two, someone from rebelde may visit your atelier to discuss the deal.   Cernier is not going anywhere anytime soon, right?'

We shook hands, and smiled at each other.   He appreciated my curiosity, and I admired his 
craftsmanship.

A brief moment in time, to be cherished forever…

Nick

A picture of Breguet guilloches dial


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

SCHAUBLIN lathe - which one?

Today's email is primarily intended for young watchmakers and clockmakers. However, I strongly believe the topic could be of interest to all watch enthusiasts. So feel free to keep reading. For easy digestion and clarity it is presented in 'Q and A format'.

schaublin lathes


What is a Schaublin lathe?

Schaublin lathes are one of the most popular Swiss-made manual-operated lathes designed for precision machining. What makes this lathe so uniquely special is the fact that this is one of the most widely-used lathes in the watch industry.

The Schaublin headquarters are in Bevilard, which is the true heart of Swiss watchmaking. The quality and longevity of the lathe is such that it can easily run for 50 or more years; and, as Schaublin proudly proclaims, many of their lathes are still in daily use after more than 60 years.
It’s clear when you invest in Schaublin you are investing in a precision instrument which will last you for your lifetime, and you will never need another lathe.

How many models are available?

The two most popular models are Schaublin 70 and 102.

What is the difference between 70 and 102?

The model numbers represent the height between the lathe centre and its base (70mm or 102 mm). Both lathes provide the same level of accuracy, however 102 can machine larger components.

Which model is best suited for my requirements?

Here is the short list in order of preference/machining requirements:

Schaublin 70
1. Watchmaking
2. Clockmaking
3. Precision toolmaking

Schaublin 102
1. Precision toolmaking
2. Clockmaking
3. Watchmaking


It is important to note that you can make any component on the larger 102 that you can on the smaller 70, but not the other way around. Obviously, if your intention is to make smaller-sized components then the more affordable 70 presents much better value for money.

Collet size?
Schaublin 70: W12
Schaublin 102: W20 or W25

What is the basic Schaublin lathe configuration?
In its basic configuration the lathe comes with a bench, beds, motor, carriage and tail-stock.

Price?
The price of a basic 102 model is AUD$31,200.

Which accessories are available?
The Schaublin catalogue lists pages and pages of accessories which would expand the capabilities of your lathe. Some of the most popular lathes are: dividing head with discs ($3500), grinding attachment ($4500) and milling attachment ($8500). Note: collets or chucks are not included so a basic set of collets and at least one 3-jaw chuck would be required ($3500).

The total?

Assuming you can live without the grinding attachment, the total would be around $51,700, plus $1700 for packing, around $2500 for shipping to Australia, and around $6,000 in GST.

AUD $60,000 for a small manual lathe? You must be joking!?

Yes, the Schaublin 102 is a relatively small piece of equipment, however, it is an indispensable high precision prototyping tool, built to last for 60 years.

During my past visit to Switzerland, I had the opportunity to see countless Schaublin 102 lathes in operation employed by almost every watch manufacturer, including, of course, the most famous brands. Some workshops had 10 or more. The 102 is a true toolmaker’s lathe which means it is used not just for component making but for tool making as well.

For example, a toolmaker in a watch industry needs a 102 to make tools for other machines.

Subcontracting a third-party toolmaker is both expensive and time-consuming; a set of arbours or part holders which could be easily made on a 102 can cost $1500 or more if subcontracted. So in a busy watch manufacturing factory a Schaublin 102 is not just a smart investment which will pay for itself in a short period of time but a necessity.

Are there any second hand Schaublins out there?

Based on my extensive research, finding a 102 which is younger than 40 years is almost impossible. While collets and attachments are perfectly interchangeable, the overhaul cost is prohibitive. In fact, the restoration bill for an older machine could run into thousands of dollars.
Since the shipping, packaging and import duty/GST is the same for an old and new machine there are no savings in buying an earlier model. Therefore, in most cases second hand/pre-owned old machines makes a poor and unpractical choice.

Any alternatives?

Not really. While there are a number of other toolmaker lathes out there Schaublin is the only lathe maker with a watchmaker’s pedigree, produced in Switzerland primarily for the watchmaking industry.

While some American lathe makers, like Hardinge from New York or the Californian-based Lagun, manufacture excellent toolmaker lathes renowned for both machine and work-holding rigidity and excellent accuracy, none of them offer the  versatility and range of accessories like Schaublin.

Looks like Schaublin 102 is then out of reach for a small Australian watchmaker?

Sadly, for most Australian watchmakers this fine lathe will just remain an item on the wish list…

Happy collecting,
Nick

Monday, July 17, 2017

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin(ion)?

***How many angels can dance on the head of a pin(ion)?

Depends, I guess; and your answer is as good as any - assuming you even have an interest in debating topics of no practical value. But this is precisely the question which came to my mind during the visit to a watch factory in Chaux de La-Fonds, Switzerland, last week.

For those of you who have just subscribed: I am emailing you from Switzerland. The purpose of my tour is threefold:  to learn as much as possible about the manufacturing of individual watch components; to acquire machinery for such production and to find an established independent watch manufacturer who will supply Swiss-made mechanisms for our Rebelde brand, until we develop our own in-house movement.  Namely, an automatic date movement (coming in 2018) as well as chronograph (2019).

So far the learning experience could be simply described as life-changing.   

Thanks to some old connections and a set of new circumstances, I was offered a tour of a highly specialized watch factory which manufactures a wide range of in-house movements, from chronographs to tourbillons. Due to the fact that they supply movements to some top end brands I am not at liberty to share any photographs, or even tell you their name but, thanks to their generous hospitality, I was able to see and touch every component, see every machine used in production, and have every question answered.

So back to the original question - how many watchmakers, how much time and effort and how much money is required to manufacture a $100,000 movement in-house? And not just to develop it from  scratch, but to make almost every single component for it, in one building, literally in one house?

The manufacturer has been in business for 10 years.  It started as a dream project of just two people. Today, they employ 95 watchmakers - designers, tool makers, machinists, engineers and assemblers. In such a short period of time they have developed the ability to make almost every component, except for watch jewels and main springs. Last year, they made their own hair spring, which makes them one of a handful of businesses in the world who can make such prestigious claims.

The facility tour started at the design office where four young men started to turn their dream into a blueprint. Then I was shown a prototyping department where  three or four watchmakers make, by hand, first a running prototype using hand tools, as well as the latest CNC machines. 
Once the movement is designed, assembled and tested, the show really begins:  I was taken to the basement - a metal warehouse which contains almost any imaginable variety of steel, brass, titanium, silver and countless alloys.  The raw material is heat-treated and prepared for machining of component mass production.

The second floor looks like a scene from a sci-fi movie:   About 20 or so CNC mills are packed tightly into one not-so large room; the smell of lubricants, coolants; high speed spindles creating the noise similar to dental drills, turning the raw plates into main watch plates and bridges. The entire floor is run just by a few engineers and the operation goes 24 x 7, day and night.

The third floor is the turning department which produces wheels and pinions, screws and barrel arbours. To my amazement, they are using CNC lathes from the very same manufacturer we use! Physically, this is the largest room but it only houses 5 lathes. For a moment I felt an overwhelming sense of joy realizing that our lathe is capable of much more that I thought but the joy dissipated quickly, once I realized that one CNC lathe is just  the starting point.

Raw wheels and pinions are then transferred to the gearing department for hobbing and pivot polishing - again, this job is highly specialized and conducted by half a dozen watchmakers.  And - unlike in previous stages of mass production - here each component is assembled individually one at the time, painstakingly by hand.  Once you see how slow this process is you really start to appreciate the cost factor of your watch mechanism. But the quality of the wheels is in direct relation to timekeeping, so no shortcuts here. The pivot tolerances are well below 3 microns which in itself is rather mindblowing. In addition, some wheels can be only produced in small batches because polishing tools require frequent re-sharpening. A pivot polishing diamond disc would require attention every 2000 parts. And , yes, there are grinding wheels which polish other grinding wheels, which then polish the final tools. There are 3 sets of tools required to accomplish just one final polishing operation. The cost of the polishing machines? A bit more than a Porsche.  To see a dozen pivot burnishing machines in a room not larger than our small office is like seeing 12 Porsches parked in a driveway.

There were other departments which I am not going to talk about. Each of them would require a separate write-up. For example, the parts pressing unit which housed two dozen stamping presses with in-house developed automation.  Or a ball bearing assembly line.  However, the department that was probably most exciting was the manufacturing lab employing the latest wire-cutting technology. The process itself is rather simple: a string of wire the thickness of a human hair is charged with an electrical current. The metal is submerged in oil and then can be 'machined' with incredible precision. This process allows for manufacturing of some of the most complex components -  levers, springs, clips, all the way to chronograph crown wheels. A part which would require 20 hours by hand can be produced in 20 minutes. The application of this technology is still new in the watchmaking industry and the first major 'branching out' from the traditional metal work. Each machine costs $400,000 and they have seven of them, run by two engineers.

As George Daniels painfully  figured out, and famously proclaimed, the final finishing is the crown jewel of watchmaking. Making a perfect part means not just a good working part but, above all, a beautifully crafted part.  Again, I was enjoying watching the craftsmanship of two well-aged watchmakers who polished tourbillon cages by hand. I only stood there for less than a minute, admiring but not intruding, silently.

The finished components finally make their way to 3 assembly rooms:  the general, master and tourbillon room.

The general watchmaker's assembly room employs watchmakers with less than 10 years’ experience, the master room is where three master watchmakers assemble 'complications'. And then there were only two watchmakers in the tourbillon room: a man in his early 30s and a young lady in her late 20s. Both interrupted their work to greet me and to show me the masterpiece they were assembling. Obviously, the company treats them like minor royalty, working independently, at their own pace, free to pause and chat.


The photo below is not of the actual watch (I would not even dare to ask for permission to take photos!) but of an identical piece manufactured in their workshop.



The entire tour de manufacture lasted for over 2 hours and was concluded in the meeting room where it started. My host then asked: "So, Nikola, now that you've seen our capabilities, what can we do for your Rebelde project?".

The time for courtesy, accolades and admiration was over. In front of me were 4 trays of watch movements, ranging from a simple chronograph to an astronomical tourbillon, each in a different colour, finish and grade. And I could have ANY of them, manufactured in house, finished as per my request, in any quantity my heart desired, signed "Swiss Made for Rebelde", delivered in 6 months’ time, to be housed in the case of my own design, fitted with a rebelde dial, on the rebelde strap.

I really had no idea what to say at that moment, but my first request was for a glass of a cold sparkling Swiss water.

There was no mistake -  I was given the opportunity of a lifetime to forge a small but crucial partnership with a true, small, independent Swiss watchmaker, who was ready to take my order. And it was clear that if I missed this opportunity, the next one may come - never.

"At this stage of rebelde brand development, a simple 3-register automatic chronograph would be a logical step forward. (Stop talking now- the left side of the brain was screaming in my head!) And since our customers are rather pragmatic, practical, no-fuss Aussies (yes, blame the customers!) a rather conservative Geneva waves finish would be sufficient. "

"Any special requirements in regard to the logo on the rotor weight?"

"A red star", I replied.

"Quantity?"

While the meeting room had no windows,  I swear, somewhere in the distance I could hear the cow bells. I could clearly see the rolling greens of the Swiss Jura, the smell of cheese, the blueness of  Neuchatel lake, and the snow  covered mountain peaks of Mont Blanc. 

"200".

"Very good" said the host and we shook hands. "Your invoice will be mailed to you after the holidays. Have a safe trip home".

'Remortgaged the home', said the left brain lobe.  'Or as the Swiss would say, ‘Maison abandonnee' - concluded cheerfully the right lobe.

But I had no time to listen to either - just 19 kilometres down the road was Jerome's machinery warehouse. The gear hobber, here I come!

[to be continued]


Happy collecting,
Nick

Thursday, July 6, 2017

One Year On

***One Year On - by Tyler




Last Friday marked a year since I began my journey into the wonderful world of horology.
I’d always loved watches and wanted to be involved with them in some way but as you can imagine, it’s not exactly the easiest field to get into nowadays, especially as a watchmaking apprentice - and doubly so here in Australia.

As such, when I first heard about the opportunity to become Nick’s apprentice, it was something I jumped at without a moment’s hesitation, and I’m forever grateful that he agreed to take me on. Some thought it strange that I’d chosen to go down this path in the 21st century. And of course, given my background in computer science, there was some confusion as to how the two might be related (in the world of modern day watchmaking, it turns out there’s a lot of crossover skills!). ‘It’s a dying art’, ‘no one needs a watch’, ‘what about smart watches?’ - but three of the most common remarks I’d hear.

This, coupled with the fact that apprenticeships are on the wane across all industries, make undertaking one an ominous sounding proposition. But as Nick and I have endeavoured to prove, with just a little perseverance it can be a beneficial thing for all parties, and we hope to encourage others to undertake one too.

Thankfully I paid no mind to the doubters and, as I’ve discovered over the last year, watchmaking is anything but a dying art and has a very bright future indeed. I had some idea of what I was in for, but I couldn’t have imagined just how fascinating and challenging it’d be, nor how much I’d enjoy being a part of the community.

Truly, watches seem to attract a special type of person who has a high attention to detail and an appreciation for engineering and art pushed to extremes, just for the sake of it. They tend to have an insatiable curiosity and whenever there’s a room full of them, you can be sure that some riveting conversation is taking place. It’s a community comprised of a cross-section of society like nothing else: tradesmen, politicians, scientists and bankers are just some of the people I’ve been privileged to meet, and I can’t wait for many more years of it.

So what lies ahead? More of the same - and so much more. Things are moving incredibly fast around here and we’re never really sure what’s coming ourselves. I couldn’t possibly list everything I’ve learnt and all that we’ve done over the last year, but suffice to say that we’ve laid the groundwork for some very exciting things and we look forward to sharing it all with you.

Until next time,
Tyler

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Rebelde Mark 1

***Rebelde Mark 1

This is hardly a secret: over the years, I have received quite a few requests for a 'slightly different' rebelde. Basically, there is a quite a lot of demand for a watch with the case size of around 40mm.  Also, a number of subscribers have expressed interest in a self-winding timepiece (automatic watch). The third request: all-Roman numeral dial, or alternatively, Arabic numerals only, but not the mix.

There are a number of reasons why such models are still on the drawing board. The most obvious: the inability to source a quality, high-grade custom-finish Swiss mechanism. The good news is that I have finally managed to find a Swiss maker who can supply a movement of the specifications I was looking for. Moreover, the minimum order quantity can be as low as 200 pieces which would be just perfect for a two 75-piece run (with 50 movements to be kept in stock for spare parts).  I am yet to settle on the details, but in general, the watch case will look similar to IWC Mark 16 or Mark 17: a cross-over between a sport and dress piece, perfectly suitable for a medium size wrist.

The Swiss movement maker is reputable and reliable and has been in business for decades. Like with previous movements we got from Switzerland, our new 'for rebelde' movement will have a custom finish, a very special auto rotor (with the rebelde logo and star) and blue screws, lending itself for a case with a see-through case back. There is also a possibility to have two variations: one with a central sweep seconds hand and one with small seconds at 6 o’clock. I am really keen on the latter; the small hands will make a nice connection to the existing rebelde models.

So last week I formally placed my order for the movements. The delivery time is around 6 months. Of course, the work on the case design, dial and hands will commence once the sample movement arrives. Realistically, if all goes as planned and, assuming no major delays, the first 'rebelde auto' will be assembled in July 2018.

To say that I am excited would be an understatement. Having two new models would be a huge step forward. Of course, both the stainless steel 44mm and titanium 45mm models will remain in production - my production philosophy is simple: to keep producing small batches / limited quantity of both Pilots and Control Tower for years to come. It would be silly to discontinue a model which is well-made, robust, repairable and waterproof.

Probably the most exciting bit about the rebelde auto: the retail price is expected to be $2,500. This would make it less than half price of a similar IWC watch, yet the quality of the mechanism and the case will be as good as IWC.

Stay tuned for more - and if you have a suggestion feel free to email. Unfortunately, at this stage, I am not ready to take any orders so you will have to hold your horses until at least early 2018.  As always, this project is only possible thanks to your loyal support, for which I thank you.


Happy collecting,

Nick

Monday, June 26, 2017

Breeding kangaroos at the top of the Mont Blanc

***Breeding kangaroos at the top of the Mont Blanc


After spending a week in Geneva, I am now heading north towards Neuchâtel and La Chaux-de-Fonds; regions that specialise in the production of just a handful of components, supplying the 'brand names'. While the watch industry is the core, finely-machined components are supplied to the medical, electronic and military industries as well.

So what makes the Swiss
 swiss? Apart from the obvious - the know-how and super precision equipment - it is the tradition, persistence and unique mindset that makes the Swiss business model so resilient, practically with no competition.

The business model has been unchanged for hundreds of years: from father to son. The small factories are passed on - and with them, the capital, knowledge and connections. But 'passed on' does not mean mere inheritance. Rather, the sons are expected to purchase the business from their fathers, then work hard to pay off the loan while continuing to invest in new technologies. Taking into account that the 'product' must remain price competitive, this is a huge challenge for the new generation. But the kids are doing fine - and so far I have met at least a dozen businesses where I am dealing with 20 or 30-something CEOs who are 'on fire'. Yes, the fathers and grandfathers are quietly watching from a distance, keeping an eye on the deals and transactions but the 'next generation' of Swiss entrepreneurs are firmly seated and in charge.

"Established" is the key word. To be taken seriously and considered as a potential customer, I am expected to be established and have a proven track record. My introduction is brief, and to the point: "a third-generation watch repairer, and the owner of the smallest watch brand in the world with 660 watches sold, all working." "Is this your watch?” - is the first question I am asked. And without exception, it is the rebelde watch itself that opens the doors. Humble, but obviously robust, traditional yet raw. "So which components do you actually make?" is the second question. 
"At this stage, cylindrical components under the radius of 4mm, however we will be soon making the main plates and bridges. This year we intend to acquire a gear hobbing machine and pivot burnisher, and this is why I am here."
The mention of these two highly specialized pieces of equipment often results in a rather puzzled look. "Wouldn't be easier to subcontract those operations to wheel specialists?" And from then on, I go on to explain in length that there are no watch gear-cutting specialists in Sydney, nor in Australia. Actually, we are the only watchmakers in Australia trying to make movement components and our journey to our own in-house movement will be long, unpredictable and bumpy. But we are determined and we will get there, sooner or later.

I am sure that some of my subscribers will question next my statement, but I am taking the risk of being misunderstood:
 
‘Swiss made’ is so easy - if you are in Switzerland. There are countless numbers of specialists who will be more than happy to manufacture any component you want or need, even in a quantity of one. If I were to relocate to Geneva, I would have my own designed "Swiss Made" watch movement in less than 12 months. But “Made in Australia” is extremely difficult. Not only because of the enormous financial commitment, but because we are attempting something that is next to impossible. We are pioneering an entire micro industry in our own backyard. And this realization is unbearably painful. Making watches in Australia is more difficult than breeding kangaroos at the top of the Mont Blanc. The challenge which borders on the insane, a useless task destined to fail.

At the same time, and for that very same reason, even the little that we manufacture right now is truly very special and impressive; probably more so to the Swiss than Aussies. But our time is yet to come...

I will leave you now with just two mind-bending thoughts:  I have met a Swiss spring-maker who manufactures one type of spring. He is so sub-specialized that one of his machines has been making that very same spring for 13 years, 24 hours per day, seven days per week. One spring, one machine, 13 years, non-stop.
The second case: I meet the20-something CEO of a stem-making company. After learning that we have a CNC machine capable of full industrial production, he asked how many watch stems I make. A dozen a day, if that, I told him. Which material do I use? Stainless steel, 316L. "Fine", he said. "We make 1,200,000 stems per month and sell them for 17 cents apiece.” “This is crazy,” - I replied – “the cost of the material alone is twice that much! How can a Swiss-made stem be cheaper than one made in China?" He laughed - his family has been making watch stems for over 70 years, they have hundreds of stem making machines ranging from the old manual and CAM machines to the latest CNC ones, all working, all paid off. They are using the steel they have had in stock since the watch manufacturing crisis of the 70s. And yes, more than half of their output goes to China – because the Chinese are happy to pay less for more.

The best way to describe my Swiss trip would be a roller-coaster ride. And I am yet to share with you some of the truly life changing encounters.
 
Stay tuned! 
Nick


Thursday, June 8, 2017

Fasten Your Seatbelts

***Fasten Your Seatbelts

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A rebelde T-clamp for a mill vice, machined in Sydney.

This is hardly a surprise: manufacturing contributes just 7 percent of Australian gross domestic products. What is scary is this: manufacturing has shrunk 20% since 2015. While as a nation and as individuals we are still amongst the 12 wealthiest nations in the world, the wealth comes from services, not from making physical goods. Even mining contributes just 9% of our GDP.

Unless the trend is reversed, the consequences will be tragic: we are raising a generation of smart kids waiting for their inheritance, yet kids who possess no product-making skills.For a nation to grow healthy, a good balance of manufacturing, servicing, mining and yes, even agricultural activities, is essential. 

What are the reasons for the decline in Australian manufacturing? I am not an expert in this field, so instead of offering my 'rebellious leftist socialist' opinion, let me quote the Australian industry experts:

"The reasons for the long-term decline of manufacturing in Australia are many. Particularly significant is a long-standing policy indifference to the manufacturing sector, bordering on hostility from central economic agencies such as the Treasury, the Reserve Bank and the Productivity Commission. This flows from a colonial cringe, the commitment to a neoliberal 'free market' ideology and continued adherence to the orthodox economic doctrine of 'comparative advantage' - the belief that a nation should produce only those things for which it has a 'natural' or innate advantage over other countries."

Again, this is scary. The snowball is melting and regardless of which side you take, and how you see the future of Australia, you should be concerned. Because without people who know how to actually MAKE things, we would not be able to technically advance. We will not be able to stop the boats, build submarines, or hospitals, or do advanced research, or combat climate change - not even fix broken bones. We must re-learn how to shape metals or we will remain colonized, and soon become a foreign-owned and foreign run nation.

Yesterday, Josh and I spent all day visiting metal merchants and machining shop suppliers. To say that we are disappointed would be an understatement. The snowball is melting fast: after the closure of automotive industry manufacturing plants, it is obvious that demand for precision machining is no longer there. Almost 100% of hand tools, measuring equipment, lathes, mills and accessories are cheap Chinese imports. The product range would hardly satisfy the needs of an advanced machining shop which specializes in the repair of large field machinery. The hobbyists are gone too. Your typical Englishman looking for a strip of brass or a small diameter rod for his clock or steam model engine is dead and buried, and his Myford lathe is either exported to China or rusting fast in his garage. His son is a well-to-do banker or an accountant or a business consultant and he has no interest in his dad's lathe.  Yet just a bunch of old hobbyists would generate enough of a 'butterfly effect' to keep the steel merchants interested in offering small cuts and off-cuts, so dearly important for prototyping.

Sandvik, the world largest special-metal and cutting tool supplier has basically closed its Australian office. While their website still lists a Smithfield-based business as its sales representative, this is just an error, to be fixed with their next website update. And who can blame them?  Why bother doing business with a colony on the other side of the world?

Last night Josh spent a good half an hour talking to a sales representative of a German precision instrument maker, based in Australia and specializing in mills. In the ten years since he started promoting the high-end machine, he has failed to sell even ONE single unit. At one stage, he thought that he finally made a sale but after 4 years dealing with one Australian Government-owned business, the sale contract failed.

Now, we are not talking about a mega million dollars investment: the machine is no more expensive than a high performance sports car. But ten years without a sale is a long time to be patient, even for a German salesman. I can only imagine how many German machines he could have sold if he was based in China, Russia, Brazil - or even Indonesia; in countries where people actually make things.

The butterfly effect - a sale of just one high precision machine to a Government-run plant would mean the whole world of difference. Once the machine arrives, we would have a whole bunch of Australians trained to use it; and a few more who would learn how to maintain it. There would be an immediate requirement for exotic materials and very specialist tools which would attract the attention of Australian tool and material suppliers. Once the machine was set up and production commenced, it would become a talking point and would attract media attention. It would then attract the attention of small private businesses. A few more machines would be imported and businesses would be able to share their know-how, innovate and improve, and offer a high-tech product for both the domestic and export markets.

The road ahead of us is bumpy and unpredictable. We have fastened our seatbelts and so should you.

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Happy collecting,
Nick

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Playboy, PH Horn and Industrie 4.0

***Playboy, PH Horn and Industrie 4.0

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If you wonder what the above 3 have in common then bear with me for a second.
(By the way - you cannot even imagine how difficult is to find a subscriber-friendly cover of the Playboy magazine, especially when you’re doing research on crowded Sydney public transport!)

Let's start with Industry 4.0 - or more correctly - Industrie 4.0.
The term 4.0 is obvious: we have just entered the fourth industrial revolution. However the exact meaning is still something hard to describe.Put simply, the first industrial revolution was the one when humans started using steam machines; the second one was mass production with the help of electricity, while the third revolution was computerization and robotization. But the 4.0 is something more exciting: the factory of the future where every machine, robot and humans are interconnected to the 'internet of things'. The advantages of such massive interconnectivity is 'product on demand'; manufacturing plants which think and predict combined with product distribution systems like no other in the history of human kind.
The push behind 4.0 comes from one of the most industrialized nations: Germany. And quite frankly, if your job has got anything to do with industry and manufacturing then Germany is the place to be and the place to learn about exciting times ahead. 
The 'thinking and predicting' robots are not your ordinary machines. For example, when it comes to metal machining, there is a new requirement for specialist, precision tools like never before. Such tools are no longer made by humans but by robots and for robots.
After 60 years of publishing, the Playboy has finally dropped its famous tag-line "Entertainment for Men'. But this very tag-line perfectly describes the German PH Horn magazine - the catalogue for micromachining tools for the Fourth Industrial revolution. For a young watchmaker, this is eye-opening, eye-popping stuff and a must read.

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I am not going to bore you with details of each and every tool listed; but here is just one for the fellow machinists and engineers: the boring bar designed to drill 'any size hole' starting with diameter of just 170 micron and a depth of 0 to 1000 microns. The geometry of the tool is simply mind-bending.
A famous Lange and Sohne quote goes: "You cannot master your watch parts until you master your watch tools'.  
In just a couple of weeks, I will be visiting PH Horn in Switzerland to place a 'rebelde' order for some very, very sexy tools. Stay tuned!

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Happy collecting,
Nick

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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Another Act of Rebellion


***Another Act of Rebellion


If there is one thing about the rebelde project that I would change in a heartbeat, it would be the word 'rebelde' itself. 
If you're from an English-speaking background then you will have a hard time pronouncing this Spanish word properly. Because in English that 'e' at the end of rebelde is silent, yet in Spanish it is the last tone that gives the word its unmistakable meaning; an on-going battle, a rebellion against mighty forces that want to enslave you.

But then again perhaps there is no better substitute, no better word that could describe the struggle of a small independent watchmaker that is trying to break free of Swiss shackles. And today is another of those small victory days; a break-away day from Swiss jewel suppliers.

A quick introduction into watch jewelling: a watch jewel is a synthetic bearing which holds (hugs?) the pivots of the watch wheels. The quality of the watch and its ability to keep time is directly related to the quality of its jewels. The watch jewels are incredibly small yet polished to perfection. There are only a handful of watch jewel manufacturers in the world and most of them are either Swiss or use Swiss materials.


The dependency of Swiss-made jewels in the watch industry is such that even the most famous watchmakers (both large and small) would not even consider making jewels in-house. The technology, knowledge and expertise required in jewel making is simply beyond their reach.


If you're a small watchmaker trying to create your own watch mechanism, then the gear-train design would be a catch-22. Before you can design the wheels you would need to know the size of your jewels. But there is no such a thing as a standard jewel size because jewels are made to specific requirements. In other words, you cannot go to a jewel manufacturer and say that you would like the same jewels as they make and supply for Rolex. The jewel manufacturer would ask you to provide your own specific measurements. What makes things more complex is that even a simple mechanism would require 10 different jewel sizes. Multiply that figure by the minimum order quantity requirement and then by the price per jewel and you will come up with a figure of around $60,000 - for just one calibre.


This is a scary figure. But if rebelde is to become known as a maker of its own in-house, Australian-made movement, then this investment is unavoidable. Today we received samples of a Japanese jewel manufacturer, a leader in their field, who is interested in our order. The good news: we will have our own jewels and they won't be made in Switzerland. While we haven't even commenced the design of our in-house movement, we believe that we can have a working prototype in less than 5 years. It will take many small victories like this one to get there, and this is why we count on your continued support.


Viva la revolution!   


Happy collecting,
Nick





Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Another Day in the Workshop

***Another Day in the Workshop


As Marc's return to Germany is nearing fast, Josh, Tyler and myself are now spending all our time trying to learn as much as possible. The complexity of the CNC lathe is amazing but the kids are soaking up the knowledge almost effortlessly. On the other hand, I am trying to look at the project from the Devil's advocate perspective, asking tough and tricky questions. Maybe I am just too critical or too cautious, but I am trying to predict all unpredictable scenarios.  The list of 'what we need' is endless: tools, materials, guide bushes, collets, cutters, measuring equipment... But then again, setting up a specialist micro-machining workshop is a lifelong journey so these things cannot be rushed.

Here are a couple of photos for fellow machinists: making small metal parts means your metal chips and swarf is miniature as well.
The finest we've produced now is just 16 microns in thickness. Fine, consistent and amazingly cool :-)

This morning, for the first time in 4 years, I am wearing my black 'Save The Time' t-shirt.  Life is so unpredictable and takes strange turns.  I feel like Alice's White Rabbit - "the hurrier I go, the behinder I get".  But we'll get there - for sure.

Stay tuned,
Nick




Australian Machining Fair - But Australian Manufacturing?

***Australian Machining Fair - But Australian Manufacturing? – by Josh

Two weeks ago I attended the Austech fair in Melbourne, an Australian Manufacturing Initiative to bring OEM's, subcontractors, hobbyists and the general public together to show off manufacturing in Australia. Although this description of the event is not an accurate way of describing the goal of Austech, it is quite easy to see that it is perceived this way. Machine tool suppliers, tooling manufacturers, auxiliary equipment suppliers (lubricant, cooling, dust collection, chip extraction etc) were all there en masse. 

It was interesting for me to go to a show with no specific goal, other than to see if there was anything that would be applicable to the watch industry. Looking back you could say that this was a little optimistic. Often the very difficult part of "setting yourself up" is buying the right things. Therefore, knowing what to buy can be just as hard, if not harder, than physically buying it. We did end up acquiring a few new items that will be living in the Brookvale facility, although I'd have to say the few industry connections that were formed at the fair are far more valuable than the purchased items themselves.



Meeting with a few Australian subcontract companies and talking to people who have been where we are and have experienced the difficulties of starting up a manufacturing process in Australia was a very exciting experience. Seeing them talk about their successes despite an incredibly challenging Australian engineering landscape was highly encouraging. For example, Mastercut, located on the Gold Coast who, against all odds, is doing export work as well as OEM work in Australia. Mastercut specialises in photochemical etching and laser-cutting thin metal sheets. Their minimum order? One piece or a thousand. Not directly in our industry, but they may be a perfect partner for our clock dials! (Stay tuned.)

It wasn't all rosy. The fact that in a hall of 300 exhibitors and only a handful represented true Australian manufacturing was disappointing. Seeing stall after stall of overseas subcontractors bidding for your part was a reality check. How much is actually made in Australia? At the risk of sounding Australia-centric and almost nationalistic, I feel very strongly that the little we endeavour to make should stay within our borders.
Sometimes we get what we pay for. Parts may be cheaper from all over the world, but will we really settle for a 90 day lead time, low quality control and in some cases blatant misinterpretation of engineering drawings and requirements?
 

Austech left me in a bittersweet place; excited by the small pockets of Australian technology but concerned about the larger issues surrounding a possibly struggling sector. How can we encourage the growth of high skill labour and trades? What can we do to make higher quality goods? Is there a possibility of "Australian Made" being a common and expected title?
The driving force is the consumer, your choice on where to spend your dollar. It might require a few more dollars to buy the Akubra hat, Maton guitar or rebelde watch but in the long term, those dollars will come back to you in one way or another. Another job created, another Australian supported.
Happy collecting,
Josh