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

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