Computerized Machines Aid Human Watchmakers

11. prosince 2012 v 9:44 |  solar photovoltaic system
The time savings are chiefly due to the ubiquity of computer-aided design, or CAD, software and computer numerical control, or CNC, machines. Obtained from manufacturers in Switzerland, Germany and to a lesser degree Japan, the expensive, state-of-the-art machines have replaced the manually operated equipment that dominated the industry until the 1970s.

"CNC is simply a very broad generic term covering a host of very different machines, with diverse functions," said Richard Mille, founder of the Swiss luxury brand of the same name. "Some just grind sapphire glass, as used in the case of my RM 056, for instance. Others can create complex engraving. Another is specialized for base plate manufacturing. In fact, you could say that every machine used today in Swiss manufacturing is a CNC machine."

The Swiss have come a long way since the rise of the Japanese quartz technology, which in the 1970s decimated the mechanical watchmaking industry. The revival kicked into gear in the late 1980s and with it came a rush of investment in cutting-edge machinery.

"The evolution in the last 20 years in watch case and movement component production has been really amazing," said Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, co-president of Chopard. "Today, it's possible to draw on a computer screen an entire watch and to test the mechanical conditions. It's almost like the object is there before it's really there."

Even more impressive is a new 3-D printing technology that Chopard and other leading brands have recently tried out. Used to create prototypes directly in precious metal overnight, the process, known as metal laser melting, is a science fiction fantasy come true. It begins with an atomized powder alloy that is bombarded, very precisely, by a laser, thereby "growing" a design, layer by metallic layer, according to instructions that are imported into the machine in a CAD file.

Breitling, a family-owned watchmaker also based in Grenchen, has so far used metal laser melting for quickly creating prototypes, said Jean-Paul Girardin, the company's vice president.

Investing in the laser machines, which can cost around $200,000, is part of Breitling's strategic effort, initiated in 2004, to gain independence from outside suppliers. Before 2009, when Breitling introduced the Caliber B01, its first movement built in-house, the company bought the bulk of its watch components from ETA, the Swatch Group's powerful movement and parts supplier.

Operating on the understanding that ETA would, as first announced in 2002, eventually stop selling parts to companies not owned by the Swatch Group, Breitling is one of scores of former watch assemblers that have committed to building their own manufacturing capabilities in recent years, contributing to the explosion in technological experimentation.

"It's a big step between assembling parts and producing them," Mr. Girardin said."When you're receiving parts from somebody else, and something is wrong, you can find a solution, but when you're producing them, if they don't work, you have to understand why they don't work, and that's a challenge."

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