Does tradition continue to drive watch sales as it did in the heady years of the 2000s? Yes, if the success of storied brands and iconic designs is anything to go by. But tradition is no longer enough. Seven million mechanical watches come out of Switzerland each year and hand-crafting every single one isn’t an option. After a first wave of automation in the 1990s aimed at ramping up production, Factory 4.0 is emerging as the new scenario for brands dealing in high volumes. It’s all part of Industry 4.0, a concept that originated in Germany in which physical assets, big data and digital technologies communicate in real-time to tailor production to demand, right down to a single bespoke product. Of course, this increasingly connected value chain is transforming jobs and the workplace. For example, when Omega opened its new high-tech factory last November, the most talked-about feature was the fully automated storage system. All the parts required to manufacture the brand’s watches are contained in 30,000 boxes which are retrieved by a robotic arm and automatically conveyed to the 350 employees. The system is designed to maintain an extremely high level of flexibility and reactivity throughout the manufacturing process.
Robot vs. artisan
Not everyone has thrown themselves into this new scenario with the same enthusiasm. The desire – and capacity – to embrace Industry 4.0 depends on a company’s positioning, size and its ability (or not) to make substantial financial investments. These are all questions the Swiss watch industry has to take into consideration – that, and the changes Industry 4.0 implies for the workforce. Will it be boom or bust for watchmaking’s specialist professions? While it’s too soon to put a figure on the number of jobs under threat, it is possible to say which activities are least likely to be affected, and possibly even benefit.
Greater recognition of manual skills becomes a means of counterbalancing the automation taking place elsewhere in the value chain.
In Fine Watchmaking, it’s the highly skilled craftsmen and women who are least at risk. As though greater recognition of manual skills were a means of counterbalancing the automation taking place elsewhere in the value chain. Dials, for example, can call on any of dozens of these métiers d’art, many of which are heir to centuries of tradition. Engraving enamelling, lacquerwork, gem-setting, granulation, miniature painting, feather craft, embroidery, marquetry of wood, stone or mother-of-pearl… these are rare skills making use of often jealously-guarded techniques, some on the brink of disappearing altogether. They are also highly labour-intensive. Decorating a dial by hand takes hours and hours of work. The same applies to the hand-finishing of movements; the ultimate refinement and infinitely superior to anything a machine can do in the eyes of purists. Chamfering, by which an angle is created on the edge of a part so as to better reflect the light, is a case in point. Certain components can now be machine-chamfered, but the result will be rigorously identical every time – soulless, a collector would say – whereas a hand-chamfered edge will have the individuality of the artisan, and this is what distinguishes a Haute Horlogerie watch.
The more sceptical fear that engineers will take over from the white-coated watchmakers brands love to show off.
The more sceptical fear that engineers will take over from the white-coated watchmakers brands love to show off. But does it have to be one or the other? A brand can have decades, even centuries of history without turning its back on innovation. Panerai, established in 1860, has built its success around watches developed in the 1940s and 50s for Italian combat divers, and takes pride in this heritage, but it makes no secret of the fact that movement precision is tested by a robot. There is room for industrial processes and the artisan’s hand – and the two work even better together when given equal billing.
What about training?
It’s a line of reasoning that particularly concerns tomorrow’s workforce. Séverine Favre is in charge of training at the Convention Patronale de l’Industrie Horlogère Suisse, which represents employers in the Swiss watch industry. She confirms that companies will have to review training content to bring it into line with an Industry 4.0 context. “It’s important to give apprentices stronger transversal qualities that will increase their capacity for analysis and flexibility,” she says. Students will still need to leave school with strong practical skills, which are the cornerstone of any mechanical trade, but they will also need to learn how to communicate across multiple disciplines and professions. This will mean more modular training content that can be quickly and easily adapted as requirements change. And change they will. New professions will appear to match the 4.0 production that’s already preparing the watches that will soon be on our wrists.