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Inside the TAG Heuer Research Institute
Baselworld

Inside the TAG Heuer Research Institute

Sunday, 17 March 2019
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Fabrice Eschmann
Freelance journalist

“Don't believe all the quotes you read online!”

“In life as in watchmaking, it takes many encounters to make a story.”

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5 min read

The only chemical reactors of their kind in the world, an ionic probe atomic microscope, a transmission electron microscope, an X-ray spectrometer… the TAG Heuer laboratory is a first in watchmaking. Still in the process of creation, it’s already produced the carbon hairspring that equips the latest Carrera Calibre Heuer 02T Tourbillon Nanograph. A couple of days before Baselworld, we met Guy Sémon, Managing Director of this research institute.

Arriving out of nowhere 15 years ago, Guy Sémon is now a familiar name in the watchmaking world. This physicist/engineer and his team are behind the Monaco V4, the Mikrograph, the Mikrotimer Flying 1000, the Mikrogirder, the Pendulum and the Zenith Defy Lab. The way he sees it, a watch is just a physical system, with a store of energy, a transmission and a gearbox. His job is to think outside this schema. Appointed general manager of the TAG Heuer research institute in January 2018, he shows us around.

Guy Sémon, General Manager, TAG Heuer Research Institute.
Guy Sémon, General Manager, TAG Heuer Research Institute.
You joined TAG Heuer in 2004 as R&D manager. Would it be fair to say you're back at the same position?

No. Today I manage a university-level research institute, the difference being that we have 25 scientists from 12 different countries whose competencies are shared between physics and mathematics. Several million are being invested to set up a cutting-edge laboratory inside the TAG Heuer building at La Chaux-de-Fonds. We started last year and haven’t quite finished. Ultimately, thirty people will work here.

We have 25 scientists from 12 different countries whose competencies are shared between physics and mathematics.
Guy Sémon, General Manager, TAG Heuer Research Institute
When the laboratory started in January 2018, it was for the LVMH group. Is it now only for TAG Heuer?

Our role is to provide support to TAG Heuer but also the other brands in the LVMH group. Our research concerns the watch but the potential for inventions goes far beyond watchmaking.

Our research concerns the watch but the potential for inventions goes far beyond watchmaking.
Guy Sémon, General Manager, TAG Heuer Research Institute
What's in the laboratory?

Major equipment. For example, we have an ionic probe atomic microscope, a transmission electron microscope and an X-ray spectrometer. All three departments will use it. The first department is for solid-state physics: we develop alloys and polymers with the aim of inventing new component manufacturing techniques. The second department is for advanced mechanics: we’re using new approaches to rethink mechanical systems, in particular flexible mechanisms based on elasticity. We do a lot of scientific modelling and simulation. Thirdly, we have a nanoparticle physics laboratory. They’re behind the carbon hairspring that debuted earlier in the year inside the Nanograph.

Why tackle the hairspring?

At TAG Heuer, we’re very proud to be a Manufacture, but we lacked the capacity to produce this key component. This project takes us into the very small circle of regulator manufacturers.

The shape of the hairspring is digitally optimised then printed on the wafer. The carbon atoms then deposit themselves on the imprint.
The shape of the hairspring is digitally optimised then printed on the wafer. The carbon atoms then deposit themselves on the imprint.
Why not set yourself up to make conventional hairsprings?

Metal alloy hairsprings are highly efficient thermal compensators but have two drawbacks. Firstly, they’re extremely sensitive to magnetic fields which alter their geometry and compromise precision. Secondly, making them is a complex hence costly process. The raw material has to be transformed then given the required shape, after which the components must be assembled and adjusted by hand.

Why not silicon, then?

Silicon hairsprings don’t need assembly, are anti-magnetic and the production process is efficient. But silicon remains a highly fragile material. Drop the watch and it will shatter like glass. When a watch hits the floor, the shock is equivalent to 2,000 g. Our watches have to withstand 5,000 g. Then you have to consider the many patents protecting silicon technology.

What brought you to carbon?

It started in 2013. I was working on another project for which I needed a specific material that would behave like a non-magnetic polymer but have an atomic structure similar to metal. Except no such thing existed! On a visit to a laboratory in the United States, I came across an experiment using carbon nanotubes. This isn’t a new material, in fact it’s been around since the 1980s, but it has a lot of interesting properties. Graphene sheets with a hexagonal structure are rolled up. This produces cylindrical crystals with a high level of rigidity and deformability. It didn’t help me in the project I was working on then, but I immediately spotted the possibilities it opened up for hairsprings.

How is a carbon hairspring made?

Inside a chemical reactor that we engineered specifically for that purpose. It’s the only one of its kind in the world.

How does it work?

We use a silicon wafer. Not for the silicon itself, but because it’s very flat and clean. This wafer goes into the reactor, in a vacuum. We then introduce ethylene, which is rich in carbon and used to make nanotubes. Using the chemical vapour deposition process, the hairsprings, up to 300 per wafer, are grown atom by atom over four hours. At this stage, we have carbon nanotubes which are 96% empty space. The final stage is to fill these gaps with carbon atoms. This produces a composite of carbon nanotubes and carbon.

Has production commenced?

Yes. We’ve started serial production for the Nanograph. The two reactors have the capacity to produce 150,000 hairsprings a year.

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