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Watchmaking blinds us with science

Watchmaking blinds us with science

Wednesday, 27 October 2010
By Quentin Simonet
Quentin Simonet

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5 min read

Professions are becoming increasingly specialised and technology-based, with watch firms employing more and more engineers. A shift in emphasis that can lead to excess.

One of the many avenues explored by the Swiss watch industry in its ongoing quest for excellence is to seek out the most highly skilled people in all fields. Increasingly, Manufactures are calling on engineers to design their watches and no longer just pure watch construction specialists, even though they may have an engineering background themselves. Beyond pure sales pitch, advertising taglines are often a means to convey this emphasis: Rolex’s sister-brand Tudor, for example, is Engineered for Performance, while IWC has its Ingénieur line.

That watchmaking should have recourse to engineers is nothing new; what has changed is the scale of the phenomenon, as figures from the Swiss watch industry employers’ association (CPIH) show. The number of qualified employees – engineers with a higher education degree, university or polytechnic graduates, and people with a federal or vocational diploma – continues to increase, in ten years rising from 9.4% to 16% of total staff (see table below).

Stepping up the pace of new technologies

“The image of the watchmaker at his bench is from another era. Our sector has integrated cutting-edge technology such as CNC machines, computer-assisted design, and more. The biggest change? That we now expect a watch to survive a twenty-kilometre cross-country bike ride. The watchmaker’s skills alone are no longer enough to achieve this level of performance and resistance,” explains Guy Sémon, VP Sciences & Engineering at TAG Heuer, an engineer who came to watchmaking from the aeronautics industry.

“Our sector is accelerating the pace at which new technologies are introduced, although the Swatch watch did introduce innovative injection moulding techniques as far back as thirty years ago,” Jean-Paul Girardin, VP Breitling and an engineering graduate of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, reminds us. According to Emmanuel Vuille, managing director at Greubel Forsey, “watchmaking has developed a scientific culture that includes chemistry, physics and numerous other branches whereas previously it relied primarily on technical expertise and the skill of the human hand.” This has obliged the industry to go out and source the expertise it needs, something the automotive industry had done years before. Emmanuel Vuille takes an ironic view: “Maybe watchmaking has been a little too autarkic, with the same teachers and the same schools. This does nothing to encourage self-examination and change.” He is, however, equally convinced that engineers will never replace watchmakers, as they alone have a global vision of the product from design to final assembly. The brand he heads employs 15 people in its R&D division, with as many constructors as there are engineers, physicists and metallurgists.

Greubel Forsey Quadruple Tourbillon à Différentiel Sphérique © Greubel Forsey
Greubel Forsey Quadruple Tourbillon à Différentiel Sphérique © Greubel Forsey
Specialist expertise in demand

Multidisciplinarity, then, is the key. Says consultant Olivier Müller, “The introduction of innovative materials that are less familiar to watchmaking requires highly specialised expertise, whether for the movement or the external parts.” Most brands have taken this route, to the point that silicon, tantalum, ceramic, titanium, lithium, forged carbon, magnesium and nanofibres hold sway in R&D, sometimes to excess. “We can get carried away. Ultimately, the customer asks for nothing more than greater reliability and precision,” Emmanuel Vuille observes. Jean-Paul Girardin believes it has to make industrial sense, a view shared by Olivier Müller: “It’s a roundabout way of saying that watchmaking has entered the high-tech era.”

No one is denying that engineers, who come from different horizons with their own cultural baggage and references, are forcing watchmakers out of their comfort zone. “The concepts they bring to construction are more innovative crossovers from aeronautics and automotive that demand far more specific expertise,” notes Olivier Müller. Indeed, elements borrowed from car mechanics are now rife in watchmaking, with brands such as Parmigiani, TAG Heuer and Richard Mille pushing the concept to the extreme.

Source : CPIH
Source : CPIH
Higher-education partnerships

“Many of the industry’s cross-border workers have studied engineering to a level which, on paper, is higher than that of a micro-engineering graduate from one of the traditional watchmaking schools in Switzerland,” Olivier Müller declares. Jean-Paul Girardin agrees: “Academic training takes a more rational, more logical approach. Not that we are any different from other sectors such as banking, where financial engineering has been around for a long time.”

Another sign of watchmaking’s scientific bent is that brands increasingly call on specialised institutes such as the Centre Suisse d’Électronique et de Microtechnique (Csem) or the Haute École Arc Ingénierie. Csem offers competencies in microsystems technology, precision mechanics and robotics, vision systems for robotic and metrological applications, and for anti-counterfeiting solutions. The Haute École Arc Ingénierie recently developed applications to calculate non-circular gears whose sometimes astonishing shapes pave the way for new functionalities. In a similar vein, watchmakers such as Audemars Piguet are increasingly involved in projects with the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL).

While watchmaking is fundamentally about mechanics, it is now a combination of three disciplines: craftsmanship, technology and science. With perhaps room for a fourth?

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