Computerized Machines Aid Human Watchmakers

New York Times, September 4, 2012

GRENCHEN, SWITZERLAND — At Omega’s newest production facility, opened nine months ago in this town at the foot of the Jura Mountains, visitors are asked to don white lab coats and put blue plastic over their hair and shoes before entering the room where the brand’s Co-Axial chronograph movement, the caliber 9300, is assembled.

Mechanical watches may be a throwback to an obsolete Renaissance technology, but many of the world’s finest examples are built in factories resembling NASA test labs.

A poster that hangs on a wall outside the room goes a long way toward explaining the rigorous attention to sterility It depicts various sources and sizes of dust particles: For example, every minute, a cotton jogging suit that is stationary gives off 40 particles with a diameter of more than 5 microns; the same suit in motion stirs up 818.

“We don’t want to risk that dust gets into the movement,” the tour guide said.

A commitment to cleanliness is not the only thing that sets Omega’s futuristic factory apart. The high-tech assembly line developed for Omega by its parent company, the Swatch Group, has what appears to be a traditional conveyor belt shuttling carriages containing watch parts around the room, from one station to another.

Unlike assembly lines of yore, however, Omega’s 9300 line relies on RFID, or radio frequency identification, tags embedded in each movement to lend the process a degree of precision, speed and data storage potential that previous generations of watchmakers could never have imagined.

The tags know, for instance, which stations a movement has passed through, whether it has been oiled, and if the measurements between its wheels fall within certain exacting tolerances.

Oiling and measuring are performed robotically, but the voilà moment, when a bridge is mounted on the balance wheel and the movement begins to pulse like a heart, is executed by human hands — in this case, those of a young woman with several tattoos, a silver stud piercing above her lip, and a red leather bracelet that says “Camden Town.”

Lest the use of robots suggest that she and her 30-some colleagues are in danger of being made redundant, Omega’s president, Stephen Urquhart, emphasized that “automation is used to support the human being only in repetitive tasks.”

“In fact, all complex assembly is done by hand,” Mr. Urquhart said in an e-mail, two days after the close of the 2012 Olympics, where Omega was the official timekeeper.

“Some operations performed by robots are also checked, one by one, by highly skilled operators,” he added.

The critical presence of human beings in no way diminishes the degree to which Swiss watch manufacturers have embraced technology. While extremely complicated, one-of-a-kind timepieces are still made by a single watchmaker sitting at an old-fashioned bench, and often working on the model from start to finish, those produced in significant quantities are the products of highly industrialized environments that belie the timepieces’ classic styling.

“Technology has almost completely taken over the industry,” said Ron DeCorte, a master watchmaker and technical writer living in Toledo, Ohio, who apprenticed in Switzerland under the watchmaking luminaries Philippe Dufour and Derek Pratt. “It has already replaced hand skills. What used to take a watchmaker 10 hours to produce now takes 10 minutes.”

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.”