Developing a watch mechanism for timepieces. Why can’t it be done overnight?

Who wouldn’t think that taking 2 to 6 years to develop a mechanism that isn’t even intended to go to the Moon is maybe a little long?

And yet … Creating a new movement is a long process that can take several years. For Vaucher Manufacture, it means designing the new mechanism, making sure that it functions correctly, and then organising its construction, maintenance and durability, all without losing sight of the essential aspect of hand-made, value-added decorations. Our movements thus bring together both elements: on the one hand, a reliable and precise product, designed and produced industrially, and on the other, one with an exclusive hand-made finish. To this we can add the ability to adapt and personalize the movement, by changing the shape of the bridges, the appearance of the surfaces, or even the materials used.

The specification

You are the client and you have a clear idea of what you want. But it may not be enough. While the stage of determining the specifications of the movement to be developed will doubtless flow relatively easily concerning definition of the basic criteria:

  • the external dimensions,
  • the display and the movement’s functions,
  • the power reserve,
  • finishing options, and
  • personalisation options, and the cost price.

others will need to be monitored, re-evaluated and redefined periodically while the new calibre is being developed.

When you are developing a new movement, it takes patience

People in the business know that if you want to launch a new product with a movement developed exclusively for that purpose, you have to start early because development alone can last up to two years. Based on the specifications, the project manager will sketch the movement in two dimensions on a computer screen. It may also help him to draw some parts of the mechanism by hand. Relying on his own knowledge, on interaction with his colleagues, and research, he will move forward. Next, the movement will take shape in three dimensions on the screen. Then it becomes a question of positioning the gears, arranging the distribution of different elements, plotting their vertical and horizontal interactions and worrying about possible overlaps. For new mechanisms and innovative arrangements, he will use a laser cutter to create plexiglass models. These will allow him to check the good distribution and the effectiveness of the innovations, by visualizing the movements, the rotation and shapes of the gear teeth and the other components. These models can also help further inspire our clients by explaining the new mechanisms that can equip their watches. The project manager regularly exchanges with his colleagues, as well as with the persons in charge of future industrial production, because the manufacturing aspect of the components needs to be taken into consideration already. Once the three-dimensional modelling has been completed, each piece is drawn separately, with a precise definition of its production tolerances and adjustment. This painstaking process of developing a movement takes from one to two and a half years.

Prototyping, towards finalisation

The movement exists in three dimensions on a computer screen, models have made it possible to run ‘in theory’ checks on certain functions, and now it is time for the prototyping phase. This means initiating production of the components in small quantities, checking the manufacturing possibilities up-front with the cell of industrial team. It is by entrusting the construction to watchmaking analysts and prototype modellers that specialists can check if everything meets expectations. This means supervising the manufacture of the components, assembling them, and checking the operation of the whole. Then we can judge the play, and monitor the inertia, of the different parts in motion. Careful attention is paid to the movement’s precision, power reserve, and the efficiency of its automatic winding, as well as its strength and endurance. So, the prototypes are methodically ‘tortured’ in our laboratory, subjected to magnetic fields, and shocks; they are shaken, heated in machines to check if they still wind up automatically and are still not affected by these disturbances. With other machines, the laboratory staff will measure the wear gear axles, check for constant rates of friction and how stable the lubrication is. An ultra-high-speed camera lets them see how operations that can last even less than a tenth of a second take place. This combination of internal – and occasional external – test operations will help in the fine-tuning and validation phases of the new movement. At this point, after 3 to 4 years, the work of the project manager is at an end.

From prototype to product

In these operations lies the great difference between an industrial product and a hand-made object. After validation of the prototypes, we will organize production of the movement. We need to determine rational production processes, the finishing, define tolerances. This means thinking through the sequence of manufacturing operations, the finishing and manual decoration of each component, defining them precisely and them into work plans. The workshop managers have to ensure that the people assigned to the production of parts and movements have the right skills to produce them to the quality standards we require. Then the instructions for making the components, as well as those for assembling the set must be thought through and written down. We also need to provide the tools needed, either by making them internally or sourcing them externally, put QA protocols in place, and plan the after-sales follow-up. The supply of raw materials, tools, machines and human resource capacity needed has to be planned and committed for the possible realisation of this new movement. Here also, it means a time phase of 1 to 2 years needs to be foreseen.

Exclusive development or customization, two solutions for fully customized movements

Some stages of the above processes take place almost simultaneously, via frequent interactions. This makes it possible to maintain a reasonable timespan for a movement development at between 2 and 6 years of work, depending on the complexity of the mechanisms to be designed. For watchmakers in a little more hurry, Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier offers its own, fully customizable calibres, up to the point of elaborating a movement that is entirely matched to the DNA of your brand. Worth bearing in mind….?