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Experiences

Perfectionists in their element

Text — Boris Schneider Date2014-09-18T12:52:51

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Every new in-house movement created by IWC in Schaffhausen involves around 20 specialists from various departments, sometimes working together intensively for years. With the help of state-of-the-art computer technology, the design engineers generate solutions whose elegance can be quite simply breathtaking. Putting together the sub-assemblies for complication modules is particularly demanding. They not only need to be squeezed into tiny spaces but also to function with the energy made available by the basic movement.

“The aim is always to produce a movement that is as perfect as possible,” is how Thomas Gäumann, head of IWC’s own movement development department in Schaffhausen, sums up his motivation. In Gäumann’s department, around a dozen design engineers specializing in painstakingly fine technology develop the company’s basic movements and complication modules. About 20 experts in interdisciplinary teams will liaise closely as they work from the germ of the idea for a new development, via design, construction and the building of the first prototype through to the lab tests and series production. And the perfection they seek takes time. From the original decision to develop a successor to the 98000 pocket watch calibre to the day on which the first buyer was able to strap a Portofino Hand-Wound Eight Days with the 59210 calibre to his wrist took almost four years.
 

"The aim is always to produce a movement that is as perfect as possible."

—Thomas Gäumann, Head of IWC Movement Development Department

calibre_59000
—59210 Calibre

The schedule of specifications takes shape during the design phase

Every development project in Schaffhausen begins with a comprehensive design phase lasting about six months. “We discuss the various technical options, such as the number of barrels, but also the displays and functions that are feasible,” explains Gäumann. During this phase, too, there is a lively exchange between specialists from various departments such as procurement, production, assembly, the laboratory and quality assurance. Even at this early stage, particular attention is paid to the subsequent manufacturing and assembly processes. During this phase, the engineers also draw on a concept known as rapid prototyping: they use a 3-D printer to produce functioning models of new mechanisms or print out life-size working models that provide an initial impression of the physical product.

This process of continuous exchange between everyone involved leads to finalization of the schedule of specifications. It provides the design engineer with vital key data such as the diameter and height of the movement. The catalogue of requirements is comprehensive and specifies the system that should be used for the automatic winding or the size of the power reserve. The design engineer’s job is to translate the numerous specifications into a robust and practicable mechanism. He does not have a carte blanche to do as he wishes but works within a straitjacket of predefined standards and guidelines. For instance, there should not be too many different standard components, and curves should be used wherever possible because straight lines often produce surplus material during production. The tolerances for drill holes, for example, are defined in detailed fitting tables.

IWC_manufacture

A new movement is created on the computer

One of the design engineers in Schaffhausen is Denis Tanner. A qualified watchmaker, he completed further training in production technology and now works in movement design. Sitting in front of a large screen, he uses a special mouse to carefully position the winding stem in the solid, three-dimensional body shown by the computer. Finally, he rotates the object on the screen all directions and carries out further adjustments. Designing watch parts and sub-assemblies completely on a computer screen is a relatively recent development. For many years, a design engineer’s only aid was his drawing board. Producing technical drawings with Indian ink on transparent paper was incredibly complex: mistakes could only be corrected with enormous effort.

Since the beginning of the present century, CAD (computer-aided design) has largely replaced drawing machines. The software enables users to design a three-dimensional object on the computer from scratch. Another advantage is that each component can be observed in isolation or showing its relation to the rest of the mechanism. In addition, any desired section or view can be generated instantaneously at the touch of a button. Although computer technology has made many of the processes easier, the basic requirements of a design engineer have remained virtually unchanged: apart from all-round technological know-how embracing production processes and materials, these professionals need a singularly well-developed sense of spatial awareness.

IWC_engineer_team

Improvements flow in during the design process

Even with the aid of a computer, designing a new watch movement takes a great deal of time. One after another, all the components such as the winding mechanism, the barrel, balance and escapement, together with all the wheels and pinions have to be packed inside the body available. Making a first sketch of the wheel train alone takes over a week to complete. The entire design process is iterative, involving continuous correction and improvement, and lasts between six months and a year.

State-of-the-art production techniques such as the LIGA process (a German acronym standing for lithography, electroplating and moulding) have also opened up new possibilities. It permits the manufacture of very small parts with an extremely high degree of precision, allowing individual components in the movement to be designed with a higher lever of functionality or even integrated. Once the detailed design is completed, two-dimensional drawings are produced on the basis of the spatial model. These plans are expressed in an internationally comprehensible standardized language that enables suppliers to manufacture all the necessary parts precisely in accordance with the specifications.

The perpetual calendar must use energy efficiently

The development of complicated modules such as a big date or moon phase display follows the same pattern. Here, too, the desired functions and available space are defined precisely in a schedule of specifications. The design engineer needs to ensure that everything is optimally arranged and perfectly fits the brief. At IWC in Schaffhausen Laszlo Dancsecs is responsible for the development of calendar modules. “In the perpetual calendar with digital date, month and leap year indicator, we had to accommodate 185 individual parts and functions on seven different levels in just 2.4 millimetres,” he recalls. From the start of the project to functioning prototype, constructing this module, which first appeared in the Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar Digital Date-Month, took no less than three years.

Complications are also made more difficult by the fact that the basic movement limits the energy they need to operate. The design engineer has to make use of the maximum torque available and ensure that a calendar module behaves as required within the stated power reserve. At the same time, he needs to make allowances for complex interdependences.

In the perpetual calendar with digital display, for instance, a tiny amount of energy is tapped off each night when the date display advances and stored temporarily in a spring. At the end of the month, the movement must be able to draw on enough energy to rotate the display discs. This means that at the design stage the engineers in Schaffhausen need to make detailed calculations of the torque for each display disc all the way back to the calendar module drive to ensure that the discs move from their resting position when switching. To achieve this, they use FEM – the finite element method – to create computer-aided simulations.

“In the perpetual calendar with digital date, month and leap year indicator, we had to accommodate 185 individual parts and functions on seven different levels in just 2.4 millimetres.”

—Laszlo Dancsecs, Design Engineer at IWC Schaffhausen

calibre_51613
—51613 Calibre

Solutions with a high technical benefit

Visit the design engineering department in Schaffhausen and you cannot fail to be impressed by the high level of specialization. “In the past, watchmaking inventions were often the result of the precision work carried out by ingenious individuals like Albert Pellaton or Kurt Klaus tinkering away on their own. But today, every development is the work of an interdisciplinary team of highly qualified specialists,” is how Gäumann describes the visible change that has taken place in the watchmaking industry in recent years.

But back then, as today, one factor above all distinguishes mechanical solutions from IWC: they are never gimmicky, but always involve a high level of technical practicality. In keeping with its credo, the company creates innovative designs that are pragmatic, clearly understandable and, at the same time, astonishing elegant. The most recent demonstration came in the form of the 59000-calibre family. With this latest development, Schaffhausen’s design engineers have created a platform which, compared with its predecessors, has additional functions such as a longer, eight-day power reserve and date display. Today, this new movement is reliably playing its role in two IWC watch families.

Explore More Articles
IWC Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar Sketch
Putting eternity on your wrist

During his time as head watchmaker at IWC, Kurt Klaus translated the Gregorian calendar with all its many irregularities into a mechanical program that will continue running perfectly until 2499 with virtually no corrections from outside.

Ingenieur Constant-Force Tourbillon
The constant is the force

IWC's constant-force mechanism ensures that the escapement delivers an absolutely even supply of power and delivers unprecedented precision.

breguet_spring
Increased precision
down to the overcoil

In some IWC calibres, the balance rim oscillates to and fro on a Breguet spring. The terminal coil is painstaking shaped by hand and plays a significant role in ensuring that the balance oscillates with perfect regularity, thus increasing the watch's precision.

IWC Portugieser Annual Calendar
IWC Annual Calendar:
The New Small Eternity

The new IWC Annual Calendar with the 52850 in-house movement reduces the calendar problem to a single manual adjustment at the end of February. And that‘s it.

IWC Portugieser Tourbillon Mystère Rétrograde
Where time flies

Ask watchmakers, and one thing is soon clear: their favourite complication is the tourbillon.

IWC 52010 calibre
Pellaton's ingenious automatic meets state-of-the-art engineering

A matter of adjustment

For an IWC watch to run accurately, the oscillations of the balance require careful adjustment.

Unruhreif_Spirale.jpg
Balance of power

A mechanical watch continues to show the correct time even as the tension in the mainspring diminishes. Making this possible is a mechanism that has been gradually improved for over 300 years: the escapement.