Taking Shape

3-D Printing Offers Brand New Venues for Horological Experimentation.

Whether you work for a brand, a publication, or a retailer, anyone involved in the watch industry knows what a tourbillon is, and specifically its history. For those who may have stumbled upon Watch Journal accidentally, or are using the magazine to help with their entrance into the wide world of horology, the tourbillon was invented by Abraham-Louis Breguet (namesake of the esteemed Swiss manufacture) as a way to counteract the force of gravity by placing the balance wheel and escapement in a rotating cage that neutralizes gravity with its constant movement.

Still confused?

Basically, its usage goes back to when pocket watches were the primary source of timekeeping. A pocket watch would, of course, spend most of its day inside a pocket. When a timepiece remains in a single position for a long period of time, gravity pulls on it, affecting its regulating mechanism, which is known as the escapement. This leads to irregularities in the watch’s rate.

A 3D-printed titanium case.
A 3D-printed titanium case.

Breguet’s first tourbillon took over 10 years of development before it was finally commercialized in 1805.

Two hundred years later, Breguet would be shocked to see that one of his greatest achievements, which is quite often referred to as one of the high mechanical achievements of horology, can now be created from scratch by a machine in much less time.

How? Well, earlier this year, one Swiss engineer announced that he had created the world’s first working tourbillon via 3-D printing. Christoph Laimer used the Ultimaker 2, a commercially available 3-D printer, to manufacture every single component of a fully functional tourbillon.

While it is very impressive that a private individual was able to engineer a finished, working tourbillon, what does this accomplishment say for the Swiss watch industry as a whole?

3-D printing was used in the development of the TAG Heuer Carrera-01.
3-D printing was used in the development of the TAG Heuer Carrera-01.

Somewhat surprisingly, one brand has used technology similar to 3-D printing for close to 10 years. TAG Heuer utilized 3-D printers during its design and development stages to create precise mockups that the watchmakers can use as models before beginning to craft the actual prototype. These mockups showcase any design flaws, saving the brand time, energy, and money during the production stage.

“The main purpose (of 3-D printing) concerns the aesthetic validation of a new product. Even if new technology is available, such as realistic rendering CAD, the 3-D printing component is very helpful for us in order to see the volume, the facettes, the global shape, the ergonomy, etcetera,” says Christophe Hanns, Technical Director at TAG Heuer’s Products Department.

Layout of a Vortic timepiece.
Layout of a Vortic timepiece.

Starting three years ago, TAG adapted its process to keep up with the technological demands. Nowadays, they also use 3-D printing to make “articulated bracelets and to help with technical fixtures on the brand’s assembly line,” says Hanns.

Hanns expects the tech to become even more commonplace in the industry in the coming years. “This kind of device is becoming more and more affordable. So most of our competitors should use this kind of machine. For smaller companies, many vendors have already developed their own activity in order to provide such prototyping services.”

Vortic founders R.T. Custer and Tyler Wolfe.
Vortic founders R.T. Custer and Tyler Wolfe.

One such small, independent brand is the Vortic Watch Company. Started by three college students at Penn State, the trio wanted to use 3-D printing to create entirely American-made watches, but lacked the operational scope.

Co-founder and CEO R.T. Custer says that the brand started when his friend Tyler Wolfe “came to me with these old pocket watch movements and asked if I could design a case. He noticed that the printed steel-bronze mixture I was using for prototypes in my college classes looked antique, and thought the pairing would go together nicely. It did, and that’s how the American Artisan Series was born.”

Vortic's workshop.
Vortic’s workshop.

This series uses vintage movements taken from old Elgin, Hamilton and Waltham pocket and wristwatches, and uses a 3-D printer to create brand-new cases. Vortic has also partnered with Imperial Machine & Tool to create titanium cases using the same Direct Metal Laser Sintering technique used by Panerai.

To encourage and foster the work of Custer and his small team, his alma mater, Penn State, presented them with a $40,000 research grant to study 3D-printed metals and to continue their work on Penn State’s campus, which owns dozens of 3-D printers.

One of Vortic’s timepieces.

“Every Swiss brand we’ve interacted with has been very supportive. They understand why you’d want to make something entirely in your own country and respect the fact that we make a 100 percent American-made watch,” says Custer. “Some even remember that these antique pocket watch movements were made during a time when America was the watch manufacturing powerhouse in the late 19th and early 20th century.”

The ingenuity involved in Vortic’s designs hasn’t been seen in American watchmaking and craftsmanship in decades. The freshness of their techniques is readily apparent in their brand history. None of the three founders had any background in the insular watch industry. Custer was an industrial engineering major, and one of his partners studied math. Their specific story attracted those in the industry who weren’t afraid of Vortic’s “weird way of making watches.”

Custer has relied heavily on American history as the foundation for his brand. In fact, he attributes part of his interest due to growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the original home of the Hamilton Watch Company.

Dials from the Vortic American Artisan Series.
Dials from the Vortic American Artisan Series.

“It all goes back to our tagline: ‘America wasn’t assembled. It was built.’ So many watch companies procure all the parts, assemble the pieces, and sell the watches. They don’t build anything one at a time or have a personal connection to the supply chain or component manufacturing process,” he says. “I’ve had coffee with, a beer with, or shared a meal with each of the machinists that builds each component in the watch. We call each watch by a unique name. Each piece is completely different.”

For example, Vortic’s Boston 110 timepiece was originally a six ligne Waltham pocket watch movement inside a gold-filled case. The timepiece was made in 1894 at the Waltham factory in Massachusetts, and was likely a ladies’ pocket watch. Appropriately enough, Custer found it at the bottom of a box during a garage sale.

Dave, one of Vortic's watchmakers at the bench.
Dave, one of Vortic’s watchmakers at the bench.

“To take a movement that is 120 years old and likely hadn’t seen the light of day in decades, and to create a brand-new, functional timepiece out of it, is something incredibly unique and gives a new definition to American craftsmanship and ingenuity,” says Custer.

Other intriguing ways that Vortic distinguishes itself from the large pool of American independent watchmakers is its online Watch Builder application. This allows those interested in purchasing one of the brand’s creations an opportunity to customize the watch to their specifications. Personalizable options include watch size, case finish, crown style, and movement grade.

Printing at Panerai

Another brand has gone even further in incorporating the technology into its manufacturing process. With the release of its Galileo tribute, the Lo Scienziato Luminor, at SIHH earlier this year, Officine Panerai has taken the industry lead with the technology. Rather than using it solely for modeling and development, Panerai created the watch’s entire titanium case via 3-D printing technology.

Front view of the Panerai Lo Scienziato Luminor.
Front view of the Panerai Lo Scienziato Luminor.

Panerai is the first Swiss watchmaker to use the technique, called Direct Metal Laser Sintering. Layer by layer, this process builds up a three-dimensional case through a fiber-optic laser using powdered titanium. Each sequential layer measures only 0.02 mm thick. Eventually merging together, the case becomes completely solid and weighs in at lighter than any other titanium case produced by Panerai.

– Logan R. Baker