In a fast-paced world fixated on the future, 3D printing is a technology which has many intrigued. But is it viable tool for the watch & jewellery industries? Here, Benjamin Teisseire investigates the reality beyond the fantasy.
3D printing seems to be the new rage – everyone is talking about it and it has been pegged as a “third industrial revolution” of sorts. The market is certainly booming, however, representing USD 4.5 billion in 2014 (Wohlers Report, SmarTech Markets, Credit Suisse; A.T. Kearney study), it should grow by 25% per year to reach USD 17.7 billion by 2020.
To get a clearer picture of this emerging trend and its links with the watch sector, I met with a professional of the industry, Jean-Daniel Schmid, director of La Manufacture, an industrial company near Meyrin, in Switzerland, which specialises in 3D printing for watchmaking and jewellery.
“ You start with a 3D computerized model which you divide into 20 to 30 microns thick ‘layers’ ”
Schmid explains the concept is relatively simple but its implementation is a lot more complex. It is an additive technology, which “adds” matter instead of taking some away. You start with a 3D computerized model which you divide into 20 to 30 microns thick “layers”. The machine then solidifies a layer, then fuses the next layer onto it with a laser until you obtain a final 3D model.
In watchmaking, prototypes in steel and titanium are mostly created. Gold is far from being mastered. There is too much waste at each step and the final product’s quality is not up to the industry’s standards. The major interest resides in the creation of special geometrical forms which are impossible to achieve through regular machining processes.
Some approaching technics already exist, like laser sintering, but you still have to create a mould in which you mix the metal and a binding agent. You then compress it and bake it to evaporate the agent. Then you get a “metal sponge” which you compress again until it solidifies. This way, you can come up to 70% density whereas you can reach 99.8% density with true selective laser fusion.
“ We are far from being able to make full 3D series, however, this may be possible in five to 10 years ”
Panerai, with its limited series (150 pcs) Lo Scienziato Luminor 1950 Tourbillon GMT Titanio 47 mm, is a good example of this laser sintering technic. Its hollowed titanium case was impossible to create otherwise and achieved a great weight loss. But it can only be done on a very small series…with a significant price point (not disclosed by the brand).
According to Jean-Daniel, we are far from being able to make full 3D series, however, he says this may be possible in five to 10 years. But only in the sense of watch cases – for movements, which are much more complicated, this type of technology it is out of the question for now.
La Manufacture can offer prototypes with the exact finish of the final piece, but it is really the time gain that is key. With less than 15 days required to have “finished” prototypes to show to clients, this technology greatly facilitates any strategic decision making and significantly reduces the time to market.
The 3D printing process, explained
On the risk to endangering the art of traditional watchmaking craftsmanship, Schmid replies wisely that no machine will supersede man’s hands to perform the métiers d’arts associated with luxury watchmaking. They are part of the luxury dream and what makes all these precious time-keepers unique: guilloché, beveling, polishing, engraving…by hand.
He concludes his analysis with two key messages:
“Don’t believe the media hype and the fantasy that all new technologies bring forward, as nuclear power did in the 50’s. There are physical limits that are going to take a long time to push back. We do not sell dreams, we are not marketers, we are very practical. We are far from the movie the ‘Fifth Element’ where you reconstruct a woman in a few minutes in a machine!”
“ Do not fear that this new technology will destroy all that has been achieved in the industry. ”
And, as if he wanted to reassure us, he adds: “Do not fear that this new technology will destroy all that has been achieved in the industry. Selective laser fusion (3D printing, as we call it) will only be yet another tool on the desk of watchmakers.”
In closing, it seems the bottom line here is that the industry must welcome the future with serenity, and also, importantly, not forget to actually train people on this new technology, for it to suitably benefit the watch industry in the years ahead.
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