The Swiss watch planet in movement – Part 3

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October 2010

TAG Heuer, unbridling internal growth
It is undoubtedly for these same reasons that TAG Heuer has also invested in the production of its own chronograph movement, the famous 1887. (We note in passing the current tropism that is pushing the ‘new’ manufactures to baptize their own movements with historic dates.) We will not delve into the polemic that presided over its birth, other than to say that, as Jean-Christophe Babin explained in his ‘defense’: Although the initial design of this chronograph belonged to Seiko Instruments, “it was necessary, in view of its industrializ-ation, to re-start from zero for all the component parts because they had been designed before the appearance of the new computer controlled machines, and to re-adapt all the designs. Only one version of the original movement remains. And, we had to revisit all the tolerances in view of mass production since Seiko Instruments had only designed it, in the beginning, for a production of 5,000 pieces per year.”
At the same time, TAG Heuer was able to immediately put into place a latest-generation production line in order to rapidly increase its ability to produce the necessary quantities. “Three years ago, when we made this decision, we were restrained in our growth and wanted to react quickly. Designing our own movement from zero, however, was too risky for the deadlines that we fixed for ourselves. But, outside of ETA, no other chronographs passed the demanding tests that we submitted them to, which were necessary for a technical and sporty brand such as ours, whose chronographs are really worn. No other, that is, except for the Seiko Intruments chronograph. It had the same size as the 7750 and a column wheel, as well as an oscillating pinion, which we invented. The Seiko piece also had a simple and robust bi-directional winding system…”
This choice represented an investment of some 20 million CHF, of which 10 million went for the production equipment and allowed TAG Heuer to have a veritable high quality alternative to the ETA calibres that it had used up to then. This was all done in record time—one and a half years to develop and put into place the entire production line. According to Guy Semon, the athletic director of the technical department, this calibre allowed the brand to take “a quantum leap”, even if the brand remains dependent on the Swatch Group, particularly on its Nivarox components. It also took some time for the brand’s engineers to integrate these parts into a movement that was not designed for them. But now, it is done and the ‘machine’ is now operating at full capacity.

The Swiss watch planet in movement – Part 3 The new semi-automatic assembly unit for the 1887 movement, installed by TAG Heuer in the Chaux-de-Fonds.

A tool designed for 50,000 chronographs per year
While the assembly operations are carried out entirely in La Chaux-de-Fonds, the production itself is done in Corniol, in the Jura, in the Cortech facility. This watch case company belongs to TAG Heuer, and makes about 50 per cent of its cases (in steel, gold, and platinum).
A production unit for movement component parts was installed at Cortech and designed to produce 50,000 calibres per year. For now, however, it makes about 25,000 movements annually. The unit is ultra-modern and operations are completely computerized (including for example, lubrication, which is still quite rare). Operating 24 hours a day, its modular equipment has been coupled together to create entire production lines (each piece is transferred automatically from one machine to another). Basically, ten master parts are made here and delivered to the site in La Chaux-de-Fonds: plates, thick bridges, minute bridges, chronograph bridges, weight plates.
The gears, pinions, etc—parts from stamp and die operations—are subcontracted out to a network of loyal external firms. “For the moment, we don’t have the intention of integrating these operations. The current project is already very ambitious in itself and, from a strategy point of view, we are not considering this,” stated Mr. Lebigot, Director of the movements division at the site.

The Swiss watch planet in movement – Part 3 The CARRERA 1887 CHRONOGRAPH and the CALIBRE 1887 by TAG Heuer

First of all: an ultra-modern unit
These ébauches, bridges, and plates are then sent to TAG Heuer where an assembly unit—also designed to produce 50,000 pieces—was constructed specifically for the 1887 movement in only one and a half years. Without the space to go into great detail in this article about the manner in which the some 60 operations are carried out, we can however make this observation: everything has been designed to assure the total and individualized follow-up of each movement during assembly, thanks to automation and systematic controls that come into play at each step of the process. Mounted on a ring with a number and its data matrix (new generation barcode), each movement is followed individually and is entered into a database that retraces the details of its journey. Between one fitting and another, the movements circulate in baskets from one shop to another. Automatically, each operation to be carried out is listed on an individual monitor. In case of an error or problem, the piece is redirected to a track reserved for correcting the problem and a report is automatically generated, which lets the operator know exactly where to find the piece and at which stage it is in.
As for quality control, the filter put into place is quite impressive. Its goal is to guarantee the quality of each finished piece. During its journey, the movement to be assembled will automatically pass by an automated check of clearances, a video control of its escapement, an automated adjustment in one position, automated tests of its arming gears and start/stop/rewind functions, laser measurements of its working precision (average in a horizontal position, at zero hour, without chronograph: between +2 and +10), and finally manual inspections and checks.
Today, this unit is still in its adjustment phase and produces about 60 pieces a day. Rapidly, however, it should increase its rhythm as a function of the sales of the now famous 1887 movement. (For more information on the movement itself, see Europa Star issue 2/10.)

We will continue our investigation on The planet of Swiss watch movements, in our next editions of Europa Star, which will include the following articles.

III) The explosion of “in-house movements”
Over the last few years, a number of small and medium-sized brands in the luxury and haute horlogerie segments have begun to try and create their own movements. This production is more or less verticalized and integrated, although it often depends on the dense network of subcontractors in the Jurassian Arc. Among them are such independent Swiss brands as Eterna, Schwarz Etienne, Breitling, Carl F. Bucherer, Frederique Constant, Corum, De Witt, Vulcain, and Bovet, as well as French brand Pequignet. Others in quest of their own movement are brands belonging to groups such as Montblanc with Villeret, Hublot with the ex-BNB, and Bulgari with Genta and Roth. In the medium term, we just might find a certain number of these calibres available for sale in the marketplace. Who knows!

IV) The cream of the crop
Brands in the very high-end mechanical sector also have access to very high-level suppliers who can develop and produce exclusive and reserved calibres, so-called ‘specialties’ as they were named during the last century.
These ‘specialties’ have become strong marketing tools today but the manufacturer-suppliers who make them are few in number. After the collapse of BNB, several still remain, however, and among them are the solid Christophe Claret and its 63 in-house calibres made for 18 clients, as well as Audemars Piguet’s Renaud & Papi. The latter is the regular supplier to Richard Mille, and it also recently created and produced the movement for Chanel’s J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse.

These articles can be found in Europa Star 5/10, due out in October 2010.