Those who innovate

Approaches to innovation


Español Français 中文
July 2018

Approaches to innovation

Although both part of the same group, Officine Panerai and Roger Dubuis have two very different approaches to research and to innovation in general, especially where materials are concerned. Two different approaches that illustrate two ways of regarding the role of innovation in overall brand image. To find out more, Europa Star met Jérôme Cavadini, head of Panerai Manufacture, Arnaud Houriet, Innovation & Quality project manager at Panerai, and Gregory Bruttin, who heads up Product Marketing and R&D at Roger Dubuis.


central Research & Innovation Group does indeed exist at Richemont: it is headed up by Edouard Mignon and has a solid team of researchers and scientists. But its principal role is to support projects conducted by the brands and otherwise apply itself to research that is “more discreet or more fundamental”.

At Richemont, R&D is vertically integrated within the brands, each of which has a certain autonomy of action. As Gregory Bruttin explains, this choice comes directly from the top, from Johann Rupert. “Mr Rupert was marked by the negative example of General Motors,” explains the Head of Product Marketing and R&D at Roger Dubuis.

Roger Dubuis Excalibur Spider Pirelli Double tourbillon volant and Excalibur Spider Squelette Automatique
Roger Dubuis Excalibur Spider Pirelli Double tourbillon volant and Excalibur Spider Squelette Automatique

“They ended up making parts interchangeable between all its brands, building joint platforms and manufacturing generic products. And everyone knows what the outcome of that was! The different products lost all character and were indistinguishable from one another. In his eyes, that’s a ‘fault’ and not to be repeated. Every brand has to develop its own specifics. That said, at the launch phase every product has to get top-level validation from the famous ‘internal approval committee’. That creates competition – of the healthy kind – between colleagues.”

Open space or networking…

Between Roger Dubuis and Officine Panerai, the differences in the structure – and goals – assigned to R&D are glaring. They can even be seen physically and spatially, you might say.

The most striking thing about R&D at Roger Dubuis, which is set in the heart of the highly integrated manufacture, is that in one single open space it brings together the project manager, the technical designers, engineering department, watch exteriors, prototyping, R&D, artistic design, environment (presentation boxes, showcases, etc…) and product marketing.

“The result is that there’s a huge amount of communication, coming and going and continuous exchanges between all the managers of a product at all levels,” underscores Gregory Bruttin. “It’s the opposite of a sequential approach. In our view, the brand and product strategies go hand in hand, and the whole team is nurtured from the outset by this joint, shared, multidisciplinary approach. The result is a very swift way of functioning. In R&D, people come before the process. Internal communications are informal, but we have a shared vision of the objectives.”

In practice, this cheerful, open-plan workshop has nothing of a laboratory where men in white lab coats move silently about. The specialists in different fields stand elbow to elbow. All Excel spreadsheets have been banished and replaced by large, visual tables posted on the walls and filled in by hand, evolving continuously and in real time, visible to all, all the time.

Should an innovation necessarily be visible on the finished product, or should it be more discreet? The responses of the two brands to this apparently simple question are quite different.

By contrast at Panerai, most of the work is done over the network. On the one hand, there is an ultra-modern manufacture in the hills above Neuchâtel, with its workforce of 250 dedicated to production and customer service, while design and marketing are in Milan, nearly 400km away.

This structure does not seem to bother Jérôme Cavadini, the manufacture’s director, or Arnaud Houriet, project manager for everything to do with innovation. “Counting the laboratories, technical designers, engineering department, methods and industrialisation, which are based here, R&D employs around 50 people who interact directly via the network with the Milan teams. It’s an ultrasmart network with highly efficient communication tools, soon to be equipped with extremely high-definition cameras that will enable us to virtually touch the object,” they explain.

The same ‘networked’ structure can be found in production. Jérôme Cavadini is emphatic on this point: “Development is totally integrated into the manufacture, but production is only partially so. That’s deliberate; we want to work with the highly efficient, regional industrial fabric. Emulation is strong there and that spawns new ideas. That’s very important.”

“All this intellectual property activity is crucial. And some of it stems from all these small and medium-sized businesses, not only giants. Wanting to absorb everything would be a mistake, it would be totally counter-productive. You can’t innovate by staying at home. It’s in our best interests to work with local enterprise and its fast-reacting partners.”

For optimum lightness, the titanium case is made using an innovative technology that creates an extremely complex hollow structure without compromising water resistance (10 bar), strength or ability to withstand everyday stresses and strains. The technique is known as DMLS (Direct Metal Laser Sintering). It is a 3D printing method that builds up a layered structure using a fibre optic laser and titanium powder. The layers, each just 0.02 mm thick, are built up precisely to create a structure that would be impossible to obtain through traditional machining, producing a perfectly smooth and uniform surface with considerably reduced weight.

Innovation: to be seen or not to be seen?

Should an innovation necessarily be visible on the finished product, or should it be more discreet? The responses of the two brands to this apparently simple question are quite different.

For Gregory Bruttin, the answer goes without saying: “A genuine innovation has to be seen,” he unequivocally states. “For us, the customer is always at the centre and everything is geared to this priority. Consequently, any innovation, and all the more in the case of materials, has to have an interest for the customer; it has to be easily implementable and have immediate aesthetic expression. We don’t do innovation simply for the pleasure of innovating. Just as we don’t do marketing for the sake of marketing. We only do it if it is really meaningful for the customer.”

That’s all fine and dandy. But what, exactly, is meaningful?

For Roger Dubuis and his R&D teams, in order to be launched an innovation has to meet three basic criteria that will set the research agenda: ergonomics, hence the quest for lightness (titanium, carbon); durability, hence the quest for hardness (1,000 Vickers and over, e.g. chrome and cobalt); and aesthetics (it has to be implementable both visually and formally).

To illustrate his approach, Gregory Bruttin cites a case made in chrome and cobalt, very brilliant and with slightly blue tints. “But the blue of the cobalt isn’t really visible, so we inserted a blue-tinted movement to really mark the difference.”

So at Roger Dubuis, you have to be blind not to see the innovation!

Metallic glass

At Panerai, it’s quite another story: innovation is permitted to remain discreet or ‘relatively’ hidden, explains Arnaud Houriet. If, here too, innovation is essentially at the service of the product and has to represent genuine value added for the customer, it is not always immediately perceptible aesthetically or formally.

Take the example of liquid glass, an innovation that is not patently evident. It gives the impression of being steel, except perhaps for “a few metallic tints”. But its characteristics are far superior to steel: it is highly shock-resistant, its surfaces are also very durable and it has a hardness of around 550 Vickers.

Panerai Luminor Due 3 Days Oro Rosso
Panerai Luminor Due 3 Days Oro Rosso

“It was invented 40-50 years ago and potentially had worthwhile characteristics,” the two Panerai managers explain. “Combining different processes and their specific advantages, it looked promising. But the metallic glass, otherwise known as BMG Tech (for Bulk Metallic Glass), is difficult to make to any great thickness because the alloy has to be cooled down rapidly.”

“This problem was solved achieving greater control of the alloys (which improved implementation), the manufacturing processes and the temperature during moulding. The parts are injection-moulded and 99% come out in perfect shape. The others are retouched where necessary.”

Metallic glass is composed of zirconium, titanium, nickel, copper and aluminium.

Their composition must be rigorously controlled, their purity guaranteed. The key to success also lies in the production process and industrialisation, which meant making the repetitive rhythm of operations reliable.

“You learn a lot from a project like this,” admits Jérôme Cavadini. “There were ups and downs, but the lessons learned were substantial and it also opened up the range of possibilities. For example, we worked with a Japanese company specialising in powder technology. There exist just two in all, both in Japan.”

The team at the manufacture seem proud to have achieved such a result.

“When we set out, we were driven first and foremost by a desire to go out and get market share. And ultimately there were consequences in terms of positioning. And that’s far more important, because today lifespans on the market are very short. And with BMG, we’re in it for the long term. It isn’t a marketing coup. At Panerai, invention has to be in earnest and controlled. And this launch year, we’ll be producing the first 1,000 items.”


Mixing skills

The particularity of the open-plan R&D department at Roger Dubuis is that it tries to mix skills in a single, shared project: the watch to be created. Ideally, there is no longer the engineering on one side and the watch exterior on the other. The watch ‘architects’ are trained designers. From the first pixel, they have to aim for unusual, highly transparent movement designs. The codes they are bound to follow are precise; for example the star shape, always featuring one straight line, that you find in numerous designs by Roger Dubuis.

Roger Dubuis works essentially on three fronts: ceramics, metallics and composites – a trilogy that everyone is investigating today.

So, product takes precedence over innovation. The Pirelli tyre was the starting point for the research launched on that occasion. Another example: Roger Dubuis is preparing for the imminent launch of a watch set with diamonds in carbon. Not exactly an engineer’s product for engineers!

But it is, on the other hand, an example of interaction between R&D and suppliers. “The project manager was pushing for a design that called for forged carbon,” explains Gregory Bruttin. “But the supplier explained that it would be better to try multilayer woven carbon. The whole point was to ensure the diamonds were set as firmly as possible in the carbon, so we opted for the suggested solution. Strong, rapid interaction and a skills ‘loop’.”

Another example of interaction between choice of design and technical consequences is the full-carbon Excalibur Spyder 509 SQ, released two years ago. The case is in carbon, as is the movement. In the quest for extreme lightness, all the parts impossible to make in carbon were made of titanium. This research incidentally produced an unexpected result: a 50% increase in the power reserve, from 60 hours to 90. A simple side-effect.

Roger Dubuis works essentially on three fronts: ceramics, metallics and composites – a trilogy that everyone is investigating today. But their priority is composites, metal with metal or in other combinations. “With purely metallic alloys we’ve hit a ceiling.” One example: tungsten beads coated or cast around a steel core, or future composites of ceramics and carbon, or even machined silicon...

No further information is forthcoming. But it is true that now, everyone is researching these same subjects.

What about 3D printing?

At Panerai, besides the metallic glass, they’ve already taken a keen interest in 3D printing. One case in point: the PAM 00767, called ‘Lo Scienziato’, a titanium skeleton tourbillon priced at 139,000 euros, ultralight and limited to 250 items issued in two batches, 150 then 100 watches. What is special about this is that the watch was produced by 3D printing using additive manufacturing technology.

Roger Dubuis Excalibur Knights of the Round Table III
Roger Dubuis Excalibur Knights of the Round Table III

A world first: its case is made of grade five titanium powder ‘printed’ layer by layer. Thanks to this 3D printing technology, it was possible to create a space inside the ring-shaped caseband. Consequently, this hollowed-out caseband weighs 30% less than a comparable item in machined titanium. The movement weighs 25% less.

The 3D printing process has the advantage of allowing previously unheard-of flexibility in terms of geometry. Panerai has a command of the process in-house, but “also knows its limitations”. The potential of this technology for personalisation purposes is evident, but the process remains a costly one. From the industrial perspective, it is conceivable only for small, limited series. It also allows for rapid execution. We naively pose an idle question: might there be any way of housing a function or mechanism inside the hollowed-out caseband?

Our two interlocutors give the hint of a knowing smile. That would be spectacular (but perhaps invisible) confirmation that innovation in one particular field – 3D in this instance – gives rise to further potential innovation in other domains. In other words, innovation spawns innovation.