“I totally respect Nick Hayek’s decision to no longer deliver movements to third parties. I even thank him for it, because now we will be able to truly innovate,” Stéphane Linder, the new CEO of TAG Heuer (where he has worked for the past twenty years, most recently as the head of the North American markets) tells us.
The gently provocative tone hides a genuine strategic necessity: that of ensuring and safeguarding the brand’s movement supply, specifically that of mechanical chronographs, the spearhead of the brand.
TAG Heuer’s first initiative in the field of traditional mechanical chronograph movements (we are not talking here about the brand’s concept movements) dates back almost four years with the launch of the Calibre 1887, the result of an exhaustive re-engineering of a Seiko chronograph movement.
Component production for this Calibre 1887, an integrated movement with 320 components, which oscillates at 28,800 vibrations per hour and has a column wheel and the oscillating pinion patented by Heuer in 1887 (hence the name of the calibre in question), was set up at the brand’s Corniol factory, in the Swiss Jura, which was built in 2004 for production of cases in steel and gold. An ultra-modern and semi-automated assembly line was set up in la Chaux-de-Fonds for the assembly of this movement.
Some 10 million Swiss francs were invested in this 2,600 m2 facility, while total investment in the development of these two new calibres 1887 and 1969 amounts to 40 million Swiss francs over the past five years.
The Calibre 1887 is what is known as a “6–9–12” (because of the way the counters are positioned). TAG Heuer soon felt a need for a second architecture: a chronograph with counters at “3–6–9”, for other, more stylistically classic products.
An extremely precise list of specifications was therefore drawn up, from which the new Calibre 1969 was developed and built. But the production of this new calibre needed even greater industrial capacity. So construction of a new factory started in parallel. It is this new, “avant-garde” factory that was recently inaugurated in Chevenez, also in the Swiss Jura (but close to the border with France and its big labour supply).
Some 10 million Swiss francs were invested in this 2,600m2 facility, while total investment in the development of these two new calibres 1887 and 1969 amounts to 40 million Swiss francs over the past five years. This is a considerable investment but one which is justified by the brand’s rapid growth over the past few years: + 20 per cent market share in 2012, 52 new monobrand stores opened (out of a total of 180) over the past two years.
Calibre 1887 therefore and with a big power reserve of 70 hours. The assortments (balance spring and four-spoke balance with KIF shock absorber) are supplied by Atokalpa (which is part of the watchmaking group belonging to the Sandoz family foundation, which also includes Parmigiani, among others).
This calibre, with its fine finish (Côtes de Genève, snailing on the oscillating mass in blackened tungsten, on the nickel-plated bridges for the minutes and the automatic winding, bevelled and polished edges) has a semi-modular design that is intended to subsequently accommodate modules for additional functions (such as GMT, power reserve indicator etc.). As with the Calibre 11, of which it is a distant relative (launched in 1969, by Heuer, Breitling and Hamilton, the Calibre 11 was the first self-winding chronograph movement), the counters are arranged in the classic “tri-compax” way: central chronograph seconds hand, minutes counter at 3 o’clock, hour counter at 9 o’clock and small seconds at 6 o’clock. A date window has been added at 9 o’clock.
FLEXIBILITY, STREAMLINING AND LEAN MANUFACTURING
The new factory at Chevenez, where the two calibres 1887 and 1969 are produced, fully deserves its “avant-garde” qualification. The mass production concept that has been applied here is directly inspired by car engine production lines such as those at Audi. There is a major engineering and methods service at the start, then a largely automated assembly line where watchmaking operators with different skills can work, a sophisticated and well-equipped testing infrastructure, in order to ensure a highly standardised production with identical quality levels.
Out of the current total of 50 people (which will gradually increase to 100), 35 are assigned to production and 25 to support functions in the methods office, tool making, quality control and machine maintenance. The machine park, which operates 24 hour a day, six days out of seven, is currently producing 50,000 movements per year. The objective is to double this by 2016.
This high level of industrialisation has been achieved because the design of the Calibre 1969 has from the outset been closely linked with the development of the industrial capacity necessary for its production. Of the most striking results of this “avant-garde” industrialisation is the fact that only four people are assigned to component production – main plate, bridges (moving parts and the gear train are produced externally) – whose automation is very advanced. Furthermore, everything has been designed to offer the greatest flexibility and allow rapid reconfiguration, if necessary, of the machines and the assembly lines: one way of adding the notion of lean manufacturing to the world of watchmaking. The machines operate dry, without oil therefore and in a very clean environment and are modular and linked together with automated transport (for example, to machine a main plate, three machines are linked up, with the components loaded and returned automatically).
The same applies to fitting jewels to the main plate. The engineers at TAG Heuer have, in collaboration with a specialised company, developed an extraordinary robot that is linked to a camera and can take jewels in bulk (noting which is the right side up) and place them on trays that are then used for the automated jewel fitting.
The mass production concept that has been applied here is directly inspired by car engine production lines such as those at Audi.
Movement assembly is equally streamlined. Everything has been designed to ensure a complete overview and individual tracking of each movement in assembly, thanks to a high level of automation and systematic checks at the end of each stage. Mounted on a ring with a number and a data matrix (a next-generation bar code), each movement is followed individually and entered into a database that exhaustively details its assembly process.
Between one fitting and the next, the movements move around in baskets from one stock to the next. The operation to be carried out is automatically displayed on an individual screen. If there is an error or a problem, the piece is redirected to a line reserved for corrections and a report is automatically generated, which shows exactly where the piece is and at which stage of the process.
The filter for quality control is impressive and aims to guarantee the quality of the finished piece. During its assembly the movement is subjected to an automatic clearance check, its escapement is checked by camera, it is adjusted automatically in one position, its winding wheels are subjected to automated tests, as are the start, stop and rewind functions, the precision of its rate is tested by laser (average rate when flat at zero hour without the chronograph running: between +2 and +10), then it is inspected and tested manually.
This facility is in line with TAG Heuer’s ambitions. According to Stéphane Linder, it “will be the brand that produces the most in-house chronographs for its own needs in 2014”. An impressive achievement considering that five years ago TAG Heuer did not produce a single chronograph movement.
Source: Europa Star December - January 2013/14 Magazine Issue