***The Report from Europe - by Tyler
The watchmaking road trip that Josh and I just went on has come
and gone so I thought I’d write a small overview of our little
adventure. To keep it brief as I can I’ll just hit on the main parts
of the trip.
only lasted 16 days, but we’d been planning the trip for some time
and had a packed schedule. Notwithstanding the struggle to adjust to the
time difference, we barely slept for the duration simply because we had so
much on our plate.
The first part of the trip involved training at the Citizen
Machinery Europe factory in Esslingen, just a few stops from Stuttgart. The
factory surpassed all of our expectations; it’s filled with their
entire range of lathes, prototype machines and a huge range of old school
machinery, much of it still in use today. But the real kicker is that the
site of the factory used to belong to Boley, a company established in 1870
who made some of the finest high precision machinery and watchmaking tools
ever. I’m not quite sure what happened, but it’s as if Boley
never really moved out; Citizen just moved in and decided to keep
everything. And why wouldn’t you? Though it’d take a lot of
work to make some of the machinery functional again, its educational value
can’t be understated. And it looks awesome.
Going into the training I hadn’t a clue what we were in for
- I’ve got zero background in machining and had only started
looking into the subject 3 months ago, so it was an almost absurd
proposition that I’d turn my first part on a 6-axis CNC machine. I
was outwardly confident that I’d be able to keep up with everything
but admittedly, I still had some lingering doubts going into it.
We’re a small team, and a trip like this is a big investment for us
so I wanted to be sure it was worth it. Thankfully, with our trainer
Marc’s help and Josh who is well versed in all things machining, I
was able digest it all in the end.
The training began with a crash course in the theory of
programming the G-code that runs the machine. While neither of us have
experience writing G-code, this part wasn’t overly challenging - it
all seemed easy - on paper, at least.
This was followed by an entire day simply learning how to navigate
the machine’s interface. Despite being a modern machine, the
interface on even the most advanced CNC lathe resembles MS-DOS from the
1990’s with only marginally better usability. How naive I was to have
expected a touch screen of sorts!
Next, we finally got to get our hands dirty: changing the guide
bush, collets and cutting tools.
Our greatest fear (Nick has had many a nightmare about it) with
the project was of crashing the machine. It’s not your regular
computer - if something goes wrong while cutting a part spinning at 5000rpm
there’s no reset button. Damage to the machine can be severe and any
repairs would be extremely costly. It probably didn’t help that
we’d all been watching youtube videos of CNC machine crashes prior to
even purchasing the machine, so Josh and I were initially hesitant to press
the start button even with Marc’s assurances.
That said, our fears were somewhat allayed after we saw the
machine in action and spoke with our trainer. Whilst old CNC machines had
very little crash detection capability, the modern Citizen R04 lathe
carries out an extensive range of checks before executing a cut.
It’ll automatically detect whether one tool will crash into another
tool, the part or the spindle, and won’t run until it’s certain
there’ll be no conflict. In fact, it’s so overzealous in its
checking that we actually had to turn off the crash detection later on
because the machine was being too careful.
we discovered, the real danger lies in the setup process. The machine
doesn’t have a clue where the exact cutting edge of each tool is. It
has a default offset, but every single turning tool, milling tool or
drilling tool has a different width and length, so you’ve got to
manually adjust each one into position, program its offset into the machine
and then do a test cut to see if you’ve aligned it correctly. It is
so critical to the machines operation that we ended up spending two whole
days on the setup process alone.
The final two days of training were spent putting what
we’ve learnt to the test: outlining the program, setting up the
machine, setting up the material, writing the code, executing the cut and
measuring the results. With Marc’s help, we were able to
produce our very first screws and stems. To see months of work finally
produce something tangible was a special moment.
After training in Esslingen, we made our way down to Switzerland.
The schedule for Switzerland was more relaxed, but we still had plenty to
do. We’re in the market for a CNC milling machine and finishing
tools, so our main reason for going was to visit a machine dealer in La
Chaux-de-Fonds. For those that don’t know, La Chaux-de-Fonds could be
called the heart of the entire Swiss watch industry. It’s a small
town, but the amount of watchmakers that call it home is staggering - Patek
Philippe, Cartier, Breitling, Greubel Forsey, Tag Heuer, Girard Perregaux,
Jacquet Droz and many other larger brands all have manufacturing facilities
Nick had told me of how huge the dealer’s place was before
going but I could never have imagined the true extent of it. Seriously -
there’s a football field of space packed with all sorts of machines.
You could spend weeks browsing through it and still not get through it
The dealer, as it turns out, is a 32 year old Swiss guy that
bought the business from his father. He’s a funny guy with an
obsession for fast cars and fine drink, and you’d never guess that
he’s one of the most knowledgeable guys around when it comes to
machinery. Despite having thousands of machines on the premises (all of
which are in fantastic condition), he knows the history and how to operate
each and every one. Show him a drawing of something you need machined and
he’ll light up with suggestions as to how to get it done. We spent
almost 5 hours browsing through everything, found all sorts of machinery
that’d be perfect for us and learnt a ton whilst doing
When we were back in Zurich, Josh ended up doing a last minute
trip to Munich to visit KERN Microtechnik, a manufacturer of the most
advanced CNC machinery in the world (an experience that he said was one of
the most rewarding ever), while I spent a day wandering around the city. I
decided to visit the Beyer Clock and Watch museum. The museum is really
just one big room, but then again, watches don’t take up much space,
and the amount of stuff they managed to pack in is staggering. If
you’re a horology fan like I am, you’ll find it fascinating.
Most people spend about fifteen minutes there, but I ended up spending two
hours looking over everything, relooking, noticing things I hadn’t
seen the first time and talking with the passionate museum
Nestled amongst the vast assortment of ancient Chinese time
measuring instruments, Breguet masterpieces and clock automaton’s are
some (relatively) modern masterpieces and watches of extreme significance.
The Rolex Explorer worn by Edmund Hillary on the first ever ascent of
Everest? Check. Patek Philippe Grand Complication pocket watch? Check. Not
one, but two George Daniels pocket watches? And one of his wristwatches to
boot? Yep. An astonishing collection, especially when you consider that
George Daniels, arguably the greatest watchmaker ever, only ever made 23
pocket watches and 4 wristwatches in his lifetime. I had no idea what I was
in for going into the museum, so it’s fair to say I was completely
floored by what I saw. It’s a must see if you ever visit
I’ll wrap it up here, I couldn’t possibly talk about
everything that happened and my hands are tied at the moment - there are
things that can’t be discussed yet, but we discovered some very
promising machinery that, should things pan out well, I’ll be able to
talk about very soon. In the end, the trip didn’t just go well, it
went far better than expected and was extremely rewarding for both Josh and
I. We can’t wait to put what we’ve learnt to the test as we
continue to take the rebelde project to the next level.