Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Another Act of Rebellion

***Another Act of Rebellion

If there is one thing about the rebelde project that I would change in a heartbeat, it would be the word 'rebelde' itself. 
If you're from an English-speaking background then you will have a hard time pronouncing this Spanish word properly. Because in English that 'e' at the end of rebelde is silent, yet in Spanish it is the last tone that gives the word its unmistakable meaning; an on-going battle, a rebellion against mighty forces that want to enslave you.

But then again perhaps there is no better substitute, no better word that could describe the struggle of a small independent watchmaker that is trying to break free of Swiss shackles. And today is another of those small victory days; a break-away day from Swiss jewel suppliers.

A quick introduction into watch jewelling: a watch jewel is a synthetic bearing which holds (hugs?) the pivots of the watch wheels. The quality of the watch and its ability to keep time is directly related to the quality of its jewels. The watch jewels are incredibly small yet polished to perfection. There are only a handful of watch jewel manufacturers in the world and most of them are either Swiss or use Swiss materials.

The dependency of Swiss-made jewels in the watch industry is such that even the most famous watchmakers (both large and small) would not even consider making jewels in-house. The technology, knowledge and expertise required in jewel making is simply beyond their reach.

If you're a small watchmaker trying to create your own watch mechanism, then the gear-train design would be a catch-22. Before you can design the wheels you would need to know the size of your jewels. But there is no such a thing as a standard jewel size because jewels are made to specific requirements. In other words, you cannot go to a jewel manufacturer and say that you would like the same jewels as they make and supply for Rolex. The jewel manufacturer would ask you to provide your own specific measurements. What makes things more complex is that even a simple mechanism would require 10 different jewel sizes. Multiply that figure by the minimum order quantity requirement and then by the price per jewel and you will come up with a figure of around $60,000 - for just one calibre.

This is a scary figure. But if rebelde is to become known as a maker of its own in-house, Australian-made movement, then this investment is unavoidable. Today we received samples of a Japanese jewel manufacturer, a leader in their field, who is interested in our order. The good news: we will have our own jewels and they won't be made in Switzerland. While we haven't even commenced the design of our in-house movement, we believe that we can have a working prototype in less than 5 years. It will take many small victories like this one to get there, and this is why we count on your continued support.

Viva la revolution!   

Happy collecting,

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Another Day in the Workshop

***Another Day in the Workshop

As Marc's return to Germany is nearing fast, Josh, Tyler and myself are now spending all our time trying to learn as much as possible. The complexity of the CNC lathe is amazing but the kids are soaking up the knowledge almost effortlessly. On the other hand, I am trying to look at the project from the Devil's advocate perspective, asking tough and tricky questions. Maybe I am just too critical or too cautious, but I am trying to predict all unpredictable scenarios.  The list of 'what we need' is endless: tools, materials, guide bushes, collets, cutters, measuring equipment... But then again, setting up a specialist micro-machining workshop is a lifelong journey so these things cannot be rushed.

Here are a couple of photos for fellow machinists: making small metal parts means your metal chips and swarf is miniature as well.
The finest we've produced now is just 16 microns in thickness. Fine, consistent and amazingly cool :-)

This morning, for the first time in 4 years, I am wearing my black 'Save The Time' t-shirt.  Life is so unpredictable and takes strange turns.  I feel like Alice's White Rabbit - "the hurrier I go, the behinder I get".  But we'll get there - for sure.

Stay tuned,

Australian Machining Fair - But Australian Manufacturing?

***Australian Machining Fair - But Australian Manufacturing? – by Josh

Two weeks ago I attended the Austech fair in Melbourne, an Australian Manufacturing Initiative to bring OEM's, subcontractors, hobbyists and the general public together to show off manufacturing in Australia. Although this description of the event is not an accurate way of describing the goal of Austech, it is quite easy to see that it is perceived this way. Machine tool suppliers, tooling manufacturers, auxiliary equipment suppliers (lubricant, cooling, dust collection, chip extraction etc) were all there en masse. 

It was interesting for me to go to a show with no specific goal, other than to see if there was anything that would be applicable to the watch industry. Looking back you could say that this was a little optimistic. Often the very difficult part of "setting yourself up" is buying the right things. Therefore, knowing what to buy can be just as hard, if not harder, than physically buying it. We did end up acquiring a few new items that will be living in the Brookvale facility, although I'd have to say the few industry connections that were formed at the fair are far more valuable than the purchased items themselves.

Meeting with a few Australian subcontract companies and talking to people who have been where we are and have experienced the difficulties of starting up a manufacturing process in Australia was a very exciting experience. Seeing them talk about their successes despite an incredibly challenging Australian engineering landscape was highly encouraging. For example, Mastercut, located on the Gold Coast who, against all odds, is doing export work as well as OEM work in Australia. Mastercut specialises in photochemical etching and laser-cutting thin metal sheets. Their minimum order? One piece or a thousand. Not directly in our industry, but they may be a perfect partner for our clock dials! (Stay tuned.)

It wasn't all rosy. The fact that in a hall of 300 exhibitors and only a handful represented true Australian manufacturing was disappointing. Seeing stall after stall of overseas subcontractors bidding for your part was a reality check. How much is actually made in Australia? At the risk of sounding Australia-centric and almost nationalistic, I feel very strongly that the little we endeavour to make should stay within our borders.
Sometimes we get what we pay for. Parts may be cheaper from all over the world, but will we really settle for a 90 day lead time, low quality control and in some cases blatant misinterpretation of engineering drawings and requirements?

Austech left me in a bittersweet place; excited by the small pockets of Australian technology but concerned about the larger issues surrounding a possibly struggling sector. How can we encourage the growth of high skill labour and trades? What can we do to make higher quality goods? Is there a possibility of "Australian Made" being a common and expected title?
The driving force is the consumer, your choice on where to spend your dollar. It might require a few more dollars to buy the Akubra hat, Maton guitar or rebelde watch but in the long term, those dollars will come back to you in one way or another. Another job created, another Australian supported.
Happy collecting,

Monday, May 22, 2017

*** How square is your square? - Polygon machining

Some watch components are more demanding than others. For example, a winding stem is one of those components: despite its relatively large size, it needs to be machined as close as possible to design values. The stem is threaded, round and it sits inside the main plate between two centres, it carries two wheels and is held in place with yet another component. Functionality wise, it does two things: time setting and winding. And one of the critical elements is the polygon section - a highly polished 'square' - a track for a sliding pinion. 
Making a component is one thing; but finding out the exact size of the machined part is the real moment of truth. And polygon cutting will not only tell you how good your machine is, but how good your raw materials, your tools, the rigidness of the machine, alignments- down to coolants, lubricants and room temperature are.

I am not going to bore you with details; briefly, the polygon is the result of 3 main actions: rotating cutting tool, traveling of the tool along the axis and the rotation of the material. All 3 movements are tightly coordinated (think of a juggler juggling 3 balls). The final tolerance is the sum of the errors of each movement (and many others!).
I am very pleased to report that our end result is amazingly 'tight'. The sides of the stem square are 891 and 892 microns so the difference is just 1 micron (1 thousands of a millimeter).

Actually, since I am measuring distance between two planes, discrepancy per side is only half of the micron!
To put things in perspective: the thickness of a human hair is 50 microns, so half a micron means slicing the hair 100 times - along!
The bottom line: when it comes to precision, our new toy is exceeding our watch manufacturing requirements: the lathe and bar feeder are rigid, the material is spot on and the ambient temperature for sub-micron machining is just fine. The setup and the environment are not supplied by the machine maker - it is something we had to create ourselves, and judging by the first measurements, it looks like we've got it right. A small curiosity: the surface finish of the polygon is very close to mirror finish and the stem does not require any post machining finishing. Production time: 54 seconds.
We are now ready to find the answer to yet another burning question: what is the smallest watch component we can manufacture?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

rebelde Workshop Update

***rebelde workshop update

We are on day 2 of machinery setup. 
Good news first: the lathe and bar feeder survived the trip arriving in excellent condition. The electrical installation was straight-forward and our custom-made power supply works fine. The air compressor, air coolant and filtering are working great and are quiet. The hydraulics system is connected, lubricants are running; the brass machining is quiet and effortless. We do have one small set-back: the coolant for 316L steel that was supplied locally is of the 'wrong' viscosity. The new 200 litre drum is on its way so we'll have to wait until Tuesday to run 316L test parts. For those of you who appreciate details: one litre of low viscosity coolant costs twice the price of the finest cold pressed Greek olive oil! And it is not available in any quantity less than a 200 litre drum. This is just one of many unplanned 'investments', but not a show-stopper.

The second setback: Mark, the German engineer, is not a big fan of Vegemite! Luckily for him, we have two weeks to refine his fine taste.

The first, fully automated, Australian-made watch parts were manufactured today, at 10:45 in a quiet beach suburb of Sydney.  The life-long journey of learning, machining, improving and designing kicked in a second later...

My very special ' thank you' goes to each member of our tiny team: Josh, Laura, Tyler and Robyn. Without their help the rebelde project would be just a dream.

Stay tuned!


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Using the Right Tools

***Machinists say that if a job is too difficult then you are using the wrong tool.

And you don't have to be a machinist to agree.
Remember how much trouble you had that time trying to remove a screw using the wrong screwdriver, or drilling a hole with a worn-out drill bit. Not only was the end result pathetic, but you were left frustrated, swearing you'd never do it again. When it comes to micro-machining, and especially the manufacture of watch parts, then using the right tool is essential.

Going through the boxes of newly arrived tools from Switzerland, I was once again amazed by the beauty of the polygon cutter. This little baby is used for milling a square section of the winding stem and, if run at the appropriate speed and with the correct feed rate, it would not only cut the square but it would also leave the surface highly polished so that no further machining would be required.
The blades diameter is only 2mm and it was manufacured in Switzerland by DIXI Polytools, specialists in tungsten carbide and diamond cutting tools, who have been in the business since 1946.
Yes, the tool cost a small fortune but there is no substitute for it. If you want to end up with a component that is a piece of art, you have to start with a tool that is a work of art itself. Next time I will share a few photos of this end mill in action – stay tuned!

Happy collecting,

Monday, May 15, 2017

Day of Reckoning

***Fun, fun fun!

After 9 months of waiting, our CNC lathe has finally arrived. 

Two massive crates loaded with machinery, tools and raw material are being slowly unpacked. Not without difficulties - moving large and heavy pieces around such a tight place is a true challenge.  The rebelde workshop is now a busy place:  we have a compressor technician, a door installer and a painter working simultaneously, starting at 6am and working until 9pm. We are slowly running out of time - the German engineer is arriving tomorrow night.

Marc is here to setup the lathe, connect the bar feeder, do test runs and then spend another week with Josh and Tyler providing hands-on training. We are all very tired but the knowledge that in just a few days we will be manufacturing our first watch parts, here, in Sydney, keeps the spirit high. 

Happy collecting,

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The rebelde Regulator

***The rebelde Regulator

After the brief announcement of the rebelde Watchmaker's Regulator clock, a couple of subscribers got excited saying this is exactly what they'd planned to do themselves. I am not surprised: the regulator project is the pinnacle of every model engineer hobbyist. 
Having an extremely accurate clock running quietly on your wall is a magical experience - and the bragging rights of 'I made it myself' are simply priceless. Even those non-technical and most critical friends will simply remain silent while admiring your craftsmanship. And unlike model train engines, the clock will be final proof to your wife that your investment in lathes and mills was clearly a wise decision.

The design and drawings of the rebelde regulator are almost completed. Now, if you think that this is not a big deal – due to our CAD software and the abundance of information online surely the task is straightforward - then you are mistaken. For the past 400 years each and every clockmaker and watchmaker personalised the design to suit their own understanding of what the regulator really is - or more commonly, to design it in a way that could be manufactured in their own workshop using their own tools. The end result is always more of alchemy and witchcraft than a mechanical engineering 'recipe', which consequently makes the execution of the clock incomprehensible to engineers (yet so easy to true clockmakers!).

Indeed - I have already found reasons to modify and 'improve' - before I have even made the first component. I am blessed with no less than 3 books on regulators so at least I am not wasting time searching online, but even acclaimed authors make common mistakes: assuming the reader is familiar with a method or design just because they think it’s 'trivial'. And my goodness - imperial dimensions just drive me nuts!

Again, clock mechanisms have their own uniqueness so most engineers struggle with the different concepts of maintaining power, cycloidal gears and dead-beat escapement, and are overly concerned with tight tolerances in the wrong places. So as a repairman, I do have the small advantage of having seen so many clocks in repair and have seen various attempts to solve the various problems, where some were better than others. This is why I believe the rebelde clock would not only perform as it should, but my drawings and design assumes no previous knowledge - which would make them perfectly suitable to Josh and Tyler. And I would most likely make them available to general public. Nevertheless, I am not going to rush ahead here.

The next to do list: getting ready for pinion cutting! The cutters are here, but I need a precise indexing head. The commercially available indexers and chucks are abundant; however I want to build my own. Why? Because home-made indexers are cool. My indexing head will be driven by a stepper motor, controlled by an Arduino chip and will have an (almost!) unlimited number of indexing steps - you can cut a 1200 teeth wheel if you want to! I am already testing a bunch of NEMA motors, and while my coding is rusty they are already 'stepping' nicely.

Stay tuned for more!
Happy collecting,