Friday, September 16, 2016

Action from Stuttgart

***We knew pretty much what to expect: action and more action, excitement, glamour.

We knew we'd be overwhelmed and completely blown away. Yet when Josh and I entered the foyer of Stuttgart's international machining fair yesterday we realized that we would leave the event irreversibly changed forever.

AMB is the third largest machining event in the world. Over 1,500 exhibitors are spread through 9 massive halls, all keen to showcase their latest machinery, measuring equipment, tools and materials, the cutting edge technology, production robots and, simply, their market dominance and engineering superiority.

One can watch as many youtube videos as they like, but only when you actually see the action for REAL can you begin to comprehend and appreciate what mechanical engineering is all about. Standing next to a CNC lathe the size of a semitrailer machining 2,500kg steel while it's been flicked around on 5 axis and carved as if it is a piece of Swiss cheese is nothing but the utmost humbling experience.
The roaring sound of the tool digging into the material, flying blue steel chips, waterfalls of pressurized coolant - yet no vibration! Just millions of lines of code being executed with incredible precision.

In large, the event goes way beyond showcasing just individual corporations and makers - it showcases our ability, as humans, to overcome some of the most intriguing challenges. And as designers and builders, we humans came a very long way.

You may wonder what made Josh and I travel around the world to attend the fair.
To put it simply: we are here to learn. The AMB is an opportunity to see all the machinery we've been dreaming about since we've decided to get into watchmaking. We wanted to get the priceless first hand experience, to see the equipment in action, but also to meet the makers who built them.
To hear their story, to find out what made them excited and motivated enough to invest their resources in the watchmaking industry. And then to see if we can become part of their success by planting a small seed of horology somewhere on the other side of globe.

"So where are you from? Australia? AUSTRALIA? We didn't know there are watchmakers in Australia! Seriously??"
This was the most common reaction once we'd explained who we are and what we want to do. The technological and cultural shock was genuinely suffered by both parties, which made every introduction a unique and memorable event. But after the initial shock, and hearing the rebelde story, almost all equipment makers we've talked to were more than happy to share their story too.
And to see how they could possibly help us, or at least to point us in the right direction.
The common denominator was the same: the piece of equipment that was in front of us was developed over decades of painstaking work, sacrifices of more than one generation of engineers, featuring incredibly advanced technology. We wanted to know everything. "So who uses our mills? Rolex, of course. And Lange. Yes, IWC, and Breitling. Who else? Cartier..." The names were not mentioned as marketing points but as proof of longstanding relationships.

We've met not only machine makers, but those who make machines so they can make their own watch prototypes. This handful of makers are the Formula 1 of machining.
They not only brought the complete mills and lathes, but pulled them apart, so anyone can check the true rotation of spindles, and the way tools are held so it can cut metal with 0.1 of micron tolerance. These makers would not just sell you a ready-made machine, but would make one specifically to meet your production requirements.
For us, this was a world we didn't even know existed.

To be honest, some of our favourite Swiss pieces of equipment - those we were prepared to sacrifice our lifetime savings for - left us underimpressed.
We felt that we simply could not justify such an investment. We felt that something was not quite transparent and therefore we've simply moved on. Yet at the same time we've found hidden gems, like the Citizen R-4 lathe which looked far superior to some of their Swiss counterparts, more robust and more user-friendly. The R04 is now on our most wanted list and Josh and I feel that this is a piece of equipment we can learn how to use in 2-3 month's time, allowing us to produce the first in-house screws and winding stems, and later more complex parts like sliding pinions.

Of course, after talking to engineers and even machinists who operate watchmaking machinery, it has become clear that the machine itself is just one of the segments in the production process. Having the right tooling, measuring equipment and correct raw material was equally important. Not to mention readiness to put months into the trial and error phase. As strange as it may sound, most watchmaking technical materials and alloys are still the best kept secret. It is obvious that in order to make your own parts you need to cooperate with someone who is already making those parts themselves, and that comes with a price tag.

We've met the kings of watchmaking mills: Willemin and Macodel. We told them that we would be grateful for a photo opportunity and a catalogue because we would never be able to afford their mills (the basic 'naked' machine without any tooling starts at $700,000). But we got a very friendly handshake from their sales director and compliments for our efforts to travel so far just to say hello. We parted as friends.

Our final visit was to a German mill maker. I am not going to mention their name - not yet - but they are considered the Porsche of watchmaking machinery.
For an hour we listened to their story which was honest and stripped of any marketing pitch. And they listened to ours. While it was clear that we cannot afford Porsche, it was equally clear that Porsche was interested in a small rebel from down under. Immediately, on the spot, Josh was offered training - not only how to operate machine but training in their German factory in equipment maintenance, diagnostic and repair. They were interested in building a long term relationship and extended an offer for a factory tour.
To us, this was something worth the money and something worth sacrificing for.

To be continued...

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