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

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?

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,