swatch sistem51 08 f

Sistem51, industrial excellence in Swatch Group style

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Swatch, the eponymous Group showed off its technical dexterity by introducing a revolutionary mechanical movement made up of fifty-one components held together by a single, central screw manufactured entirely by machine. A masterful demonstration of industrial expertise!

By Eric Othenin-Girard
Specialised journalist

There has been a great deal of talk about the evolution of horological technology; including that it was going round in circles, since by all accounts there was nothing left to be invented. How wrong…

First of all, we need to bear in mind that Swatch always was and still is, a manufacture. Better yet, its watches are 100% Swiss made, which is not something all brands can boast. If, to be qualified as haute horlogerie, a timepiece must be produced by a manufacture, as Nicolas Hayek said pointedly, then Swatch's products do indeed rank as luxury watches.

Consequently, they would also have a respected place in the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie.

Swatch sistem51

A wide range of industrial expertise

It is in this spirit that the brand made "100% Swiss made" its main guiding principle at about the time the first sketches of this groundbreaking self-winding mechanical movement were being put on paper. It was the underpinning for, the conception, construction and production of every single element and component of the Sistem51, including all the research that went into it. In fact, everything was then produced solely by the Group itself and exclusively in Switzerland. Several companies such as ETA, Nivarox, the CDNP (Centre de développement des nouveaux produits), Comadur and, of course, Swatch joined forces in the production of this industrial and technical revolution. What is most astonishing, however, is that it took only two years from start to finish for the watch to be ready for the market and delivered. And that is all the more amazing when considering the fact that so many companies took part in its creation.

Naturally, Swatch Group has extremely vast and diverse means, but it would be nothing without the men and women who are its heart and soul.

Swatch sistem 51 single screw

Further proof of that is the very adventure of the Sistem51's creation. The top experts from each of the companies involved in the conceiving the project offered their know-how to transform the original idea into a tangible reality. They brainstormed together, compared and contrasted suggestions, adjusted their approach to finally come up with a design. In many major companies, the experts carry out their research in different, whittling it down bit by bit and thus becoming more and more specialized and refined. This is not always the most efficient approach. And it is by no means the Swatch Group approach. The journey leading to the creation of the Sistem51 once again demonstrates the company's philosophy of implementing various technique whilst always keeping the final product in mind.This is how Pierre-André Buhler, Managing Director of ETA, coordinated the role of each expert in order to ensure that deadlines were met.

Coordination and interaction

Coordination was a key aspect of the process. Indeed, whenever meetings were held, all protagonists had to be present without fail. Every new development needed to be communicated to the whole team in order to allow each member to develop whatever part they were working on without losing sight of the spirit of the final product.

The task was by no means easy, though, as a team of more than one hundred people was needed to meet the challenge. The finest experts in design engineering were selected from the Swatch people, those with the greatest expertise in building mechanical movements. Escapements were entrusted to Nivarox, which for the first time in its history agreed to research, develop and produce a complete escapement module. However, as the pilot projects show, everyone proudly and enthusiastically presented their own modules or contributions. Time was another factor vigorously driving the momentum, since fast and excellent work was required. Last but not least, it was the first time the group’s teams of experts had started a project from scratch. They succeeded in advancing the idea of fully-automated and robotised manufacturing of a self-winding mechanical movement, including calibration of the shakes, which is define as the space between two parts moving in relation to each other.

Swatch Sistem 51

Some effective ideas emerged from this philosophy combining conception and industrialisation. The first was a mission statement that aimed at creating a unique movement.

By the same token, production costs were to be kept at a minimum. The watches featuring the new movement were to comply with the Swatch philosophy of offering affordable timepieces that would integrate easily into the brand’s collections.

Outstanding chronometry

This fundamental principle generated a second one: just because the timepiece was affordable did not mean it could not house a movement boasting outstanding chronometry. A great idea indeed, but putting it into practice was a different story. However, since the new movement’s specifications had been clearly laid out, in-depth work on the various constituent segments now became possible. At the heart of the movement is a building block concept, hence the Sistem51 is made up of a number of modules, whose components were produced and then assembled industrially, that is, without human intervention.

Once finished, each module is placed onto the watch’s mainplate using robots. The design of the components is key, because it allows them to be affixed with a single screw by means of another automated process. This completed the production of the Sistem51 movement.

All that remains to do is add on the external parts, and the Sistem51 timepiece is ready.

Sistem51 wristshot

Technical revolution

At 4.8 mm in height and 27.5 mm in diameter, the new self-winding caliber has the same dimension as the ETA 2824 movement but with 51 components instead of the usual 130 to 150 for self-winding mechanical movements. This size was chosen in order to allow the movement to be used in timepieces for both men and women. Its technical functions do not stop here: it also features a 90-hour power reserve and runs with a frequency of 3 Hertz, or 21,600 vibrations per hour. The Swatch Group technicians stress that even without an index-assembly, this movement is as precise as any mechanical movement with a frequency of 4 Hz, or 28,800 vibrations, per hour. It is generally accepted that a higher frequency means greater precision. Proof of this is that a precise quartz movement at around 10 to15 seconds per year, has a frequency of 32,768 vibrations per second.

The movement can be regulated by turning the index, and the indications on the balance-cock allow you to calculate approximately the effect of the correction.

Laser setting

As it is, this new movement has no index-assembly. It is permanently set using lasers at the time the escapement module is produced. Any watchmaking aficionado knows that thanks to the presence of Nivarox the group has enormous capacity for manufacturing regulating organs which are the true heart of a watch. Besides, until very recently, all Swiss brands manufacturing mechanical movements were Nivarox clients. No surprise, then, that Nivarox was assigned the task of developing the module comprising the whole escapement system. As mentioned before, it was a first for this company. The result complies with the set specifications since the module is pre-regulated according to a value established prior to construction. During the final regulation stage – when the module is fitted into the watch – the tolerances are fixed using a laser. Thanks to the calculations carried out by industrial tools, the watch will never have to be regulated again.

Sistem51 back

Eliminating the index assembly and fixing the regulation of the watch are in themselves amazing technical achievements. Nevertheless, the company still had to ensure chronometry precise  enough to comply with the criteria of the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC). According to this official agency, a mechanical movement is allowed a deviation of ten seconds per twenty-four hours, i.e., a four-second loss or a six-second gain every twenty-four hours. The movement of the Sistem51 more than meets these criteria, so it would easily obtain COSC certification.

The module of the Sistem51, comprising the plate and the frame, is entirely made of an alloy called Arcap. It comes in quality colours and can be directly decorated using automated processes as well. The oscillating weight revolves in one direction, but it was conceived to be transparent, allowing the owner insight into this unusual bit of watch engineering. In fact, the weight is made of sapphire crystal, the result of an uncommon bit of research by Comadur, the Group’s company noted for producing synthetic rubies and ceramics.

But it was not as easy as it sounds. The movement had to be visible without forgetting the winding mechanism. Therefore, all materials had to have a very specific weight to ensure that the watch is running steadily.

Conclusion

This new movement, which I would describe as unique and historic, was the result of a joint effort of the top specialists in the Swatch Group. They worked hard and selflessly to achieve the set goal. They started from scratch and met a mad challenge in less than two years. To really grasp the full extent of this feat of engineering, you must be aware of how arduous it is to build an entirely new movement from scratch.

Sistem51 wristshot

The other aspect that needs to be highlighted is the sheer industrial expertise. When designing a new movement, all production constraints need to be taken into account. This often impedes  creativity. A perfect example is the numerous problems other brands face when trying to produce a new movement from scratch. On the other hand, the production of the Sistem51was always intended for bulk production. In other words, several industrial tools were designed and constructed to meet overcome the obstacles facing this particular series.

To succeed demanded a broad range of competencies. This watch proves that besides having mind-blowing ideas, Swatch Group and the Swatch brand were prepared to develop the technical means to achieve them. Conclusive proof of the total industrial command of the world's most important watchmaking group.

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