Monday, March 6, 2017

Report from Europe

***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.

It 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.

As 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 here.

  
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 all.



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 so.



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 director.

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 Zurich.


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.

Happy collecting,
Tyler

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