Horology and 3D printing share one of the same common misconceptions: neither of these activities is as easy as they may appear from the surface. We are led to believe that all you need is a 3D printer and your child will never need a new toy. The reality, like the gears or electronics behind the watch dial, is far more complex. 3D printing does however come with very significant advantages. Bottom up manufacturing means that once the hugely time consuming design and manufacturing phase is complete, you transfer the file over to your printer and the rest is no-waste, automated manufacturing requiring little to no human intervention.
Given the amazing ingenuity of watch and clock mechanics it was only a matter of time until someone took the time to engineer and reproduce watch complications in huge magnification so that their innovation can be fully appreciated. Huge tourbillions for educational purposes are ironically much more rare than the actual tourbillions in breathtakingly expensive watches, and are a sight usually seen only in watch schools after hours upon hours upon hours of hard and precise manual labor. Someone finally took the time to combine two difficult skills and is now making 3D printed horological models has shattered this status quo of hard to obtain educational/entertainment models for horology.
To explain what a tourbillon does is far easier than explaining how. It is not a far-fetched claim to say many people who buy them do not fully comprehend the mechanical intricacy of the complication that is on their wrist. For one thing, it’s incredibly hard to see in its entirety by virtue of its size. Fortunately, with scale, complexity becomes understandable, it just took someone with the skills to put it all together; an engineer/watchmaker.
Nicholas Manousos has used 3D printing to create the awe-inspiring Tourbillon 1000% model. More than just any tourbillon he has created a Daniel’s (co-axial) Symmetrical Tourbillon. It is truly a sight to behold. Seeing a Tourbillon at 1000% scale in motion really puts into perspective the complication involved with horological innovation and fabrication.
Originally educated as an engineer, Nick decided to take the plunge and go to Watchmaking School. After that, he dropped his tweezers, metal movements, and bench and started his lab where he now devotes his full time to designing and building 3D printed complications.
I had the chance to have coffee with Nicholas to talk about his perspective on horology, 3D printing, and to see the model in person. All three were fascinating. It took him 3 years of design, prototyping, and improvements to land where he is today, but he still sees it as an ever-evolving innovative process. The advantage of 3D printing is that you modify, print, try, and repeat until its right. I am pretty sure that since we had coffee he has made several tweaks to the design. The result is a stunning model that very quickly rekindled the mechanical fascination that got me into watchmaking in the first place. Rarely does one think of such beautiful innovations coming in plastic, but it is truly awe-inspiring.
Because of its size and construction, I was able to disassemble it (at Nick’s encouragement) easily and look at the various components, and reassemble it. It seems strange, but it was easier to assemble the 1000% Tourbillon than it is to assemble many simple clocks. It seems so simple, but there was so much that went into it. One can only imagine what Nick’s graveyard of gears must look like this far into his work. Fortunately, unlike physical fabrication, the reproducibility of 3D printed objects is far easier, and all one has to do is print. Therein lies the promise of this combination of technology with horology, but it is a double-edged sword.
What makes complicated watches so expensive is a combination of marketing, rarity, and difficulty of manufacture and assembly. Mechanical innovations come at very steep prices (think about the GP Constant Force Escapement or the Patek Philippe Advanced Research pieces.) The reproducibility of pieces like Grande Complications are very difficult and each new one must start from pieces of metal that are shaped by incredible machines and more incredible humans. Design and prototyping takes a very long time because after something is conceptualized, it must be fabricated by machine and hand and tested. Finally, rarity is maintained because of the various different set of expertise involved with creating these masterpieces. 3D printing jumps over these manufacturing steps and potentially allows for anyone with a printer to manufacture their own (or someone else’s) creations with some plastic and the push of a button and for just the cost of the polymer and whatever extras there may be. While the technology is still very far from being able to let people print even the simplest wristwatch, it should not be too long. It will take a huge increase in the resolution of the printer, but it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility.
Given the speed of the rendering relative to the old-school manufacturing process, one can easily reproduce and improve on designs. The improvements that may be recognized by this process and by being able to have a nearly infinite amount of horologists and engineers print, analyze, and improve designs. Unfortunately this means that the dollar value of innovation is drastically decreased, and the value of being a first-mover can be nil. Nick is acutely aware of the potential and the dilemma he is creating by being able to prototype, build, and share his innovation so rapidly and at such a large scale.
At the end of the day to really make a difference will require more people like Nick, who have the skills to push the bounds of horology with this new method of manufacture, and a nurturing group of experts to help would be innovators over the steep learning curves of both horology and 3D printing expertise.
In the meantime, I am fully content to watch Nicholas’ tourbillon oscillate while I wait for his next creation.
(I am also getting a printer…….)
I encourage you to visit his site to see more about his process and his lab at www.nicholasmanousos.com and if you are interested, drop him a line about purchasing one.