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Pioneer of the 3D printed Watch, Holthinrichs Responds

by Jonathan Ho on January 10, 2017

Not too long ago, we responded to Bloomberg’s hyperbolic article about Coveted Swiss Watches being 3D printed by next Christmas, today, we are honoured to receive a response from Michiel Holthinrichs, a founder of Holthinrichs Watches and pioneer of the 3D printed watch.

For those of you unfamiliar with Holthinrichs Watches, they are the brain-child of Michiel Holthinrichs, son of an artist and an automotive engineer. Inevitably, the inspired childhood from two distinctly different fields has bequeathed Holthinrichs with imaginative qualities blending the hi-tech hi-mech approach of automotive engineering and high-craft high-art design fields.

Eventually, Michiel went to study at faculty of Architecture of the Delft University of Technology where he honed his skills in technical design and upon graduation, began working on national heritage renovation projects where he became a noted specialist in the transformation of historical structures. Interestingly, his exchange in Paris at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris-Belleville was to become the eventual muse and inspiration for his unique sense of style, aesthetics and craftsmanship: a cocktail of Art-Nouveau and Art-Deco.

The Holthinrichs Ornament 1 – the world’s first 3D printed watch.

Holthinrichs Watches: The 3D Printed Watch Exists! (But it’s not Swiss, Made in Delft)

His childhood, academic and career aspirations have led Michiel Holthinrichs to advocate for an architectural approach in watch design. This means that while traditional watchmaking is respected to a high degree, his methods are thoroughly unconventional and his means of production, undeniably on the cutting edge of high tech. Thus while the dial aesthetics of the pioneering 3D printed watch with subsidiary seconds and thin baton indexes are very classic, the engineering and craftsmanship of the case is anything but traditional. By exploring and combining other disciplines Holthinrichs Watches seeks to encourage new ideas and to fine tune production processes into the future legacy of watchmaking.

Taking aesthetic and philosophical cues from great architects like Victor Horta, Eileen Gray, Robert Mallet Stevens and Dutch architects Michiel Brinkman, Leendert van der Vlugt and Willem Dudok, Holthinrichs applies their deft touch with spatial composition, materials and craftsmanship to create the Holthinrichs Ornament 1 watch.

“The idea to use the technology for its opportunities to create new shapes, instead of material savings and decreasing production costs…” – Michiel Holthinrichs on why he chose 3D printing for his first watch

Introducing the Holthinrichs Ornament 1 watch: World’s first 3D printed Watch

Named “Ornament”, an allusion to beautiful ornaments on a building much in the same vein as a watch serving as an ornament on your wrist, Michiel Holthinrichs takes time out to elaborate on how the Holthinrichs Ornament 1 came into being from the loins of a 3D printer:

 

Holthinrichs: I would like to elaborate a little about the 3D printed parts of the model I have just launched, and why I choose for the technology.

The case, crown and buckle are 3D printed in stainless steel 316L. The development of the case took two years and during the process I closely collaborated with Europe’s leading 3D printing company Materialise and a precision engineering company.

It is important to emphasise that the idea to use 3D printing technology is to capitalise on opportunities to create new shapes, instead of material savings and decreasing production costs. You will find that although the overall design of the Holthinrichs Ornament 1 is classic, attention to the details will reveal new shapes which we were never before able to produce.

An unfinished 3D printed Ornament 1 case

3D printing the Case of Holthinrichs Ornament 1

The case is made out of only two pieces: case body and case back. It is skeletonised and decorated with unique and customisable 3D inscriptions; therefore it is very light, appealing to the eye, and if a client wishes, very personal.

The fact that it contains of only two parts gave the opportunity to make it relatively thin, as omitted fittings take away the need for extra joints and gaskets which add to thickness.

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All exterior faces are hand finished and hand polished to create a smooth overall appearance, while all internal surfaces contrastingly show the 3D printing process, emphasising the story of the production, the actual state of the art, and the handicraft used to finish the watch.

Michiel Holthinrichs Responds

To simplify (a lot) the two articles, I would say the Bloomberg tries to extrapolate the state of 3D printing and how the technology is growing within the watchmaking industry. At the moment, 3D printing is widely used by watch companies to produce prototypes, and attempts made by other companies in other branches may push the technology toward the application of it in the watch industry, further than only prototyping.

More work is actually required to finish a 3D printed watch than it is to finish a traditionally CNC milled case.

However it also shows the current state of the technology, as it is still mostly used for prototyping and maybe not yet capable of producing better products than a (rather large) plastic tourbillon which only runs for half an hour (and probably not so accurate either).

Deployant’s article is quick to point out that Bloomberg is entirely wrong about watchmaking industry as an old and conservative industry. I strongly agree. The factories of high end watch houses are stuffed with very specialised state-of-the-art micromechanics equipment, so if 3D printing was something usable for finished products, it would have been used already.

Comparing 3D printing and traditional methods of watchmaking

What I notice in all articles and all discussions about 3D printing and the possible application of it within the watch industry, is that it is almost solely focussed on the comparison between the 3D print result and the traditional machined products. To quote the highly praised Max Busser in your article: “Will 3D print enter production? Pretty sure it will at some point. As long as the quality is as good or better than traditional machining everyone will agree that there is no reason it should not.”

The thing is, if we compare the different end results in this sense 3D printing would never find an application in quality watchmaking within the upcoming 10, 20 years, or maybe never, as it is indeed powder micro welded into a solid piece, and therefore it will always have coarse surfaces. The laser and the powder might become smaller and smaller, and thus the surfaces finer, but watch gear teeth engage within the precision of one thousandth of a millimetre. That kind of precision we cannot dream about yet in 3D printing.

Therefore watchmakers willing to try the technology are mainly focussing on the case, having a precision of one hundredth of a millimetre, it is already much easier to approach (3D metal sintering has a laser point approximately between 30-80 microns, depending of the machine). Still most attempts are just products made to approach the traditional tooled examples.

Since I started designing the Holthinrichs Ornament 1, 3 major examples entered the market with 3D printed cases: RVNDSGN, with a design comparable to so called “trench watches”; Hoptroff, with a design almost similar to a case which they made using traditional methods; Cookson Gold, a 3D printing company focussing on gold savings. Please note that these examples already went through extensive post-processing before they were photographed, and already because of that they are expensive to make.  Here are my thoughts:

 

1. The artistic view

I think the above text and images already show that in my opinion one should not try to use 3D printing to realise products that we are can already make to perfection. I believe we should use 3D printing for its new production abilities, allowing for totally new designs rather than to try re-creating what exists. There is no shame in case designs, as a watch is mainly an accessory to most nowadays. An “ornament” as I would like to call it, referring to the architectural term.

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Furthermore these examples show that the process of high-end 3D printing has little to nothing to do with reducing production costs in regards to this specific purpose. The machines by which they are made are expensive, and the hours needed to (manually) finish them are substantially pushing the price up.   For example, to produce the watchcases of the Ornament 1, it costs at least about 3 times more than a traditional high-quality case costs, that is excluding the hours of filing and hand polishing I treat them with. However, in my opinion the artistic opportunities fully justify this aspect.

I know some people might disagree here, but are high-end watches not all about beauty and unnecessarily high production costs and price tags? One could also buy a 10$ quartz watch…

3D Printed Watches are NOT going to be Cheap. Here’s Why

I have to explain: Derived from my architectural background, my watch is called the Ornament 1 for the artistic values of the architectural ornament. Ornamentation is the small details in which the architect can show his ability for good design, technical skills, craftsmanship, and his artistic or symbolic expression. It is the perfect blend between design and technology, but because of the first aspect, it is also a matter of taste. In my opinion everything here is extremely applicable for watches.

The Aluminum Gradient chair is part of the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Australia and Vitra design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany.

A reference to a Dutch artist who uses the artistic structural chances of 3D printing for the creation of high-end furniture is Joris Laarman. His work show 3D printing might not be the ‘best way’ to produce a chair, but his work is highly praised.   His “Aluminium chair” is 3D printed and hand polished: One chair would cost around 250.000 dollars.

The Soft Gradient Chair, part of the Microstructures Series.

A second reference to Iris van Herpen, who revolutionised haute couture using 3D printing for the creation of new forms and shapes:

Insane levels of detail result from 3D printed haute couture.

2. Personalisation.

Next to avenues for new design, 3D printing offers a great opportunity for personalisation. Using a high-end 3D printer one could only make few watches at the time in one machine, as the printing chamber is very limited. This does not make the process faster than standard production, but the opportunity lies in the fact that every watch produced at the same time can be different from the other. This means differentiation is possible already at the start of the production process. A watch could therefore be expressively made for a client, how more personalised can it be. The outcome could be more or less customised according to the amount of parameters in the model. More parameters would require a more complex model, and therefore taking more time to develop, logically rising the price of the watch.

“A personalized watch — a certain type of watch for one single person — would certainly be added value, and people would buy it for that, so the price could go up.” – Yves Bellouard of Richemond in Bloombergs article

However directly after that he stated: “Simplified manufacturing by reducing the number of components could also make it cheaper in certain aspects.” This only counts for really high-end, or haute horlogerie pieces which are not so easily mass produced I would say.

English designer Ron Arad, who developed 3D printed glasses customisable to the size of your head. How much would you pay for something absolutely bespoken for you?

Is 3D printing devoid of craftsmanship? Holthinrichs counters

In Bloomberg’s article, Romain Jerome Chief Executive Officer Manuel Emch said: “It may take time before watchmakers print an entire watch. The equipment and materials can be pricey, and completely printed timepieces could hit resistance from customers who prefer handmade craftsmanship and quality. There’s still a high barrier to integrate the elements of rapid manufacturing and prototyping into the world of hand-made craftsmanship.”

Read also:   In conversation with Wilhelm Schmid, CEO A. Lange & Söhne

I would call 3D printing a “new craft in watchmaking”:  understanding the techniques, working with new conditions of manufacturing requires new skills, but to become a watch it has to be mingled with the existing traditions and techniques. Furthermore at this time it takes more craftsmanship to finish the watches than their “traditional counterparts” require (as they are mostly mass produced using high end technologies and machining tools).

All higher end watches are partly, or some even fully, made by automated processes, while it takes a man’s handicraft to finish the printed products: manually cutting them off their supports (used to conduct power and heat from the product to the baseplate of the printer). Then the products are sandblasted and going into a post-processing phase, in which the parts are manually aligned into CNC machined in order to ensure their correct machining positions (The printed parts have a coarse surface and therefore cannot be aligned automatically for precision tooling). This process alone takes more time and money than most traditionally machined watch cases require.

What I would like to point out here is to put things into perspective. Where most people associate 3D printing with cheap and impersonal computer-work – pushing a button and it’s printed – it might even take much more effort to produce through 3D printing if you would want to make a finished end-user-product, then needed using traditional machining tools. The amount of time spent in computer modelling already exists in the “traditional” processes, to make sure machines can produce the parts (even for high-end watches). So where’s the craftsmanship there? Do you consider a Panerai poorly made or un-authentic because it uses computer-aided manufacturing processes? I think not.

About the quality of 3D printing:

Kari Voutilainen said in your article: “3D printing is used for prototyping, but for production it is not good at all. Once you print metal, material is made from powder, great, but final result is full of holes, once you polish it, it looks very poor. But it is good for prototyping. It is much cheaper comparing traditional prototyping where we machine with production tools real piece, it takes much more time and it is more costly. With gold it is the same, 3d printing looks like real piece, but it has plenty of holes and polishing and finishing is impossible, at least on high level..”

Kari is right about the process; however I hope to have managed to explain that 3D printing is certainly not always faster or cheaper than traditional methods, certainly not if the aim is to make a finished end-user product. Next to prototyping it offers a lot of new chances. We should stop convulsively comparing 3D printed imitations of traditional products with the original and think a little bit more out of the box.

Next to that, I must emphasise that a part of the development of my watches consisted of testing to ensure the quality of the material, in this case 316L is homogenous and also at its correct strength. By post-processing and hand-finishing a small amount of the exterior surface is removed, and therefore it is possible to realise a smooth surface if you like.

I hope this essay explains my take on 3D printing. I do not think that my watch is the pinnacle nor perfect outcome of what 3D printed watches should be. Rather, I see it as a personal search, or adventure, into the possibilities for the technology in watch design, and I only hope it could mean something constructive for the further research, that it could show people the opportunities for new development (and design!) in the future.

Kind regards,
Michiel Holthinrichs

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