Business School Students Research American Manufacturing for Watches
“The Two-Week Experts”
By Elizabeth Graves
A group of MBA students at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business were tasked with researching the possibilities for manufacturing watches, or watch components, in the United States. Since Detroit’s Shinola is not far from the Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor, Michigan, they had some involvement in the project. In the report below, one student reveals the findings of her team.
The term “fire hose” has been used by students at Ross to describe the onslaught of intense experiences—trips, guest lectures, case competitions—students may encounter during our MBA program. Our first fire hose experience was the limited amount of time my team had to complete a case competition dealing with the watchmaking industry.
The objective of the case competition was to develop a strategy to bring more manufacturing back to the United States, specifically in the watchmaking industry. This competition required participants to identify a component of a watch that was best suited to meet this objective. As we sat through a day of presentations, all the teams seemed to come to the same conclusion: Let’s try to source the metal cases. Leather and cloth for watch straps seemed to be already sourced in the United States. Movements seemed to be a profitable secret the Swiss would never be willing to share. So watch cases were the most obvious choice.
Our Google search led us to a group of watchmaking experts, the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute. For the next 30 minutes, the Executive Director, Jordan Ficklin, answered every watch-sourcing question we could think of. By the end of the conversation we were well on our way to becoming experts.
Our perspective on the watch industry is that it is steeped in tradition, which leads to cautious evolution, and this instinct is well founded and necessary. It’s a source of pride and the glue that binds a community of makers and wearers.
In that vein, the craftsmanship of the curious has been the key to moving the industry forward. From the adventurers who wanted clocks to cross the high seas, deep ocean, or outer space to those who experimented with quartz and solar panels, the watch industry, like time itself, is always moving forward. In that same spirit, we think the solution to sourcing cases in America is additive manufacturing technology (also known as 3D printing).
From our perspective, there are two types of additive manufacturing—the everyman printers and the printers that cost $500,000. They are truly worlds apart. We feel the top-of-the-line printing technology best suited to this cause is Binder Jetting. Binder Jetting is superior in both speed and versatility. Whereas regular additive printers print single layers at a time, Binder Jetting prints multiple layers at a time. You can think of it as a laser-jet printer laying down multiple drops of ink per swipe across a piece of paper. Where regular 3D printing is done in plastic, with Binder Jetting you can choose between plastic, glass, metal, and wax. After printing you then “bake” the layers in place for added stability. Many Binder Jetting projects are even produced like a shell, baked and then gone back and “filled” with a different material to suit its specific purpose (weight, durability, etc.) Unlike the everyman printer, this is not something that melts in the sun or cannot withstand pressure. This is a technology that is employed to make aircraft parts and fracking equipment. Binder Jetting shares the ability to create complex designs and can be finished in practically any material you can dream up.
The company best suited to the challenge for this case competition is called Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing (rp+m) in Avon Lake, Ohio. We were very impressed with its CEO and founder, Matt Hlavin, who was not only kind enough to lend samples of Binder Jetting (to show off to the judges), but also impressed us with the fact that he is one of the leading experts in the field and has worked extensively with the equipment manufacturer to pioneer new materials that can be used to print. The big downside: during the course of our two weeks we did not get the chance to actually print a watch case and so we cannot say beyond a theoretically educated guess what these cases would turn out to look like.*
The big benefit we see as far as watchmaking is the ability for this technology to be so versatile, and once the process is refined 5 to 10 years down the road, 3D printing will absolutely be capable of making new watch movements for both a specialized watch and an old watch whose movements are relics of the past. It will be perfect for embedding your personally designed watch case with designs impossible to duplicate by conventional method(effectively making it copy-proof) or barcodes to scan with your smartphone to find information on where to take the watch for repairs or replacement.
So how did our competition go? We came in second place.
If you would like to learn more about Michigan’s part-time MBA or to follow our adventures online please check us out on Facebook and on Michigan’s website at: www.michiganross.umich.edu/programs/weekend-mba.
To learn more about the company we profiled in this article, Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing, please see their website: www.rpplusm.com/index.html.
Elizabeth Graves is a graduate student at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. When she graduates, she hopes to work with businesses that are environmentally conscious.
*Editor’s note: Vortic Watch Co., (www.vorticwatches.com) based in Loveland, Colorado, uses 3D printing to produce their All American Artisan Series cases using 316 stainless steel. The cases are finished with one of three patinas (Nickel Plated, Antique Bronze, or Medieval Pewter). The cases are also available polished and without a patina. See photos.