By Aaron Recksiek, CW21
For those of us watchmakers and clockmakers who have been salivating at the idea of being able to 3D print our own obsolete replacement parts, the 3D printing and horological worlds took a huge leap forward towards that ideal with the unveiling of Christoph Laimer’s Tourbillon watch. It’s a fully functional, complete tourbillon watch with all the components (except for some steel screws, pins, and washers) made of 3D-printed plastics: polylactic acid (PLA) or polyethylene terephthalate (PETG). That’s right, the hairspring, escapement, and mainspring are all made of common 3D-printed materials and a Ultimaker 2 printer that can be obtained for around $2,500.
Employing an incredibly unique design, the watch layout is mostly vertical, which makes it almost as thick as it is wide—98mm in diameter by 93mm thick. Instead of wheels and pinions attached to arbors with pivots rotating within jewels or bushings, the pinions and wheels rotate independently on steel pins that are fixed to the framework of the movement. This overcomes a common problem that has manifested itself and become troublesome in the past: How do you provide enough power to the escapement and balance while dealing with a material like plastic with a relatively low strength level? If you use the traditional method, the wheels and pinions need to be larger for added strength, making them heavier. This requires more power from the mainspring, and it becomes too powerful for the plastic to be a viable material. This also solves a spacing issue by allowing several wheels to be co-axial (sharing the same axis). For example, the escape wheel, balance, and another movement wheel share the same steel pin axis. The time is displayed around the outside of the dial with a triangle indicating the minutes and a circle indicating the hours.
Christoph Laimer is not a watchmaker (well, not in the traditional sense of the word, although some might argue for that title now). He is a Swiss engineer with a background in electrical engineering and computer science. The Tourbillon watch is his second horological passion project since taking some time away from his regular profession. In 2014, Laimer produced a wall clock also with a recoil anchor escapement, hairspring, and balance wheel. Instead of being hand wound with a mainspring, it is driven by a 1.2kg weight.
According to most standards the horological community is used to, the Laimer Tourbillon is by no means a precision instrument. I don’t need to tell you that by having a plastic hairspring the timekeeping will be marginal at best. The plastic mainspring will leave you with around 30 minutes of inconsistent power reserve. However, this watch still represents a significant feat in the ability to take an emerging modern technology and combine it with 200+-year-old traditions. With the technological improvements to 3D printers capable of printing in steel, brass, and other metals, 3D-printed parts that are traditionally recognized in the clock and watch industries seem to be just around the corner. The continued experimentation and refinement of this technology and processes would not be possible without pioneers like Laimer.
All of Laimer’s projects are open source, and the plans are free and available to download to produce a Tourbillon at home with your own 3D printer. They can be viewed on www.thingiverse.com/thing:1249221. If you don’t have your own 3D printer but would love one of his Tourbillon watches, he is currently taking customized pre-orders on his website www.laimer.ch/. The price is available only upon request.
Aaron Recksiek is an independent watchmaker in Salt Lake City, Utah. He was a graduate of the 2008 WOSTEP class at the Lititz Watch Technicum.