For some time now I have been excited by (and occasionally very animated about) the emergence of 3D printing as a game-changing technology with the potential to transform the manufacturing processes of everything from cars to, of course, watches. Well, prompted by my unbridled zeal for the subject, my friend and colleague, Peter Ellis, bought me “Makers – The New Industrial Revolution” by Chris Anderson for Christmas and it seems that I am a mere “penny spec’or” when it comes to talking up the likely impact of what Mr Anderson believes to be the first industrialisation to emerge in the digital age.
He expresses the view that for a country to remain economically vibrant it needs to make things rather than just being obsessed with focusing on service industries whilst out-sourcing the business of manufacturing to other, low-labour cost, countries. And Britain, which launched the first industrial revolution in the late 18th Century with James Hargreaves’ spinning Jenny, has arguably more need than any other developed country to start making stuff rather than just inventing, designing, financing and selling stuff. The virtual world is all well and good, Anderson argues, but it requires relatively few people to work within it and without the ability to make things we will continue to employ fewer and fewer people, which is ultimately a self-defeating economic vicious circle.
The good news it seems, is that some of the new technologies, like 3D printing, are enabling the democratisation of manufacturing through what he calls the “Maker Movement”, whereby the designer/inventor/entrepreneur, as well as creating a product can make that product without the need for huge investment in prohibitively expensive tooling and machinery. You just load your CAD drawing up to a 3D printer or sequence of printers which you might either own, rent or share, and suddenly you are making stuff that previously had to go to China to gain access to economies of scale and economic pricing or, if you are a watchmaker, Switzerland, for the necessary skills and infrastructure required to build a commercially viable movement.
Stereolithograph of the C11 MSL Chronograph
Of course, this so-called “third industrial revolution” is in its very early stages and much will have to happen for any of Anderson’s projections to transpire (and it may even be a load of baloney that vanishes in the click of a mouse) – but here’s the thing. At Christopher Ward we are already using 3D printing (it’s called Stereolithography) to produce the first moulded visual sample of every watch we design – so how big a leap is it really and how long will it take before we start printing out stainless steel cases (believe it or not, metal 3D printing is now possible) and bracelets and before we start designing and printing the components that will be assembled into our own movements, assembled by our very own watchmakers?
The finished item – C11 MSL MK1 Chronograph -CHR-SKK
It may well all be fanciful nonsense. At least that is what some of the more traditional manufacturing sectors (and there aren’t many more traditional than watchmaking) will want to believe and want others to believe. However, for those of us more inclined towards the lightweight versatile cotton clothing made possible by the spinning Jenny rather than the heavyweight and stiff woollen garments from the pre-industrial agrarian age, this might just be the beginning of the most exciting economic miracle the world has ever known; the coming together of digital bits and real-world atoms that leads eventually to the democratisation of manufacturing and, for Christopher Ward, a brand that is dedicated to democratising luxury, that’s a very exciting prospect!
Happy New Year –and thanks Peter, that was a great present!
Co-founder of Christopher Ward