Revolutionizing Luxury Watchmaking: An Exclusive Interview with 9T Labs

31 October 2023
ProPilot Altimeter

Interview with 9T Labs by Danny Weller

The renowned watchmaking company, Oris, has recently announced its new ProPilot Altimeter wristwatch, featuring cutting-edge cases manufactured using 9T Labs’ Red Series Additive Fusion Technology (AFT™).

With a focus on sustainability and high performance, 9T Labs, a company founded in 2018 with headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, along with an office in Boston, has harnessed advanced thermoplastics like PEKK and PEEK, reinforced with up to 60% continuous carbon, glass, or basalt fibers. Oris has specifically chosen a PEKK-based composite for the ProPilot Altimeter watch case due to its remarkable mechanical strength, high density, and aesthetics

To shed more light on this innovative project, Yannick Willemin, Director of Business Development at 9T Labs, provided insights into the technology, processes, and challenges encountered.

9T Labs: Carbon Composites
Image: 9T Labs

What are the main obstacles you had to overcome in making this watch case and what strategies did you employ to ensure success?

 

I would say the biggest challenge is that normally we are predominantly in the industrial field where it’s all about high mechanical performance. So it’s about aerospace, automotive, sports, et cetera. There is a lot of emphasis on the performance of the parts, but less on aesthetics. However, in this world of luxury timepieces, aesthetics is essential. Of course, mechanical performance is also necessary to guarantee the watch’s integrity over the entire lifetime.  After all, they are also sold at a high price tag. Therefore, I would say that our biggest challenge was to combine high performance with aesthetics.

 

When it came to solving this problem, we are lucky to be based in Switzerland as this is where the customers are, which facilitates human-to-human contact. So they come into our offices and we together can work on the computer, on the machine and create a clear vision of how this watch will come out. At the end of the day, they don’t know the technology, and we don’t know how they want it to look. The best way to move forward was to be agile and interactive on-site.

yannick willemincrop shrink
Image: Composites World

What were the technological obstacles you faced? 

 

Technologically, it’s the first time we produced serial parts, meaning we produced more than a few thousand parts. As a young company, when you produce a few thousand parts for the first time, there are a lot of challenges in terms of organizing the production and all related activities, for example, quality processes and logistics. We did the ISO 9001 certification in parallel because it goes hand in hand. It’s really about identifying the weak points and bottlenecks in the organization; how to run a production day in, and day out; how to be consistent in product quality, and also understanding the machine’s weaknesses. So that was the biggest challenge: optimizing the organization in parallel to delivering a product for this customer. 

We have learned that transparency is the best path in cases like this. We had an external partner for our machining and post-machining processes, as well as our final customer. Having transparent communication is essential in these stages as well as planning the production accordingly. We also learned more about the market we were addressing when it comes to the go-to-market strategy. This is essential to properly allocate our resources.

What are the benefits of carbon composite watchcases over more traditional materials, both in production and for customers?

 

First of all, why do luxury watch manufacturers want to use composites versus metals? It’s not about substituting them for metals as they will still be the go-to material because precious metals are a key part of the luxury industry. Composite manufacturing targets customers who want premium watches but with an element of high performance. Here, the watch brands are looking to offer materials commonly used in motorsports and aerospace, but on the wrist of their customers. This is the case with these new pro-pilot watches on the market. It’s about bringing the lightweight composite materials from the plane into or onto your watch to make this bridge between the aerospace field and what you are wearing day in and day out. 

Choosing composites also has an aesthetic factor. They have a certain fibrous structure, giving it a wooden appearance for example, depending on how you orientate the fibers. In creating this watch case with Oris, we used PEKK combined with a specific fiber deposition, to give it that wooden feel, to link back to the Coulson aerial firefighters, whom this watch case series was commissioned in recognition of.

How does your approach of “additive manufacturing and molding” differ from those of conventional 3D printing?

 

Conventional 3D printing is generally limited in the maximum fiber volume content and therefore in the mechanical properties of the parts over their lifetime. It is also a challenge to have part quality consistency over a high production volume.

Therefore, I would rather compare versus conventional composite manufacturing. Our technology has certain advantages over the traditional way of doing composites. Because composite watches have existed for quite a while. But these watches are being milled out of a block. So, even though sustainability is not the highest priority topic in the supply chain for luxury, there is still a lot of waste to get to the final part. Our technology is much more material efficient.

Furthermore, you cannot orientate the fibers with these traditional methods. This means those blocks have straight fibers oriented in different ways, but always linear. And when you cut them, you have a few millimeters of continuous fibers. 

What we do, we can go around the watch case, so we can do circular deposition. Then you can see the circularity visually on your watch, which is unique in this case and is also attractive for our customers. This uniqueness is a key element in the luxury manufacturing industry. 

9TLAB HYPE Mago.
Image 9T Labs

What would you say sets your Red Series Additive Fusion Technology (AFT™) apart from the competition?

 

Our competition is manyfold.  Firstly, our primary rivals are metal part manufacturers, as they are who we frequently contend with when bidding for customer projects. AFT™ offers many key advantages in this context: the potential for over 50% weight reduction compared to metals, enhanced design flexibility and performance improvements, scalability and sustainability through digital prototyping, near-zero waste, and best cost for performance ratio in comparison to metal alternatives.

In certain specific applications, we find ourselves in competition with traditional composites manufacturers. AFT™ holds the following advantages: greater design freedom and performance enhancements due to precise continuous fiber deposition, scalability through automation and traceability via software integration, sustainability-driven by digital prototyping, near-zero waste through additive manufacturing, and the use of recyclable thermoplastic polymers as opposed to thermosets. Additionally, cost competitiveness is achieved by placing continuous fibers only where necessary, maintaining performance with a lower fiber volume ratio.

We do not consider traditional 3D printing companies as competitors, as their part performances currently fall significantly short of being a viable alternative for producing serial structural components, at least in the present context.

9T Labs One pagers images png bicycle
Image 9T Labs

What are the most common applications of AFT™ in your other enterprises? 

 

Very broad. For example the cycling market with components. Bike components are highly loaded in terms of forces and this is where they can benefit from the strengths of our technology. Here, we are looking at applications like saddles, crank arms, and suspension rocker links. AFT is great at creating complex shapes. So it’s not just printing we can do with our technology. As we use the additional Fusion process, we can print complex preforms, reshape them, and even co-consolidate them with other parts. 

We are also looking into the premium automotive industry, manufacturing spoiler legs, structural parts, door hinges, and so on. In the aerospace field, we are looking at aircraft interior parts such as brackets, and seat structures. These parts will take a few years to go into a plane for obvious regulatory reasons but it is a very attractive market long-term. Other potential markets are exoskeletons, power tools, robots, etc.

Startiger
Image: European Space Agency

You recently announced the completion of your latest aerospace project: the ESA StarTiger, achieved in only six months!  What were the biggest challenges you faced and what were the most important factors that contributed to your success

 

Usually, the main challenge for startups to do funded projects is it takes a tremendous amount of administrative work and it takes two to three years with a consortium to get to a result. This is a huge amount of time for a startup. So usually there are quite some discrepancies in expectations among the consortium. So to tackle this challenge, the European Space Agency (ESA) deployed a new format, namely the ESA StarTiger: it is limited to six months with a maximum of five companies in the consortium. In addition, companies need to put one full-time employee during the six months in the same location. It’s challenging for a company like ours to put one employee full-time for six months outside of our premises. But the reward is way bigger than the challenge, I would say, in this case. 

During those six months, we had one employee at the Airbus site in Toulouse, and all of the remaining four companies did the same. So for six months, although as you say it’s a short amount of time, with six people full-time on one project, it constitutes a lot of work hours. So it’s kind of a startup mode. They are focused on one topic and then they can reach a lot of things within six months. 

There, we were focusing on a scenario of in-space manufacturing. For example, on Earth, if a material spool in a machine needs to be replaced, this is an easy thing to do. But in Space, no operator can quickly bring a new spool. So we had to robotize the entire workflow for in-space manufacturing. This is valid for every part taken out of the printer, their assembly, and so on. It’s a lot about robotics.

Are there any additive manufacturing 3D printing trends that you’ve seen that you’re excited about going into the future? 

 

There are many exciting trends in this field. One particularly interesting one, in my opinion, is the hidden part of the iceberg, namely the entire software behind it. This is essential in the design phase and is becoming a more fundamental part of the entire manufacturing process.  

Actually, when pushing for the implementation of innovative technologies, particularly additive manufacturing, there are two paths. Either you educate all engineers to design for additive manufacturing. This would take a few generations. Therefore, and this is very promising to speed up this process, the better path forward is to build the tools to support engineering and operations to design & manufacture the part automatically

In detail, this includes the entire chain from designing, simulating, and validating, all in this digital field. Additionally, simulating your processes through a digital twin is particularly interesting. Altogether, it is about pushing through the current boundaries on how to design and validate parts before starting with the physical parts manufacturing. 

Also, there is one blind spot in 3D printing I’d like to mention. A lot of people have the idea that it’s inherently eco-friendly or sustainable due to minimal material usage and streamlined supply chains. However, in reality, a significant portion of 3D printing is dedicated to iterative processes. You print an object, find a feature you don’t like, and reprint it. As a result, a substantial amount of printed parts can be considered waste right from the start. We believe that we must move these iterative steps into the digital field and refine designs on the screen. Once validated, we can then transition to the physical world, producing functional, performance-driven parts at scale, using significantly fewer resources.

What does the future look like for 9T Labs? 

 

The future is bright. We want to make an impact as a technology company, advancing high-performance applications sustainably at scale. This sets us apart from the conventional 3D printing domain, which often focuses on customization and personalization of individual parts. Furthermore, we believe that we can go into the bigger volumes and therefore amplify our positive impact through additive manufacturing in combination with other technologies to combine the best of different worlds. 

9T Labs remains a startup with a dual focus on soft- and hardware development. Therefore, we must convince investors of our worth, given that new technologies within established industries, such as aerospace and medical, can take several years. Consequently, we are committed to delivering on our timelines, starting with luxury, then adding sports & leisure, and subsequently moving into the premium segments of the automotive industry. This is the result of a thorough market analysis, including their time-to-market potential. 

We must prove that our technology allows the design and manufacturing of serial parts with the lowest possible usage of resources. This way, we are moving towards becoming a distinguished technology provider.

To learn more about AFT™ and 9T Labs, visit: https://www.9tlabs.com/

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