EXCLUSIVE: An inside view of the ETA high-tech Swatch Sistem51 production in Boncourt in the Swiss Jura

Swatch Sistem51

Yesterday I had the opportunity to see the newest high-tech ETA plant that produces the Swatch Sistem51. Click on “read more” to get my exclusive story…

Not many individuals outside the Swatch Group´s ETA have seen the brand new manufacturing site in Boncourt in the Swiss Jura close to the French border. It was a real privilege to be among the very first to visit this ultra-modern ETA factory.

Who is ETA?

ETA SA Manufacture Horlogère Suisse is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of watches and movements. Backed by more than two centuries of specialist knowledge, ETA supplies watchmakers all around the globe. All ETA mechanical and quartz movements are designed and built to the highest standards to deliver precision, reliability and performance. Among its many other achievements, ETA is noted for its historic role in the development of the Swatch watch, the enormously successful timepiece produced by ETA and first launched in November 1982. Of particular interest today are the ETA competence centres, which supply ETA business units and third parties with specialist expertise in production technology and processes. From research and development right through to ETA worldwide service, utmost care is taken with every quartz or mechanical movement to ensure outstanding quality.

When the idea was born to develop and manufacture a Swatch powered by a mechanical calibre consisting of only 51 parts the best engineers of the entire Swatch Group teamed up to get the job done.

More than 200 persons, mainly recruited from ETA and Nivarox FAR, the leading Swiss specialist in the production of oscillating and escapement parts also belonging to the Swatch Group, were involved to first develop the calibre from scratch and then to plan the fully automated production of a mechanical calibre for the Swatch Sistem51 also from scratch.

Fully automated? Yes!

Computer-aided manufacturing takes over the classical work of the watchmaker and the assistant watchmaker workforce. ETA and Nivarox FAR doyens, gurus and nerds (did I forget someone? 🙂 ) designed an impressive high-tech-production facility. The brainpower applied by everyone involved in the project is gigantic! ETA in Boncourt is a Swiss computer-aided, micro-mechanic wonderland, something I had not seen before.

In the world of traditional Swiss watchmaking this is a paradigm shift!

 

The fully automated Swatch Sistem51 assembly chain at the new ETA plant in Boncourt
The fully automated Swatch Sistem51 assembly chain at the new ETA plant in Boncourt

 

But it is not what you might think at this point:

The target was not to eliminate the human being and to simply replace us by machines, the target was to establish a never-seen-before- production-chain that makes it possible to manufacture a highly reliable 100 % Swiss made mechanical calibre with a self-winding mechanism for almost no money.

No questions, this was the only approach possible.

If you involve watchmakers in the process you would have never achieved a price of 150 Swiss Francs for a complete Swatch Sistem51 wristwatch. The enormous investments of Swatch Group guarantee a unique quality. The investment itself will pay off. The actual manufacturing capacity is set to build one million Swatch Sistem51 per year.

Today every of the 51 components of the Sistem51-caibre are manufactured in Boncourt. On the ground level you find two parallel working, from scratch developed, CNC machines that are able to manufacture the main plate of the calibre in 12 minutes net production time. No additional operation is necessary afterwards. The calibre main plate is even de-oiled and washed. Production tolerances are below one micron. Also on the ground floor huge CNC-type automatic lathe, that work 24-hours a day, manufacture all kind of components for the Sistem51. Production tolerances are below one micron. Whatever component of the calibre has to be manufactured it is done in a time optimised and quality guaranteeing way. A zero-tolerance-policy is necessary; this is the only way how machines can later assemble a complex automatic, mechanical calibre from A to Z.

In a fully automated process the ready main plates are now fitted with the necessary 19 jewels. The five principle modules of the calibre Sistem51 are pre-assembled: the plate with the wheel-train / the hand fitting and date module / the mechanical module / the escapement module / the automatic device module and the oscillating weight.

 

The five modules of the Swatch Sistem51 calibre
The five modules of the Swatch Sistem51 calibre

 

The most fascinating is the escapement module. The high-tech-escapement has no index-assembly and it is accurate to +/- 7 seconds a day. Nivarox FAR delivers 100 % matching balance wheels and spirals made out of traditional materials. The anchor and the anchor wheel are made out of a very hard synthetic material that needs no lubrication. All Sistem51 escapements are controlled by laser-technology, the only fully automated interventions possible are either to drill small holes in the balance wheel or to readjust the length of the spiral.

 

The Swatch Sistem51 escapement module
The Swatch Sistem51 escapement module
The Swatch Sistem51 anchor and anchor wheel
The Swatch Sistem51 anchor and anchor wheel

 

This has to be mentioned here: Nothing is screwed all the components are welded. Only one screw will be used…

So far so good… now comes the real delicate part… The five modules have to marry…

Again no human being intervenes in the production.

The heart of the Sistem51 production is a ca. 20 meter long manufacturing chain where the components marry to finally become a functioning calibre. Step by step the calibre plates move from one station to the other and robots assemble and weld the calibre. After the escapement module is inserted and correctly adjusted at its place with a tricky to program and control process the barrel in wound and the Sistem51 calibre begins to tick. The only module that is not yet mounted is the oscillating weight.

When you turn a Sistem51 around you will have noticed that the calibre is coloured. This is done with an ultra precise colour-printer. This printer also decorates the oscillating weight.

Now the calibre is married with its case. The cases are not manufactured in Boncourt they are produced in Bettlach, where Swatch does the plastic injection moulding. Typically for Swatch the calibre Sistem51 is fitted from above into the case since a Swatch case has no regular case back. The to the colour of the movement and case matching dial is placed and fixed by simple pressure. The three hands, seconds, minutes and hours, are set by a robot. The same machine controls with the help of a camera if they have been set accurately and if the date changes properly at midnight. Again: There is no human being intervening. Thereafter the watch glass is clued into the case and the bezel on the glass.

The case is turned around and now comes the moment when the only screw of the calibre Sistem51 is used. The oscillating weight is fixed with a central screw with a exactly defined inertia on the automatic device module.

 

The only screw of the Swatch calibre Sistem51 is used to fix the oscillating weight on the automatic device module.
The only screw of the Swatch calibre Sistem51 is used to fix the oscillating weight on the automatic device module.

 

The last thing that is done on the fully automated production chain is to clue the case back glass into the plastic case.

Done? Almost!

Before the completely assembled Sistem51 case with its calibre is being prepared for the mounting of the bracelet each watch is tested to be waterproof up to 30 meters. Only when this final test is positive a cascade of events ends leading to a Swatch Sistem51.

How long does it take? Net assembly time is around one hour…

All the steps of the production work together so smoothly that it seems to be a big miracle, but of course we all know that there are no miracles…

In Boncourt Swatch Group has deployed a paradigm shift in Swiss traditional watchmaking.

Computers, manufacturing chains and hundreds of small robots do the repetitive and monotone work for us. We human beings control them, we have taught them exactly what to do. To see this is at least as fascinating as to see a Blancpain or Breguet master watchmaker assemble a grand complication calibre consisting of 800 tiny parts in the Vallée de Joux.

 

The fully automated Swatch Sistem51 assembly chain at the new ETA plant in Boncourt
The fully automated Swatch Sistem51 assembly chain at the new ETA plant in Boncourt

 

The production site of the Swatch Sistem51 in Boncourt is impressing and the brainpower behind unbelievable.

But I have the utmost respect for the courage of the leaders of the Swatch Group, and here predominantly CEO Nick Hayek, to make this happen.

 

Swatch Group CEO Nick Hayek 2013 at Baselworld when he presented the Swatch Sistem51.
Swatch Group CEO Nick Hayek 2013 @ Baselworld when he proudly presented the Swatch Sistem51.

 

No risk was too big, no financial burden too high and no task too vast to accomplish the mission: Manufacturing a mechanical, self-winding calibre with 51 components for Swatch.

Exactly the same amount of components used to manufacture the very first Swatch in 1982.

This is nothing cheap or banal, this is the high-brain, high-tech way of steering Swatch into a bright and eventful future.

Once Swatch saved the Swiss Watch Industry, today Swatch with Sistem51 again sets a milestone.

Now a real classy mechanical Swiss made wristwatch is available for little money. There is no logical reason to buy a quartz watch instead, when you can buy such a high-tech watch for 150 Swiss Francs.

 

 

>>> Discover the four models and some more technical insights of the Swatch Sistem51 on the following pages >>>

 

 

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9 Comments

  • Dear Alex…. as an avid reader of your page, I want to comment something regarding the wonderful product that is assembled in that high-tech factory. I have two (black and blue) and have been amazed by their sheer quality and performance…but…..I want to share with you (and Mr. Hayek, whom I know has you in high regard), that my sister in law’s husband Sistem51 just quit working of course without hitting it or any abuse of any kind…., we give it manual winding and wrist winding such as I do with mine ( or any other automatic watch), but does not work…I am in shock that a Sistem51 has a failure he is from spain, bought it in Madrid but it is staying here with us in Mexico for the holidays..What can we do? can we go to swatch store here in Mexico to make the warranty effective even though the watch was not bought here??..please help us solve this out of the ordinary problem…happy holidays.

  • I do like the Swatch 51 technical innovation, and I occasionally wear mine. I am quite happy with it, but the quality/price for a mechanical watch is not that unique. For a similar price you can buy from Japan automatic Seiko 5 series or Orients, watches that have only the typical 40 hour power reserve, but that can be regulated, repaired (not possible witht he Sistem 51 – its biggest disadvantage), and have metal cases.
    Still, I am eager to see Sistem 51 appearing in Irony cases !

  • Wow, thank you so much for the in depth view behind the Sistem 51 production. Seeing the pictures of the factory I can see why it took a good while to get the line up and running and why we had to wait after the announcement to get our hot ;little hands on one. If I don’t miss my guess, it looks like it is a clean room environment which adds considerably the the complexity of building the factory.

    Anyway, the Sistem 51 was well worth the wait. I can only speak for mine, but the on wrist wearing accuracy is far better than what is claimed in my experience.

    I just turned (shiver) 60 and have no problem wearing this plastic watch or any of the other colorful Swatch watches in my collection. It is fun just to kick back & relax and what better to do that than sporting a Swatch. I suppose I’m still young at heart.

  • Hi Alex,
    Great feature, fantastic technology and have waited a while for the systim 51 to come to Ireland. Got my local swatch shop to ring when they arrived, and when they did was very excited going to see this watch and when got there was disappointed as could not see myself wearing this watch as am a middle aged man and they are plastic and thought it difficult to read the face of watch with the dots and lines on the face of the watches. I know they are basically giving the watch away. But cannot see the middle ages wearing plastic watches. Will now wait till they bring out another face with no dots and lines.

  • Your enthusiasm is loudly written! I take it you had a great time too.
    As you carefully point out this is an immense engineering achievement at every level.
    When we talked at the airshow I wondered if the forklifts on the loading dock are robots too? So are they?
    The sistem 51 a great watch for the price and it keeps time too.. much better than spec..

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