There's a place in Switzerland where nearly a million hands are waiting to be put to work.
The place is the Mondaine watch factory in Solothurn. And of course, I am talking about the number of hours, minutes and seconds hands they stock in the warehouse. I am here to find out more about the design and production of the watch I wear on my wrist every day.
First: some background knowledge on lean manufacturing processes
My tour guide, Markus Riedo, explains that the Mondaine Group had revamped their entire assembly line as part of a move to the current quarters. In traditional watchmaking, a single person would assemble a timepiece every step of the way. Mondaine has optimized this practice by introducing a mobile assembly system.
Every time a new order comes in, all the required components such as the clockwork, the digits or the watchstrap are placed on a wheeled shelf. As I would see in a minute, this shelf is then passed around among work stations until the entire batch of watches has been assembled.
"This is how we manage to keep distances short. The carts speed up the assembly process because people don’t have to move around," explains Riedo. "And in order to keep our stock to a minimum and save valuable shelf space, we manufacture just-in-time. This means that we barely stock any completed watches. Instead, we build any new order within twenty work days from scratch."
It is only 9 AM and I have already learned a lot about watchmaking. It is time to see it with my own eyes...
Our first stop on this exclusive tour is the warehouse with its rows of shelves. One would think that all the same components are stored on a particular shelf. It turns out that Mondaine has adopted another standard practice in order to be more agile.
Riedo elaborates: "We use a chaotic storage system similar to what Amazon uses in their warehouses. This means that when parts arrive from suppliers, they are stored on the closest available space on a nearby shelf. A system of bar codes helps us to keep track of our inventory and where it is stored." We have arrived in a changing room for employees, and my tour guide hands me a disposable coat and a pair of shoe covers...
We are entering the clean room with perfectly stable conditions. (It is where all the magic happens!)
The Mondaine Group not only manufactures my beloved Mondaine stop2go and the Mondaine Helvetica, but also Luminox and M-WATCH watches. Inside the clean room, employees are busy assembling up to 600’000 watches per year.
We approach one of the Mondaine work stations where a watch maker is carefully placing the tiniest of hands on a machine. Every few seconds, a robot arm reaches out to collect the hands and correctly places them on the watch face: the hour hand at the bottom, the minute hand in the middle and the iconic red second hand on the top.
Here is a watchmaker carefully sealing a batch of Mondaine wristwatches:
Another employee is setting the correct time on every single watch. Thanks to a special machine, she can significantly speed up the twisting of the crown. And at just the right moment, she slows down and matches the current time with a radio-controlled digital clock.
A random sample of watches are pulled off each cart for a stress test.
They are subjected to atmospheric pressure and submerged under water in order to ensure that they are one hundred percent airtight.
Finally, I am fascinated by the fact that each watch is placed in a holding room for 48 to 72 hours for a final quality check. Despite all the efficiency built into the assembly, there is no conceivable way of speeding up actual time, after all...
And in case you are wondering how the million of second hands are stored, here is how:
Thank you for letting me peek inside your watch factory, Mondaine!
(This story was made possible in collaboration with Mondaine Watches. They have kindly arranged the factory tour in Biberist.)