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Rolex: Unsung AM Icon Since 2007

Additive manufacturing (AM) has been considered an “emerging” technology for a long time. Fortunately, we have brands and companies like Lamborghini and Rolex to tell us it has, in fact, emerged. I’ll save you from my long-winded psychobabble about Lambos for another time. Right now, let’s focus on the crown of modern Swiss watchmaking – and advanced manufacturing technology. Remember: This is 100% about manufacturing technology; it just so happens that I’m also talking about wristwatches.


What Has Rolex Been Up To?

In 2007 Rolex silently made the radical move to implement additive manufacturing into its production line. Traditionally, Swiss mechanical watches are made by hand, which includes a lot of manual labor and the use of manual machine tools that are nearly a decade old or more. Rolex, on the other hand, is anything but traditional by Swiss watchmaking standards, and their production line is almost entirely automated.


What Is LiGA?

By 2010, Rolex implemented the LiGA process into its production of chronograph (stopwatch function-enabled) movements 4130 and 4161. LiGA is a micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) manufacturing technique that implements additive through a stereolithography apparatus (SLA, a form of vat photopolymerization) as the LiGA name implies. The LiGA process gets its name from the German acronym for lithography (SLA), galvanization or electroplating, and molding.


The masked SLA makes the micromolds, and the galvanization/electroplating makes the part by filling the sheet of molds with a nickel alloy (most likely German silver, which is neither a German nor a silver alloy commonly used in the watchmaking industry but just so happens to be extremely galvanization/electroplating friendly). The mold plate is then lapped, micromachined (because Swiss), and the watch wheels are removed from the mold material and ready to be put into movements.


How Is Rolex Using LiGA?

Rolex uses this process to manufacture the chronograph seconds wheel, a tiny gear with individual teeth made up of cantilevered springs yielding virtually zero backlash, reduced friction, and diminished shock, while also minimizing play between gears. The LiGA process makes this possible because it allows the gears to be formed with tuning fork-like leaf spring teeth featuring flexible mesh surfaces and supported by a rigid central spine. These contacting surfaces of the teeth flex inward to allow for shock absorption in the drivetrain (when starting and stopping the chronograph), minimizing friction and backlash. This gear could not be manufactured any other way, especially by hand. This is manufacturing on a nearly atomic level. No, this isn’t magic. Yes, this has been going on since the late 2000s.


Is It Really Mass-Produced AM?

Rolex uses this AM seconds wheel in two chronographs: the Cosmograph Daytona and the Yacht Master II. The 4130-powered Daytona – in production since 2000 – was upgraded with the AM gear in the late 2000s. Rolex publicly announced their use of LiGA for the Daytona in 2007, but I’d bet it wasn’t fully implemented until 2010, when the Yacht Master II was released to consumers. Rolex keeps production figures under wrap, but it is estimated that roughly 14,000 Daytonas are produced per year (limited by Rolex to keep resale values high, maintaining an exclusive brand image). So, in terms of the Daytona alone, that is more than 150,000 watches since the implementation of additive, which may not sound like much in terms of “mass production” figures that we are used to in the manufacturing industry, but for a luxury consumer good with a starting price of more than $10,000 (if you can find it anywhere close to retail price firsthand, considering all the dealer premiums and year-plus waitlists), this is mass production.

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