The Zenith Defy Lab Highlights Technology That Could Change Future Watchmaking
Have you gotten into a new auto lately? Have you noticed how much of it drives itself? If so, then you probably understand that a new generation of automobiles has arrived that has begun to change everything about the car as we knew it.
Well, new components have now arrived in watchmaking that have the same opportunity to change everything about the genre used in combination with silicon: compliant parts.
The successful implementation of such a component in a new concept watch by Zenith called the Defy Lab even caused TAG Heuer chairman Jack Heuer to exclaim at its live launch in September 2017, “A few years from now the old mechanical watch style will probably be forgotten to a degree.”
What is a compliant mechanism?
The Defy Lab is not the first wristwatch to successfully implement a compliant component in its mechanical movement. That honor belongs to Patek Philippe, who in March 2017 introduced its Reference 5650G Advanced Research Aquanaut Travel Time, which contains a compliant subassembly replacing the conventional time zone setting mechanism. It effectively reduced that subgroup from 37 individual components to 12 and its height from 1.45 mm to 1.24 mm. See Give Me Five! All 5 Of Patek Philippe’s Advanced Research Limited Editions for more.
Returning to my above-posed question – what is a compliant mechanism? – I can most easily answer with, “A component that relies on the elasticity of materials to replace mechanical joints.”
Since the type of compliant mechanisms in use here are single-piece structures, there is no need to assemble individual parts, further reducing the energy-robbing friction inherent in all mechanical movements.
Additionally, the compliant mechansim uses its ability to “deform” to transfer energy.
These two base elements make it a pretty perfect technology for use in a mechanical movement.
Unlike the Patek Philippe watch, which uses the compliant mechanism to replace the functional subassembly of an added complication, the Zenith Defy Lab’s movement contains a monolithic silicon whole to replace what is perhaps the heart of a mechanical movement: the oscillator – which is the subgroup that portions energy and sets the timekeeping beat.
The Defy Lab’s compliant mechanism replaces about 30 parts that require assembly, adjustment, setting, testing, and lubrication, including the balance wheel, the balance spring, screws, inertia weights, the pallet lever and pallets, and the regulation assembly as well as a variety of bearing jewels and pivots. These are now replaced by one single component only 0.5 mm in height. In contrast, those some 30 components would normally have needed approximately five millimeters’ worth of valuable space inside the watch case.
So this new technology could also make watches thinner in height should their maker choose to have them do so.
The Zenith Oscillator in Caliber ZO 342
Zenith’s Caliber ZO 342 with its compliant monolithic regulating organ made of silicon coated with a layer of silicon oxide beats at the incredibly high frequency of 15 Hz (108,000 vph).
This frequency pays tribute to Zenith’s history in high frequency, beginning with the El Primero caliber, which made its debut in 1969. This caliber, still in use today, beats at 5 Hz (36,000 vph); an unheard-of pace from 1969 all the way into the late 1990s.
The primary goal of higher frequency is more precision – but that comes as a tradeoff against wear and tear of components, something that silicon relieves to a larger degree than traditional metals.
The Defy Lab’s frequency of 15 Hz is obviously three times faster than that of the El Primero. “This is to demonstrate in 1969 that we had frequency of 5 Hz to get power reserve of 50 hours,” Guy Sémon, head of the research and development division of LVMH, Zenith’s parent company, said at the launch. “With this system we upped it by three times to get 60 hours of power reserve, a demonstration that the system is accurate and consumes less energy.”
The complex compliant mechanism described above has 20 different flexures, the thickest of which is 20 microns. The use of silicon allows insensitivity to temperature, gravity, and magnetic fields as well as no need for lubrication – the bane of the mechanical watch.
Its outside ring (frame) is equivalent to the actual balance wheel, while the three visible “spokes” equal the hairspring and also carry the balance wheel, regulation assembly, and pallets. Sémon declared that this movement achieves rate precision within one second in a 24-hour period (though, confusingly, the press kit states 0.3 second). Despite the inaccurate communication, either way it far outclasses what is needed to achieve official C.O.S.C. certification, which is -4 to +6 seconds (10 seconds) per day to be chronometer accurate.
Moreover, the new Zenith oscillator has been tested to maintain the same degree of precision for 95 percent of its 60-hour power reserve. Conventional watches tend to start decreasing in accuracy after 24 hours of the mainspring unwinding.
Additionally, thanks to its improved energy consumption, it is not affected by the all-important amplitude (maximum angle of balance oscillation) like a conventional mechanical watch; this oscillator’s amplitude is just +/- 6 degrees. In comparison, a “normal” mechanical balance amplitude should be between 180 and 315 degrees depending on the type of watch.
The regulation assembly, which Sémon refers to as the “raquetterie,” modifies the stiffness of the spokes using the variable inertia principle. “We adjust the frequency by +/- 300 s/d, equivalent to adjustment of classic hairspring active length,” he explained.
The escape wheel, which runs so quickly it is hard for the eye to follow, is not included in the compliant oscillator mechanism. Its functionality, which Sémon told me is based on a Graham escapement principle, is made of silicon “on the same wafer as the silicon oscillator.” It does generate a “tick-tock,” like a classic mechanical watch, but with much less noise due to the faster frequency.
In fact, because of this decreased noise the watch’s rate cannot be measured by a typical Witschi timing machine. So the developmental team had to build a special test bench for it at CSEM, where the silicon components are also manufactured, using laser measurement.
The new oscillator is triply certified: for chronometer certification by the Besanҫon Observatory on behalf of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures; for ISO standard 3159 (thermal behavior); and for ISO standard 765 (magnetic criteria; it withstands 88,000 Amperes/1,100 Gauss).
The Zenith Defy Lab’s case
Though the appearance of this case is very “Hublot,” meaning it wears its origin as a brainchild of LVMH watch division chairman Jean-Claude Biver and his team on its sleeve, it has its own charm in light of this timepiece being a concept watch. And this is not too surprising considering that Hublot’s head of research and development, Mathias Buttet, and CEO Ricardo Guadalupe filed its patent.
In my opinion, the futuristic quality of the case matches the purpose of this watch to showcase new technology. Were it a regular collection piece by Zenith, however, I would disagree with its inelegant design as I usually associate Zenith’s products with other characteristics. Concept watch design, however, is quite often by nature inelegant as it has a specific function to perform.
Truthfully, though, I was able to discern its Hublot origins immediately. Admittedly, this did disconcert my brand sensibilities somewhat.
The bulky case 44 mm in diameter and a sleeve-splitting 14.5 mm in height is made of the world’s lightest aluminum composite, which Zenith’s management – including new CEO Julien Tornare – has christened Aeronith.
The case is made of a hybrid material combining aluminum foam and a special polymer (plastic) using a high-tech process that involves heating 6082 aluminum to its melting point and pouring it into a mold. Now transformed into an open-pore metal foam, the spaces thus created are filled with the anti-allergenic polymer. Hublot claims the machining is as easy as that of traditional precious metals.
With a density of 1.6 kg/dm3, it is 2.7 times lighter than titanium, 1.7 times lighter than pure aluminum, and 10 percent lighter than carbon fiber.
The first 10 pieces go to collectors
Ten pieces of this concept watch were created to mark the event, each of which was pre-sold to a collector as a special collectible version in 10 different colors (the collectors were each able to choose their colors).
It was offered in a gift box that included an invitation to the 2017 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (where this creation actually won the Innovation Prize), an invitation to the launch press conference at the factory in Le Locle, an invitation to visit the Zenith factory, and a tasting of Château d’Yquem Sauternes including the opening of a nineteenth-century bottle.
A handful of these ten collectors were present at the launch, and I had the opportunity to converse with a couple of them. What struck me was that although Biver stated during the live-transmitted press conference that these men would all be taking their new watches home with them, one of the collectors told me this was not true and that it would be at least a few weeks if not months before they would take possession of their new watches.
My information is that as of press time those watches have not yet been delivered.
Biver and Sémon both commented that they are working on a new process to improve the manufacture of the compliant component and have promised that in 2018 a version of it will appear in a serial watch that is not silicon, “but a more industrial material.”
“We are at the beginning of this process, and there will be constant improvement,” Biver promised.
For more information, please visit www.zenith-watches.com/campaign/defy-lab.
Quick Facts Zenith Defy Lab concept watch
Case: 44 x 14.5 mm, Aeronith
Movement: automatic Zenith Caliber ZO 342 with monolithic silicon oscillator; 32.8 x 8.13 mm; 148 components including 18 jewels; 15 Hz/108,000 vph frequency, power reserve 60 hours; +/- 6 degrees amplitude
Functions: hours, minutes, seconds
Limitation: 10 unique pieces in a collector’s gift box, all pre-sold to 10 collectors before official launch