Watching the clock
E&T visits Citizen Watches to discover that the gears and wheels are still there, and finer than ever.
The year 1918 will be best remembered for the end of the FIrst World War, but hidden amid the rancour a company was founded in Japan that would go on to become a household name around the globe.
That company was Citizen Watches - although it was known in those days as the Shokosha Watch Research Institute - and six years later it launched its first pocket watch.
Although its accuracy left a lot to be desired by modern standards, at +/-20 seconds a day, that first watch was presented to Sir Shimpei Goto, the mayor of Tokyo and a member of the House of Peers. Seeing its affordability he named it Citizen, and in 1930 Shokosha followed his lead and changed its name to match the watch.
Nowadays, Citizen is best known as a manufacturer of high-precision timepieces, including the smallest watch, the thinnest watch, and the most accurate watch available today. Manufacturing still takes place primarily in Japan and China, but UK operations manager Dave Biggin was happy to lift the curtain on their manufacturing expertise.
"The challenges we face as a company are similar to other precision manufacturers around the world," Biggin explains. "We are always looking for a higher level of quality and added value for the consumer. That's what it is all about.
"We want the customer to pick up the watch and recognise that it is a value for money piece of kit, and I am sure that we achieve it."
Citizen's reputation is based on a passion for innovation. Over the years it has collected a myriad of accolades for pushing the boundaries of watch making, including the first shockproof watch, the first waterproof the first electronic watches, the first analogue quartz watch, the first analogue solar battery watch and the thinnest movement at 0.98mm.
From watches to office equipment
It has also leveraged its expertise in microelectronics to become a major player in the field of office and information equipment, with products including printers, floppy-disk drives, hard-disk drives, and liquid crystal displays. Because microelectronics are at the core of these products, they afford users something else very valuable - the ultimate in space efficiency.
From its work with quartz watches, Citizen Watches then parlayed its experience with liquid crystal and microelectronic technologies to begin developing liquid crystal televisions, liquid crystal colour video projectors, and electronic healthcare equipment. Most notably it is now a world leader in the field of quartz oscillators, the heart of all electronic products.
Ultra-precision machine tools are behind the development of many innovative high-tech products, and are found in a variety of industries worldwide. Nevertheless, a visit to one of Citizen's factories may come as a surprise if you were expecting a traditional manufacturing operation. A modern watch-manufacturing facility has more in common with a sterile semiconductor fab than a run-of-the-mill assembly operation.
"Before you went into the factory you would put on white boots, a white coat and a hat, all things that you would expect to see in the food processing industry," Biggin says.
"You would go through a wind tunnel and anti-static rooms before you get into the production side."
Once you enter the manufacturing side of the operation you are in for another shock - it is a totally automated production line. "The operation begins by manufacturing a plate and then various items are brought to it," Biggin says. "Tolerances are checked to very tight details; if for example a wheel is put onto a plate then it's checked for centralisation by crosshairs on a CCTV camera. Whatever tolerances are set, if it is a fail, it gets booted off and the next one comes along on the production line and it shunts along like that.
"It is all very, very high-tech, partially driven because Citizen in Japan produces its own computer controlled lathes, CNC lathes, under the brand name Cincom," he continues.
"Within watch production there is a demand for high precision lathe turning tools and, therefore, it has more or less taken that side under its wing as well. Citizen in Japan is a much more diversified company than over here [in the UK]."
With the advent of electronics you would be forgiven for expecting the guts of a modern watch to be a solid state throwaway commodity item. But Biggin is quick to point out that as long as a watch has hands that turn, it will have a set of wheels and gears to drive that motion.
"Those gears and wheels have to have quite a high precision, otherwise you would have hands wobbling about the place," he adds. "The hands of Big Ben do wobble but that is to do with perspective and scales of size.
"The watch itself comprises the brain, a large scale integrated circuit, a quartz oscillator, and a coil in order to magnify the electronic signal that is coming out of that large scale integrated circuit. Then we are able to turn a small step motor, which will then turn the hands, however many there may be.
Gearing up for time
"When we get onto the more complicated watches, such as some of our complicated chronographs, we might find that we have two or three small step motors, one for the normal timekeeping and one for the chronograph. It is not as simple as one set of gears. I have never actually counted the number of moving parts in one of our complicated watches, but it is significant."
Aside from the environmentally-controlled automated production line for the movement production, there is a separate operation for the manufacture of the outer case, and then a manual assembly operation.
"In one of the factories that I have often visited, the daytime workers set up the machines that run automatically overnight," Biggin explains. "A machine would go and get a lump of metal and take it to the automatic production line and, at the end of it, it turned out as a watch case.
"It is totally automatic because the machine will take the metal at its raw state and turn it, take it out of the jaws, hold it while a milling procedure takes place, then turn it round and another tool will come in and put a thread on. All of this is done automatically."
Movements and cases
Biggin continues: "So there are two sides of the business. One side is the actual assembly and manufacture of movements and movements without the dial.
"You have got a watch, which is ready to accept a dial, hands and a case. Then, on the other side of it, you have got the manufacture of the case, the hands, the dial, the bracelet and all those appearance parts. If you then take the assembled movement and a manufactured case ready for assembly, you would find that people actually put those together."
Everything in the watches is manufactured in-house, with minor exceptions, or by one of the Citizen facilities in China. "We have been doing business in China for many years," Biggin explains. "When we have manufacturing plants in China, or any other country for that matter, we always have full-time Japanese employees in that factory running it."
It is a policy which, along with its thirst for innovation, seems to have worked for Citizen for over 90 years.
The company today employs 19,000 people around the world and sells watches to the value of $1.75bn each year, a far cry from its humble beginnings in post-war Japan.