3D printing watch parts.

Hey everyone, I’m Warren Chang, a fellow WIS and follower of Mitka’s blog. As an avid tinkerer, I have wondered, like many others, if 3D-printing could bring any benefits to the table for watchmakers and watch enthusiasts. 

Post by Warren Chang

From reading around online, it appears that the general consensus over the past few years has been: 3D printing hasn’t advanced enough to be very useful. However, I’d like to offer a different, perhaps more up-to-date perspective on the matter.

In the past few years, additive manufacturing has grown significantly. Despite the hype dying down, rapid innovating consistently brings new features and refinements to the table. aiming to further incorporate the technology into typical product development processes. When you hear the phrase “3D-printing,” you probably conjure an image of either the desktop printers hobbyists use or the headline-grabbing organic-tissue printers most will never need access to. However, between the two extremes, there’s a lot in between, and even the simplest 3D-printers can offer benefits to watchmakers and watch enthusiasts.

Let’s begin with the most accessible variety of 3D printer: those utilizing Fused Deposition Modeling. FDM works like so: a tiny extruder squirts out hot plastic while a gantry system moves the extruder (or the build plate) in three dimensions. Slowly, the part manifests, layer by layer. A major benefit of FDM printers is their affordability. However, they are honestly nothing special when it comes to tolerances, especially when compared to other, more advanced types of printers. Thankfully, tolerances are not particularly important when it comes to simple tools.

Let’s consider two scenarios. First, let’s say I have a vintage OMEGA Speedmaster, and I want to find the serial number on the movement so I can get an Extract of the Archives to verify the movement’s origins. The second scenario involves the following: perhaps I am a watchmaker servicing an unfamiliar watch with caseback that doesn’t fit my particular tools. In both scenarios, my aim is to be able to access the movement conveniently, without scratching the caseback. Instead of paying hundreds for a specially-designed caseback opener hewn from a solid block of aluminum, I can simply take a few measurements and print out a simple caseback opener in an hour or two. With the proper opener in hand, the caseback can be removed in mere seconds.

This is just one of the many applications for FDM printing. Someone looking to try out learn watchmaking could conceivably print out dedicated movement holders, specialised crystal presses, and oiler & screwdriver stands. Collectors would be able to create specialised bezel-removers and case back removers letting them customise, check, and swap components ad infinitum without ever needing to fear of scratching their cases.

Also, since the “ink” for an FDM printer is thermoplastic that literally costs cents, or pence, per gram, you can open hundreds and hundreds of unique case backs without ever getting close to the monetary cost of that fancy piece of kit.

Even if you don’t personally own a printer, you can still easily access the benefits it offers thanks the the developments accrued over the past few years. FDM printers can be easily purchased for around the $200 US mark, and 3D modelling software can be obtained for free from a variety of sources. For those who are less interested in purchasing a machine, online services are available to satisfy your needs. I’ve compiled a short list of that can get you started on your way if you’re interested. There’s a lot more out there, but these are just some companies that I have had enough personal experience with to recommend.

3D Printer Retailers:

  • Monoprice
  • Hatchbox (I find their PLA filament of very consistent quality)

3D Printing Services:

  • Shapeways
  • Sculpteo
  • Materialise

3D Modeling Software:

  • Autodesk Fusion 360 (Free for hobbyists and students)
  • Autodesk AutoCAD (Free for students)

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