Edge of Tomorrow
Renowned for its precision timepieces, Omega now has a stunning new Swiss manufacture that’s a marvel of high- tech efficiency and sustainability. Christian Barker highlights six of its outstanding features
Omega unveils its new high-tech factory which took more than a decade to complete; here’s why it is revolutionary in the field of watchmaking
Leading watchmaker Omega recently completed construction of a high-tech factory in the Swiss town of Bienne, a development more than a decade in the making. The five-storey, 15,000-square-metre building on a site Omega has occupied since 1882 was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, who is renowned for his ecologically focused, east-meets-west approach.
Speaking at the official opening of the building late last year, Nicholas Hayek, the CEO of Omega’s parent company, the Swatch Group, said the new structure reflected the company’s position as “a pioneer of innovation and excellence in the Swiss watch industry and worldwide. The strong tradition of investing in new technologies, new methods of production, but also in its own employees can again be seen through the achievement of this splendid new Omega factory.”
Not only at the cutting edge in terms of its centralised watch assembly, testing, training, and quality-control facilities (which has resulted in greatly streamlined production efficiency), the remarkable new building is also highly environmentally friendly and boasts a host of attributes designed to make for a safer, cleaner, more pleasant working experience for employees. In the words of Omega CEO Raynald Aeschlimann, it’s a “truly innovative workspace.”
Here are a few of the manufacture’s most impressive and interesting features. DESIGN Architect Shigeru Ban is famous for using biodegradable materials in his work— notably paper—and has won plaudits for creating recycled cardboard tubular shelters as temporary housing for disaster victims. The Omega factory is structured around a wooden frame built of Swiss spruce with a concrete mould, this format being a signature of Ban. The architect’s most famous buildings include the Aspen Art Museum in the US, the Cardboard Cathedral in New Zealand, and the Centre Pompidou-Metz in France. Ban also
designed the Swatch Group’s Nicolas G Hayek Centre in the Ginza district of Tokyo, and a new headquarters in Bienne for Swatch.
In addition to having been constructed mainly of concrete and sustainable, local Swiss spruce, the building features an energy-efficient indoor climate control system with sun-activated external shading on windows; low-energy, long-life LED lighting with sensors that turn lig hts off when not in use; roof-mounted solar panels; and a geothermal system using water from wells on site to power heating, cooling, ventilation, and lighting.
Watchmaking has, in the past, been a literally crippling task, with artisans often hunched uncomfortably all day squinting at minuscule components, causing a host of chiropractic problems. To help keep its watchmakers in optimum physical shape at the new factory, Omega provides employees with state-ofthe-art ergonomic workspaces featuring adjustable-height work benches and seating that can be tailored to the individual.
A high-tech, ultra-fine air filtration system not only ensures watches are free of dust and other contaminants, but also removes airborne viruses. The thousands of visitors who tour Omega’s facilities each year are hermetically separated from the workers in another move to reduce exposure to outside impurities and to avoid distractions to employees concentrating on precision tasks. Ban’s airy design, meanwhile, maximises natural light and views of the outdoors, helping lessen the claustrophobia of Switzerland’s formidable winters. All this adds up to happier, healthier, more productive workers—and increased output for the company.
Previously, Omega’s various watchmaking functions were split across different facilities, but the opening of the new factory has enabled almost all operations to be carried out in one place. This decreases the time, energy, and resources consumed in transporting components from one location to another (with associated sustainability and efficiency benefits), and allows the company to better track and control the stages of production. After Omega’s sibling companies (such as watch movement giant ETA) manufacture individual components and movements, the tasks of watch assembly, fitting of bracelets, packaging and shipping are all now performed under the same roof. The fifth floor of the building remains empty in anticipation of increased demand, enabling production capacity to be ramped up when needed in the future.
The METAS (Swiss Federal Institute of Metrology) certification carried by Omega’s Co-Axial Master Chronometer requires a watch to be subjected to eight separate examinations checking its functionality and accuracy. The 10-day process includes exposure to a powerful magnetic force of 15,000 gauss and other similarly extreme tests that far exceed the parameters of the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC) certification, strict as it was. To comply with the standards of METAS, Omega was required to devote an independent office in the new factory to the Swiss government, which oversees the impartiality, consistency, and precision of the testing.
Among the most impressive sights at the new Omega factory is the central stock. 15 metres long, 28 metres high and 10 metres wide, the central stock is a vast, futuristic storehouse that looks like something out of a sci-fi film. Its thousands of shelves contain more than 30,000 grey boxes holding watch movements, hands, dials, straps, buckles, cases, crowns, and other components. When a worker orders a part using a tablet on their desk, a robot retrieves the item and delivers it to the appropriate location in less than 120 seconds.
In order to protect the valuable components from fire and oxidisation, the oxygen levels in the central stock are kept as low as at the top of 3,000-metre Mont Gelé in the Alps, a level that would cause all but the most seasoned mountaineer to experience altitude sickness—hence the stock’s robotic operation. The new Omega factory is breathtaking throughout, but stepping inside the central stock would literally take your breath away.