Monday, 13 May 2013


Time warp: the clock is turning back in the watchmaking industry which is trying to cope with a resurgence in demand for traditional watches despite the advances made by quartz technology.

The Swiss, still the world's leading watchmakers, believe there is a shortage of more than 26,000 traditional watchmakers worldwide thanks to the new popularity of mechanical watches. Traditional training schools in Switzerland were closed down when quartz technology took off so help is being sought from around the world.

The ever-increasing demand for luxury watches translates into a growing demand for qualified craftsmen and women to service these products.

Manufacturing watches involves far more than designing and assembling movements, or milling and polishing cases. It’s more than watchmakers manually assembling parts on workbenches and technicians programming spark erosion machines to produce small metal parts.

At IWC’s main manufactory in Schaffhausen and its new facility in Neuhausen, there are about 700 employees developing, producing and distributing the watches that IWC fans throughout the world buy. But what’s little known is that almost 50 of them – almost 7% – aren’t working as watchmakers, case makers, designers, marketing experts nor typical support staff like those in accounting or personnel. They’re dedicated Quality Management staff.

The Quality Management group is headed by an industry expert, Dr. Thomas Bregel. Away from the public eye, Thomas Bregel has instituted procedures to produce perfect watches with perfect processes, at least to the absolutely best extent possible.

This is manufacuring as a true science of the 21st century, using the best techniques as studied in business schools and implemented worldwide, and it’s intended to produce the highest quality watches in the world. It’s no small task, and Thomas Bregel is an intriguingly bright member of the IWC team. He is guiding his team, to develop, implement and monitor procedures throughout the IWC organization.

Dr. Bregel isn’t from the watch industry. As mentioned, his Ph.D. is in atomic and molecular physics. Starting his career as a development engineer, Thomas Bregel worked in materials such as tungsten and heavy metals. He then switched to product development, primarily in the electrical industry. Most time of his industrial life he spent in prototype engineering for production machines in textile machinery. He claims this is similar to watchmaking because, as he states, it’s “real manufacturing”. It involves analyzing each step of the manufacturing process and then implementing practical steps to optimize quality. He then switched to the automotive industry until, in December 2009 he joined IWC.

This commitment to top-level talent shows the importance that IWC places on quality management. It’s a major part of the organization, but it’s not one in the public arena. It’s not directly marketed. But IWC devotes significant resources to what Dr. Bregel and his team does, because it unequivocally supports the values of Quality Management at every step of every process.

The working principles from other industries, what Thomas Bregel has learned throughout his career, have been transferred and uniquely adapted to IWC. Thomas Bregel says that what IWC has invested in this process translates to greater reliability, quality management instead of quality inspection and better process orientation.

It’s no small task. There are many new watch models each year, including major new ones and their variations, as well as some with small changes. There are thousands of active “components” needed for watches, and this involves a large number of quality control procedures.

Quality management at IWC has two sides: outside, with its suppliers, and inside, with its product development and internal production. On the outside, it’s important for suppliers to provide perfect components. To do that, IWC has developed precise criteria for what’s needed, and also assigns its suppliers to inspect what they produce per IWC’s standards. This is similar to standards used by the automotive industry and its suppliers. If each step is meticulously checked, there are less problems, including less returns, less delays, and less wasted production.

These standards have been well-received by IWC’s suppliers. The company even furnishes its suppliers with measuring devices, which they must use. It’s a collaborative effort and a team approach. 

Internally, IWC similarly has developed criteria and specified procedures to assure quality control. At IWC’s new manufacturing facility in Neuhausen, which produces cases and movement parts, there is a whole team of full-time persons from Quality Management. 

Those inspections, however, are the last step in the process. IWC first wants its own workers to self-inspect at each stage. This process is accomplished first by teaching what’s needed, and specifically including time for self-inspection in the workplan. It’s a process of developing understanding, because as Dr. Bregel says “you can’t get anywhere first by pressure”. With low-key charisma, he’s very convincing in “marketing” his procedures and standards. 

These approaches, used in other major industries and now translated to IWC, will change watchmaking in this century. These Quality Management procedures take cutting-edge business management principles, developed as a business science worldwide, and applies them to an industry that, just a few decades ago, essentially was much more insular. 

Being mindful of quality at every step requires full corporate resolve. Such a significant allocation of staff to Quality Management reflects the significant commitment of IWC to producing watches with the highest possible standards. IWC is a watch industry leader in developing and implementing Quality Management. The result, individually, is pride but there are a lot of statistics (metrics, in industry jargon) fine-tuning and precisely measuring the end results. The QM Team saves time and money, which is good for everyone. It’s good for suppliers, case makers, parts makers and watchmakers. And it produces the highest quality product and nothing less should be expected by IWC’s watch fans throughout the world. 

Sources: IWC Schaffhausen Collector's Forum, Bloomberg Magazine, Financial Times.

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