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New chair at EPFL to promote use of nanotechnology in Swiss watch industry

Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe will fund a professor and a research team at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

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The luxury watch manufacturer Patek Philippe is to endow a chair at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) dedicated to the application of new micro- and nanotechnologies to watchmaking.

The chair will be associated with the Institute of Microengineering (IMT) and based in Neuchâtel. Patek Philippe will fund the position of a professor and his or her research team, and EPFL will provide the infrastructure at IMT.

IMT, set up in 2009 to create a centre of excellence, is now home to several research teams and a network that brings together all the major players in the Swiss microengineering industry.

“This agreement is in line with the strong growth that the watchmaking industry is currently experiencing, and for which new technologies and materials have become essential,” said Nico de Rooij, IMT Director and Vice President of CSEM SA (Centre Suisse d’Electronique and de Microtechnique). The watch industry employs 50,000 people and generated some CHF16 billion in exports in 2010.

To maintain this position and its competitiveness, the industry must continually innovate, says Jean-Pierre Musy, technical director at Patek Philippe. “There is much progress to be made, particularly in increasing the energy efficiency of the movements in order to be able to make ever smaller mechanisms and components, and in increasing reliability and the power reserve.

Musy said this research touches on all production phases: from manufacturing processes to escapement mechanisms (the devices that drive the timekeeping elements), to components such as the train and the balance-spring that must be made more efficient, uniform, robust and easy to assemble.

A particularly important area of exploration will be developing new high-tech materials, in the continuing quest for properties that will reduce friction, add to aesthetics, and improve wear resistance, Musy said, citing the introduction of single-crystal silicon as an example of the kind of improvements new technologies have brought to watch making. Single-crystal silicon has revolutionised the industry over the past several years due to its elastic properties, which permit the creation of carefully crafted geometries that allow improved watch movements.

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