Designed to accommodate watch assembly, testing and quality control, a new avant-garde building stemming from the imagination of world-famous Japanese architect Shigeru Ban was inaugurated by the Biel/Bienne-based company in early November.
On November 2nd, a hundred or so journalists and representatives of local and cantonal authorities enjoyed an opportunity to discover Omega’s new production hub. With the opening of this futuristic Manufacture, the brand is writing a new chapter in its history. It was in 1882 that the Louis Brandt &Fils firm moved its production site to 96, Rue Jakob-Stämpfli in Biel/Bienne. Now known as Omega, the company has remained in the same location ever since. The newly inaugurated flagship facility is doubtless the most significant of all the extensions made since.
Set alongside the brand’s historical buildings, the new five-floor factory is a true paragon of sustainable development, entirely made from Swiss spruce wood, concrete and glass, arranged in an admirably optimized manner. Technical innovation and human expertise mingle in perfect harmony to ensure an ideal flow of timepiece production processes that gives Omega a key advantage: efficiency. This new building brings together under one roof each of the production stages: from watch assembly (T2) through bracelets (T3) to packaging and shipping (T4), as well as stock and logistics. In addition, the fact that the plant has been designed specifically for training purposes will enable the firm to sharpen and improve the skills of its employees.
The genius of Shigeru Ban
The man behind this technological and logistic gem is Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, famed for his sophisticated structures and his penchant for unconventional technologies. His works include sinuously curving museums in France and a cardboard church in Japan, as well as the Nicolas G. Hayek Center in Tokyo.
By associating themes from Japanese architecture with Western modernism, Ban has created a unique personal style. He is also known for his ingenious use of unexpected materials, such as paper and cardboard tubes, that have paved the way for low-cost recyclable structures. Yet he also demonstrates spectacular mastery of wood and glass, which compose several of his accomplishments around the world, notably including the Omega headquarters in Biel/Bienne.
A technological gem
This new production plant is as impressive from outside as it is from within. Measuring 70 metres long, 30 metres wide and 30 metres high, it cleverly combines a variety of materials. This ambitious project in the vanguard of sustainable development features an ingenious concept based on air-conditioning and energy consumption, with fully optimised energy efficiency. First of all, the insulation techniques go well beyond the constraints imposed by the Swiss construction regulations, thereby serving to reduce electricity consumption by the building’s heating system. Each window is fitted with sunshades that adjust to the path of the sun. The indoor lighting features motion sensor LED bulbs that light up only when required and also adapt to daylight intensity.
The building’s entire energy supply is provided by a geothermal system using a renewable energy source: underground water pumped via several onsite wells.
To produce part of the electricity required for heating, cooling, ventilation and renewable lighting, the south-east side of the building’s roof is covered with photovoltaic modules. The microundulators recently developed by Belenos (a Swatch Group company) have been used for this building in a world-first application. These elements are installed behind the solar panels. They are directly connected to the electrical network, for which they convert direct solar current into the renewal alternating current used in the building.
Automated storage system
At the core of the building, Omega has installed a 30-metre-long entirely automated storage system rising up through three floors. Around 30,000 boxes house all the components required to assemble watches. Two vertical lifts carry the boxes at a speed of 4 metres per second and at a pace of 1,400 operations per hour. This fireproofed space has a level of oxygen reduced to 15.2% (compared with the usual 20%) so as to reduce fire risks to an absolute minimum. Only two specially trained people in good health are authorised to enter this stock area.
The factory features many other examples of state-of-the-art technologies, such as the robotic arms and systems used for the Master Chronometer tests. For human beings, conveying and preparing watches are monotonous and time-consuming menial tasks, which is why large robotic arms are entirely programmed to handle them. By measuring, photographing, pushing up, shifting and turning over the watches, they ensure constant and smooth production levels.
Other robotic arms are used for identification and final packaging of the timepieces. Automated reading systems ensure that each watch emerging from the assembly line is delivered with the corresponding guarantee and certificate, as well as all other necessary elements and documents. In another example of this high-tech approach, robotic arms also perform the laser engraving that gives each watch a unique identity.
While robotics handles the repetitive and boring tasks, artisans definitely enjoy pride of place, since their expertise makes a major contribution to the quality of the timepieces from the Maison. Whether for perfectly fitting the hands on a dial, meticulously casing up a finished watch, analysing test results or ensuring that all components are optimally adjusted, nothing can replace the indispensable human hand.
The in-house artisans are undoubtedly the firm’s greatest asset. To assist them in their task, Omega has created exceptionally pleasant working conditions within its new factory. Precise temperature control, air-conditioning and ergonomic workstations: everything is designed to improve flows and comfort.
The new METAS test site
The new production plant has been designed to accommodate Omega’s quality and technical control process, including the METAS tests required for Master Chronometer certification. All the equipment involved in the eight tests required is located on the third floor, including powerful magnets that subject the watch to a magnetic field of 15,000 gauss. Visitors to the factory even have the privilege of a test bench demonstrating Master Chronometer-certified timepieces’ effective resistance to strong magnetic fields.
With this new production facility, Omega is not only writing a new chapter in its history, but also ensuring its ability to meet the highest watch industry standards.
Fédération de l'industrie horlogère suisse