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Our visit to the Omega manufacturing sites in Bienne and Villeret

Omega is without doubt one of the most worldwide renowned watchmaking brand. Nonetheless, not everyone knows that, before being called Omega, the company operated under the name of its founder, Louis Brandt, that established it in 1848 in the Swiss city of La Chaux-de-Fonds.

A portrait of Louis Brandt

After Louis Brandt’s death in 1879, his two sons – Louis-Paul and César – took over the family business with great success.

In 1894, the two brothers introduced a movement that set new standards in watchmaking. Known as the 19-ligne calibre, this movement was produced in series using new innovative methodologies and was extremely accurate. Winding and time-setting could be comfortably performed via the stem and crown. Additionally, every component could be replaced without modification by any watchmaker in the world.


The brothers decided to call it “Omega” so remarking that they considered it an ultimate accomplishment ("Omega" is the last letter of the Greek alphabet).

The success of the 19-ligne “Omega” calibre was so great that the brothers eventually changed the name of their entire company to Omega Watch Co in 1903. By then, the company had become the largest manufacturer of finished watches in Switzerland.

The history of Omega is rich of successes and legendary achievements. The best place to retrace them is certainly the Omega Museum

During our recent Swiss tour to visit two Omega's ultra-modern facilities in Biel/Bienne and Villeret, we had the opportunity to stop at this Museum, located opposite the brand's headquarters. Actually, we started our tour here. Along with some 4,000 watches, the Omega Museum’s remarkable collection includes movements, clocks, original documents, tools, photos, engravings, signs, awards and certificates.

The original bench of founder Louis Brandt

A 19-ligne “Omega” calibre dating back to the end of the 19th century

One of the various split-second chronographs used to measure the performances of the athletes at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles

Timekeeping machine designed by Omega for the Olympic Games 

The Speedmaster of astronaut Leroy G. Cooper, the first American to spend an entire day in space, the first to sleep in space, and the last American launched on an entirely solo orbital mission

The section of the Museum dedicated to the historic Apollo 11 mission and the first lunar landing. On the left, the only NASA's control desk out of Houston's mission control center that in not located on USA soil.

Copy of the NASA letter detailing the requirements of the chronograph to be used for space missions: "A requirement exists for a highly durable and accurate chronograph to be used by Gemini and Apollo  flight crews as an essential adjunct, or as a  backup for spacecraft timing devices for accomplishing time critical operational and experimental tasks."

 The Speedmaster BA145.022 that Omega presented to Richard Nixon to celebrate the Moon landing. President Nixon politely refused this watch, No. 1 in the series, due to the US government’s strict gifting protocol. Model numbers 3 - 28 were given to the NASA astronauts. Watches 29 to 32 were offered to Swiss watch industry leaders and politicians, without any engraved number. The public were given the opportunity to purchase model numbers 33 - 1000.

Please, note that as we write the current Museum has closed its doors forever. You can read about the new Museum, inaugurated on 14 October 2019 in this article.

After visiting the Omega Museum, we were ready to start our tour of the Omega's two main manufacturing sites: the factory in Villeret where a large part of the mechanical movements are assembled and the new building in the historical location in Bienne where the final watches are assembled and tested for the Master Chronometer certification.


Nestled amongst pine covered hills, Villeret and its surrounding area have played a truly important role in the history of Swiss watchmaking. It is here that, in 2013, Omega opened its largest and more innovative factory dedicated "o the assembly of mechanical movements (T1 phase).

The Omega factory in Villeret where mechanical movements are assembled
The Omega factory in Villeret

Within this factory, the brand’s Co-Axial calibres are pieced together on a state-of-the-art assembly-line where the human-robotic interaction achieves exceptional efficiency and precision. 

Around 300 employees work here, involved not only in assembly but also in planning and logistics, stock management, equipment maintenance and analysis.

The hi-tech workshops where the Omega movements are assembled

 Step after step, the quality of each movement is verified by employees of the brand in the dust-free environments. Machinery is used for oiling, screwing and control. It also ensures an unprecedented standard of monitoring and data acquisition for each movement. All other operations are human controlled.

In this building no components are produced as they are received from different Swatch Group providers like ETA (mainplates) and Nivarox (hairsprings), just to mention two of them.



Among the movements assembled in Villeret, the Master Chronometer calibres 8900 and 8901 stand out as being a revolutionary part of the brand’s future. These are used in timepieces such as the Seamaster Planet Ocean Master Chronometer collection. Other movements assembled here include the calibres 8700, 8800, 9900 and 2500. Other movements, including the ones powering the Speedmaster models, are assembled in another Omega's factory in Grenchen.

After the final assembly each movement is associated to a chip in order to allow complete traceability during the following production phases.

The factory also includes a showroom called Technospace where many Omega's innovations are displayed and explained.

A view of  the Technospace

From robust ceramic cases to special metal alloys like Sedna gold, from delicate Co-Axial escapements to the antimagnetic Si14 Silicon balance spring, the Technospace shows how generations of research, development and vision have resulted in the Omega brand of today.

Just like the movements produced in Villeret, the other key watch components (cases, dials, hands, crystals, bracelets and straps) are sent to Omega's new facility in Bienne, in a location that has remained the same since 1882, when “Louis Brandt & Fils” first moved to the Rue Jakob-Stampfli 96 manufacturing site. 

Omega's new facility in Biel/Bienne
Omega's new facility in Biel/Bienne 

Omega's new facility in Biel/Bienne Image courtesy of Hirt AG
Image courtesy of Hirt AG

 Omega's factory in Bienne  in 1902 and, below, in  1950

Designed by the award-winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban making a spectacular use of timber, concrete and glass and inaugurated in 2017, this cutting edge facility is primarily dedicated to watch assembly, training and quality control. All steps, including T2 (watch assembly), T3 (bracelets), and T4 (shipping), as well as stock and logistics, are completed here.

A scale model of the building with the fire escape on the right 

Measuring 70 x 30 x 30 metres and developed over 5 floors, this new eco-friendly building combines all of the brand’s assembly and testing processes under one roof.


Detail of the fire escape

The spaces inside have been used in the most effective way possible making it possible to streamline all manufacturing processes and bring the interaction between human expertise and robotic assistance to the highest level.

One of the most impressive area of the new facility is the fully automated storage system. Rising up through 3 floors of the building, this fireproofed central stock contains over 30,000 boxes filled with all the necessary parts required for the brand’s watchmaking.

Side view of the automated storage system showing one of the
two lifts in action: it moves at a speed of 4 metres per second

Using a “chaotic storage” method, inventory is not stored together with like items in predefined locations, but rather is split up and assigned to any space that is available and with different stock keeping units being stored together in the same location or bin. This provides even greater flexibility and higher space utilization than regular random storage assignment.

We could admire the efficiency of this high-tech system and watch the robotic arms in action through specially built side and top windows.

 The automated storage system shot from a specially built top window

More than 30,000 boxes are stored in a 27.4 x 9.4 x 14.2 metres space (3,660 cubic metres), With the two lifts moving at a speed of 4 metres per second. More than 1,400 operations per hour can be performed

In this area, the oxygen inside has been reduced to 15.2% to ensure that fires cannot start or spread. For this reason, only two specially trained employee are authorized to enter.

Of course the technology is important but nothing could be done without the dedication and the skills of the Omega's employees and watchmakers. This is clearly evident in the T2 department. Of the 350 employees that are currently operating in this specific building, around 120 are assigned here.

From setting the hands perfectly on a dial to the final casing of a completed timepiece, in this area you can perceive the intense concentration of the staff but also their pride to work for this brand.


  
And Omega provided them with a state-of-the-art working environment. From overall ergonomics to carefully managed temperature control and dust-free atmosphere, everything has been integrated for the achievement o the best possible results.

In this area you will not see any paper as it is a source of dust. Instead, all the employees have a display on their desks where they can find all the pertinent information and instructions.

The immaculate spaces dedicated to the final assembly of the watches

Information and instructions for each employee are displayed through the monitor equipping each workstation

Omega’s new factory also houses the company’s quality and technical control processes, including the METAS testing (Federal Institute of Metrology) for Master Chronometer certification which certifies its watches at the industry’s highest standard for precision, performance and magnetic resistance. All technology for the 8 stringent METAS tests can be found on the 3rd floor, including the powerful magnets that subject each watch to a field of 15,000 gauss.

Omega’s quality and technical control processes, including the METAS testing for Master Chronometer certification, are performed at the 3rd floor of the new building


Robotic arms are used for repetitive and time-consuming operations like measuring, photographing, winding, shifting and spinning the watches. This way Omega achieves a consistent and constant level of operation while allowing  the staff to focus on the testing results and make sure that every watch is finely-tuned and ready for the customer.

Robotic arm in action at the Omega factory
Robotic arm in action

When the assembly is completed, other robotic arms are used for the identification and final packaging of each watch. Reader systems ensure that each watch is picked from the assembly line and delivered with the correct warranty and certification, and all other necessary inclusions. Another example of technology includes the arms for laser engraving, which give each watch its unique identity.

At the end of the tour, we were truly amazed by the exceptional results that Omega was able to achieve in combining watchmaking tradition with the more cutting-edge technologies and methodologies. It is thanks to this forward-looking approach that today Omega can guarantee the highest possible standards in terms of quality of its timepieces. omegawatches.com


Name

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Time and Watches | The watch blog: Our visit to the Omega manufacturing sites in Bienne and Villeret
Our visit to the Omega manufacturing sites in Bienne and Villeret
The Omega manufacture in Biel. Read the report of our visit to the Omega state-of-the-art factories in Bienne and Villeret. Visiting the Omega manufacture in Biel/Bienne.
Time and Watches | The watch blog
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