by Melissa Donovan
Part 2 of 2
The Vortic Watch Company of Fort Collins, CO is a small batch, custom, watch manufacturing and vintage restoration company. Its mission, according to its website, is to “preserve and enhance the legacy of manufacturing excellence in America.” To that extent, the company strives to build everything it can in the U.S. In honoring this commitment, it provides customers with ability to purchase a watch where every single component is manufactured and assembled in America.
This is achieved through traditional technologies as well as three-dimensional (3D) printing or additive manufacturing (AM). What began in 2013 by two watch enthusiasts to restore antique mechanical watch mechanisms quickly morphed into an excellent example of how effective 3D printing is in manufacturing.
Waste Not, Want Not
The co-founders of Vortic started the business on the premise that throwing away finely crafted mechanical watch movements was a waste and to remedy this they would manufacture custom cases for antique watch movements.
The first step was creating a prototype watch case. “The hard part wasn’t restoring the movements—American pocket watches were made with such an incredible level of quality that even after 100 years, many simply need a little patience from a skilled individual to make them run like new,” admits R.T. Custer, co-founder/CEO, Vortic.
Instead, the challenge to overcome turned out to be how to manufacture low-volume, bespoke metal watch cases at a competitive price. Vortic hoped to offer cases for many different models and sizes of watch movements from various watch makers. Each featured a custom case design and the original idea was to have these cases CNC machined.
Unfortunately, the expense of having even one case style machined was quoted at over $10,000. “Manufacturers explained that the cost was driven by the need for custom tooling and filtering in addition to standard programming time, setup, and machine time. If we were making thousands of watches that might be okay, but our business was just starting out, and we make a relatively niche product with low production. Tied to the fact we needed many different case styles, machining became prohibitively expensive,” explains Custer.
To remedy the various issues Vortic faced at the onset of its business, the co-founders explored alternative manufacturing options. Particularly, they expressed interest in metal AM and reached out to a team at Penn State to learn more.
Custer and his co-founder Tyler Wolfe realized metal AM was ideal for what they were trying to achieve. With 3D printing, the company would be able to produce watch cases in small batch sizes at competitive prices. It would also have the flexibility to manufacture multiple case designs.
To accomplish this goal, Vortic enlisted the help of Imperial Machine & Tool Co. of Columbia, NJ. In 2013, Imperial invested in an SLM Solutions NA, Inc. metal AM system. It was particularly looking for a machine that could process titanium well, as the company’s expertise is in working with this alloy—among others. Founded in 1943, Imperial’s well known for its multi-axis machining work and some of its precision metal components have ended up on the moon.
The SLM 280 is designed for medium- to high-volume metal AM part production and prototypes, offering a 11x11x14-inch build envelope with an improved laser beam profile. With patented multi-beam technology, an SLM 280 metal printer can be equipped with up to two 700W fiber lasers. The integrated SLM Build Processor and open software architecture offers the freedom of controlling system parameters.
As an open system, the SLM 280 allows the use of materials from any supplier. This was particularly attractive to Imperial. Titanium powder is considered a premium material and can become costly. With an open source architecture, the SLM 280 allows the powder to be sourced at locally negotiated prices.
When Vortic produced its first batch of watch cases, it favored a two-piece design using stainless steel. Based on initial feedback, it decided to switch to a one-piece design and lighter alloy—titanium. Thus making the relationship with Imperial and its SLM 280 truly ideal.
“Watch cases aren’t something we’d normally get involved with, but when we learned Vortic’s story and met the founders, we were happy to work with them. They are truly committed to preserving American manufacturing, both in the restoration and preservation of antique American watch movements, as well as employing a team of skilled craftsmen at their CO manufacturing facility,” states Christian G. Joest, VP of sales and business development, Imperial.
Made in America
Vortic joined the old and new, marrying historic manufacturing techniques with new, modern technology. To uphold the co-founders vision of assembling a watch that is completely made in America, the company enlisted the help of Imperial to create watch cases using an SLM 280 metal AM printer. IPM
Read part one of this two-part series, A Curious Case of Injection Mold Tooling
Nov2020, Industrial Print Magazine