It might seem like pure sci-fi even now, but 3D printing has been around longer than you might think. Since the 1980s in fact, where a facsimile of modern 3D printing was used for rapid prototyping among a handful of cutting-edge companies. Still, it’s amazing how far the technology has come in just the past few years, going from a fringe production technique to an Etsy staple thanks to home printers. The Sevenfriday Free-D uses this tech to reimagine sustainable watchmaking.
Even though you’ve definitely heard about 3D printing by now, it’s worth diving a little deeper into precisely what it is, especially as it’s now a watchmaking wunderkind – which we’ll get onto. So, a 3D printer is a machine that turns a three-dimensional design on a computer into a real-life object. It’s basically a slower Star Trek replicator.
The printer does this by layering a building material in sequential layers. The material can be practically anything – and because it’s done in ultra-thin slices, it can print the inside of an object too, without the need for any kind of machining. Between those two core aspects, you can 3D print pretty much anything, from He-Man toys to guns to human hearts.
It’s therefore not too big a stretch to see 3D printing crop up in watchmaking, too. After all, it’s not so far from physical vapour deposition (your black, scratch resistant PVD) in concept that it’s some strange piece of mad science. In fact, a few brands have even embraced it, from the off-kilter eclecticism of Holthinrichs to the much more aesthetically accessible Oris Coulson with its 3D printed carbon case.
Perhaps the most extraordinary example last year however came from an unexpected quarter: SevenFriday. The idiosyncratic and worryingly collectible watchmaker is used to building intensely multi-layered dials, but 3D printing is at the extreme, as is what they’ve done with it. The SevenFriday Free-D is like nothing else.
Looking like the kind of sci-fi silhouette even MB&F would deem a bit too much, the Free-D was designed to celebrate SevenFriday’s 10th anniversary. It’s a 3D printed outer case added onto one of the brand’s signature ‘squircle’ cases to create an entirely new and distinct silhouette.
As for the material, it’s plastic – but not the same as your kids’ Peppa Pig beater. Dubbed PA11 (catchy), it’s similar to a lot of the high-end composites you’d expect to find in the upper echelon sports watch brands.
“Besides being organic and plant based,” explains Daniel Niederer, founder and CEO of SevenFriday, “it has extremely interesting properties like being super durable, extremely light, non-allergic, heat resistant and more. It’s been space and medicine tested!
“As for production, the technology allows us to create shapes, forms and finished constructions that wouldn’t be possible otherwise in a traditional way. The SevenFriday Free-D is a design concept purely developed based on the properties of 3D printing and would make a lot less sense otherwise. It was specifically done to accommodate and embrace the 3D printing technique as well as the material used.”
In short, the Free-D is inseparable from the technology used to build it. It just wouldn’t be possible without 3D printing. Which, befitting the theme of this issue, makes it eminently sustainable. The polyamide is plant-based; there’s no wasted material and the traditionally made Swiss movement is about as sustainable as a machine can be. Granted, the environment’s probably not your first thought looking at the watch, but it’s a good example of how 3D printing can genuinely impact watchmaking for the better, were more brands to really embrace it.
“The Free-D is a symbiosis of tradition and future in the present! We are using a very traditional Swiss mechanic movement (which is very sustainable…) and bringing it together with the latest development in 3D printing. It’s two worlds coming together.”
Of course, the oddly shaped elephant in the room is that the SevenFriday Free-D isn’t a concept that’s fully ‘there’ yet. It cuts an imposing figure, but it’s in essence a bolt-on to the standard squircle watch that SevenFriday have been building for over a decade now. So how about it? Any chance of delving deeper and building the entire watch with a 3D printer?
“We are constantly investigating and testing new developments,” says Niederer, “and I wouldn’t want to exclude anything. The technology doesn’t seem to be fully there yet…but who knows?”
Hopefully this is just the start – and not just for SevenFriday. Watchmaking is a craftsmanship-heavy enough industry that its inefficiencies are minute when compared to say, cars or construction. But things like oil for machining and energy to reclaim the excess shavings of metal and heat metal and ceramic are all things that could be seriously lessened with 3D printing.
It does take some of the romance out of it, but I don’t expect Breguet or Vacheron to start 3D printing everything, even if it were possible. But for a certain type of watchmaker with a certain type of audience – i.e. SevenFriday – it makes perfect, futureproof sense.
Price & Specs:
- Model: SevenFriday Free-D
- Case/dial: 52.8mm width x 55.4mm height x 23.7mm thickness, titanium and PA11 polyamide “squircle” shaped case
- Water resistance: 30m (3 bar)
- Movement: Sellita calibre SW300-1, automatic
- Frequency: 28,800 vph (4 Hz)
- Power reserve: 42h
- Functions: Hours, minutes, seconds
- Strap: Leather
- Price/availability: N/A
Discover SevenFriday’s collections here.