Timex has something of a reputation as a middle-of-the-road, play-it-safe, value-for-money watchmaker, but the company is stepping out of its comfort zone to partner with France-based SilMach and create a new electronic watch movement. Using Micro-Electro-Mechanical-Systems (MEMS) technology, the pair are developing the first MEMS-powered watch movement to create a more flexible, compact analog readout watch with more functions.
If you buy a garden variety analog watch today, it will almost certainly use a quartz movement that hasn't changed fundamentally in half a century. Powered by a silver oxide cell and regulated by the oscillations of a quartz crystal and microcircuitry, the hands are moved by a miniaturized Lavet-type, single-phase, stepping motor powering the gear chain.
It's a design that revolutionized horology in the 1960s and millions of such movements are manufactured each year at astonishingly low prices, with even the cheap ones more accurate than the chronometers of a hundred years ago. But it's still a technology that has room for improvement and Timex and SilMach see MEMS as filling that room.
In MEMS, the Lavet-type motor is replaced by very high-resolution electrostatic motors that are fashioned out of silicon on a nanoscale in a manner very similar to that used to make microchips. SilMach has invented patented technology it calls PowerMEMS, which is based on electrodes hooked to interdigital combs or transducers that fit together rather like the teeth of a zipper, though without touching.
When current is applied, the combs vibrate in response to electrostatic forces with an intensity based on the voltage applied to the electrodes. The produces a stepwise movement that can be either linear or rotary, controlled by a built-in microelectronic Application-Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC). According to SilMach, this can run something simple like large blinds or hatches, or small, complicated gearing in an integrated quartz watch.
SilMach built the first prototype of a MEMS movement in 2008 and says that it can make hundreds on a single plate of silicon 6 in (15 cm) wide. The new technology is compact, non-magnetic, light, and simple in design with higher torque, mechanical power, power-to-weight ratio, and positioning resolution in step mode compared to conventional designs.
In addition, the MEMS movements are more durable and do not require oil to perform properly over a wide range of mechanical frequencies. Also, the circuitry in the movement can do double duty for auxiliary functions, including biometric tracking.
"Thanks to our partnership with SilMach, Timex has succeeded in developing another first in the watch industry," says Tobias Reiss-Schmidt, Timex Group President and CEO. "Together with SilMach we are disrupting the industry and setting the stage for nanotechnology. With this development, we are taking revolutionary steps to dramatically enhance design and function in watchmaking in ways that were previously not thought possible."
Timex says the first MEMS-powered watch movement will appear in its 2019 collection.