Compliant mechanisms are flexible mechanisms that transfer an input force or displacement to another point through elastic body deformation. Covered in detail here, they offer huge innovation potential for mechanical watchmaking. Further proof of this revolution can be found in the latest version of the Ulysse Nardin Freak. Packed with innovative applications of flexible parts, the Freak NeXt features a revolutionary flying oscillator whose tridimensional architecture is based on flexible silicon blades. Meet the latest model in a long lineage of innovative watches, the Ulysse Nardin Freak NeXt. And if it is still a concept watch for now, it might make it into production in the very near future.
Here, we are dealing with the very essence of watchmaking and chronometry. The invention of the hairspring (17th century, by Robert Hooke / Christiaan Huygens) dramatically increased the accuracy of watches. A thin coiled spring attached to the balance wheel allowed it to oscillate back and forth at a constant frequency. Doing so, it controlled the speed at which the gears of the watch rotate – and thus controlled its rate. Since then, the sprung balance has been the exclusive time basis for the mechanical watch. Although the oscillator has been optimized to the greatest possible extent over time, its principle has remained virtually unchanged for over three centuries.
As a matter of fact, the creation of new oscillators has been attempted by few, mastered by fewer still. Among the rare recent developments we have: the TAG Heuer Mikrogirder; the oscillator of the Genequand/Senfine regulator of Parmigiani Fleurier; or the DR01 concept drafted by Dominique Renaud. Recently presented, the Zenith Defy Lab is regulated by a monolithic oscillator made of monocrystalline silicon.
NeXt 3D Flying oscillator
With the Freak NeXt, Ulysse Nardin unveils an oscillator of truly spectacular design. Its innovative 3D architecture is based on the flexibility of silicon blades. It is made of four layers featuring concentric flexible blades (32 silicon micro-blades in total) measuring 16 micrometres in width. The different layers are connected with silicon “spacers”. A solid layer serves as a flywheel. The latter features four inertia weights and four adjustment screws that can be rotated to adjust the rate of the movement, just like a conventional balance wheel.
The oscillator is fixed to the movement thanks to its frame with 2 pins, 2 screws, literally suspended in mid-air, with no central pivot and no contact with the main plate. The pivot point being virtual, the oscillator does away with pivots and jewels. Therefore, it eliminates contact, play, friction, wear, lubrication or dispersions. This allows Ulysse Nardin to drastically improve energy consumption and efficiency. It also does away with the adverse effect of gravity as there is no difference in amplitude between the horizontal and vertical positions of the watch.
The oscillator of the Ulysse Nardin Freak NeXt combines high frequency and low amplitude (only 45° versus approx. 300° on a classical watch), operating at an impressive 12Hz frequency (or 86,400 vibrations per hour) for a robust 70-hour power reserve. The use of silicon means that the oscillator is practically insensitive to magnetic fields and temperature changes. The following video will make its functioning clearer.
The Ulysse Nardin Freak
Ulysse Nardin has a long tradition in the field of chronometry. In the early 1980s, two men – Rolf W. Schnyder, a visionary businessman and Ludwig Oeschlin, a talented horologist – turned Ulysse Nardin, a century-old manufacture, into one of the most innovative watch companies. The most striking development brought to life by the duo is, without doubt, the Freak (2001). This timepiece was powered by a revolutionary in-line movement pivoting on itself once every hour to indicate the minutes. It was regulated by the cutting-edge “dual direct escapement”. With the Freak, Ulysse Nardin not only became a pioneer in the use of silicon (as such, it is a true game-changer in the watch industry) but developed a concept like no other in terms of design, display and technology. Years later, Ulysse Nardin has devised multiple variations of the concept but the Freak remains innovative and radical.
The brand’s research in the innovative use of new technologies and materials opened up amazing possibilities. In 2006, together with Mimotec, Ulysse Nardin created Sigatec, a company specialized in DRIE and LIGA technologies to manufacture parts.
Ulysse Anchor escapement
This revolutionary oscillator works in conjunction with the Ulysse Anchor Escapement, presented in 2014. This constant force escapement is nonetheless highly innovative. Its principle is based on the bi-stable properties of buckled silicon blades. Entirely made of silicon, this strategic component features a frame with an anchor pivoting in its centre without friction. The anchor is held in position by perpendicular tensioned silicon blades to maintain them in a bi-stable state. The alternation between the two states allows to lock/unlock the escape wheel while providing constant impulsions to the oscillator, without being influenced by the varying torque supplied by the mainspring.
The innovative UN25X movement features an attractive, high-tech look. The bridge holding the baguette movement comes in a trapezoidal shape framed by luminescent tubes filled with Super-LumiNova. The oscillator stands out with its vibrations, high-tech architecture and its changing colour (because of the silicon oxide layer). The hours are indicated by a luminescent indicator making a complete rotation in 12 hours.
Turning the watch over, the exhibition caseback offers an unimpeded view of the winding mechanism, the Ulysse Nardin Grinder, a concept unveiled at SIHH 2017 with the Freak Innovision 2. The rotor is connected to a filigree-shaped frame. The ring attached to this frame has four springy claws. Their small, hooked-shape engages with the winding wheel centred above the barrel. Each rotation of the oscillating weight makes the frame and the ring oscillate to exploit the tiniest amounts of kinetic energy.
A concept watch, commercial products soon
The Ulysse Nardin Freak NeXt is presented in a 45mm titanium and platinum case with a Super-LumiNova bezel glowing in the dark. Like all Freaks (except the new entry-level Freak X), there is no crown. Rotating the bezel allows setting the time forwards/backwards. Winding the watch is done by rotating the caseback. There are two strap options: a white perforated rubber strap secured with a titanium folding clasp or an alligator strap with Velcro.
Kudos to Ulysse Nardin for this groundbreaking development. Stephane Von Gunten (Research and Innovation Director) and his team have been working years on this oscillator. The first patent on the project was filed in 2009. Creating a new oscillator is no small challenge. Together with the Zenith Defy Lab oscillator, it certainly is one of the most promising and exciting projects in this field.
The Ulysse Nardin Freak NeXt is a concept watch (not for sale) aiming at showcasing new technologies. However, this revolutionary development might make it into production in a very near future, as the brand declares that its innovative mechanism “will be incorporated into commercial products by the end of the year”. For more information, please visit www.ulysse-nardin.com.