Walter E. Volpers is a Swiss national who was born in Bogotá, Colombia in 1974. He studied physics at the University of Basel, followed by an internship at Allgemeine Gewerbeschule Basel’s Training Workshop for Mechanics as a mechanical fitter and technical designer. Walter then earned a diploma in industrial engineering at Basel’s Institute of Technology and Management.
Before joining IWC Schaffhausen in 2009, Walter was responsible for logistics and quality at Maschinenfabrik Rieter and at Hilti Aktiengesellschaft’s Diamond Tools division. He began his career in 2000 with ABB as a Process and Business consultant.
Signé met with Walter at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) held in Geneva, between 14 and 17, January 2019. The theme of this year’s IWC exhibit was the legend of the Spitfire aircraft. They even had, as a centrepiece, the “Silver” Spitfire that will be setting off on a round-the-world adventure this year. The event was used to unveil the brand’s new range of Pilot’s Watches, including a new Spitfire line, a new Top Gun line and “Le Petit Prince” special editions.
Here is an excerpt from our interview with Walter in which he shared with us his perspective on the challenges of manufacturing haute horlogerie at IWC.
Tell us about the journey that led you to IWC Schaffhausen.
I’ve been with IWC Schaffhausen for the past ten years. I started in the purchasing department as the Head of Supply Chain Management for movement parts. I became the head of product management five years ago. I was born in Bogotá, Colombia, then exported to Mexico City where I lived for 16 years. I also lived in Venezuela for four years before my father sent me to Switzerland to study.
One day I was standing with my father on the balcony of his house, and we were talking, and my father said: do you know whose house is two houses ahead of ours? That’s the house of Georges Kern, the CEO of IWC. Back then I didn’t know him, but I remember saying that it is a company I would love to work for. As luck would have it, in September of that same year, a head-hunter called me to ask if I was interested in working for IWC. On the outside I was saying: I don’t know, if the offer is good and so on, but inside, I was going yes! So, I was very happy about that.
The job I was initially offered was in the area of production industrialisation. For my background as an industrial engineer that was a good position but somebody else got the job. However, Georges called me and said: Walter I still want to have you here in the company. I have another opening would you be interested? So that’s how I came into the purchasing department at IWC.
Could you elaborate on your role within IWC Schaffhausen?
It’s a really challenging position to be in, but it’s also what I love about the job. I have to talk to everyone in the company. I have to talk to finance because I have to meet our goals within a certain budget. I talk to our research and development to coordinate the dates with them; we have three processes with different timelines; we have the development of the watches which takes about 12 to 14 months, we have cases which also takes about 12 months, and we have the movements which take about 3 to 5 years.
I talk to production because I need to know when materials need to arrive. I have to talk to sales because I need to know how much of each watch is going to be produced. So it’s not like we develop the watch and hope it sells, we always have a plan for it. I also talk to marketing because I should know what the story behind a watch is. For example, one of our watches is called MJ271. This was the original license of the Silver Spitfire plane that’s going to fly around the world. It is limited to 271 pieces. So I know we will need 271 movements to go with the 271 cases and we have to plan accordingly.
I also have to talk to the CEO, Chris Grainger to whom we send the watches every month, and he gives his suggestions. So it’s a very lengthy process and I have the opportunity to get to know every part of that process and the company as a whole because I’m kind of in the middle of everything.
What are the processes involved in the manufacture of an IWC watch?
There are about 128 steps from design to end product, but you can reduce it like this: First of all, there is the idea and the designing, then product analytics followed by benchmarking, and based on all this information we set up a collection. Then we move into prototyping where we first use 3D printing to produce a model to see how the design fits on the wrist, how big it is or how small it is and so on. In terms of design, the proportion, the diameter and height is really important. So if you reduce the diameter, for example, it may make the watch look ugly or improve it.
Once that is finalised, we go to the second prototype stage where we produce an aesthetical prototype where we use real materials, real colour, real appliques, real hands and so on. It doesn’t have to be functional. It’s about the look and the aesthetics. We also get to know the actual weight, so we can put a strap on it and wear it for some time to see how it feels; to see if it feels heavy. This stage is actually the most interesting and tricky part because it is a very intuitive part of the process.
We had to go through a total of 15 iterations (for the latest IWC Spitfire watch). Actually, in the beginning, we were not convinced with the green colour, so we tried different colours for the dial; we tried brown, blue, black, white dial to see how it combines with the overall aesthetics before finalising on the green.
Then we move to the technical prototype stage where we start real-world testing. It also gets sent around the world for people to take pictures and so on. Once the final tweaking is done, we ramp up the marketing in preparation for the launch. At every stage finance, production and sales are involved.