IWC BIG PILOT SHOCK ABSORBER XPL – A CLOSER LOOK AND ASKING THE QUESTION WHY?
by Nathan Hardy
As you stand still on this Earth there is 1g of gravitational force acting upon you. Astronauts as they hurtle towards the vast empty nothingness experience around 3g’s meaning they weigh three times as much as they do with their feet firmly planted on earth. Lewis Hamilton whilst sat in the seat of his F1 car can experience between 4-6g while cornering. Fighter pilots in their specifically designed flight suits that keep blood in the upper half of their body to prevent fainting, can experience between 8-9g’s. Every time anything speeds up, or slows down, a gravitational force is applied. The IWC Big Pilot Shock Absorber XPL, whilst being tested independently at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, withstood accelerations excessing 30000g…
Obviously, an inanimate object can withstand more than a human naturally because your watch won’t pass out due to lack of oxygen, but it’s something to reference.
Now I know IWC have a thing for engineering and having spent 8 years developing this watch, you would expect them to have dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s, but that number is huge. For context, the press pack states that typically if a pilot were to knock his watch against a hard part of the cockpit mid-flight during a high g manoeuvre, the watch and its components would experience accelerations between 300g and 1000g…and here is the Shock Absorber being able to withstand up to 30000g. That surely is over engineering by definition right there.
To reach these weighty numbers, IWC have really gone the extra mile. From the baseplate of the custom calibre 32115 being made from a lightweight aluminium alloy used in the aerospace sector, which seems fitting, to the obvious, and intriguing patented SPRIN-g system, of which I can only commend the person who chose that name.
Personally, I’d be interested to learn more about the breadth of the process of developing the SPRIN-g system, and how much research and development went into the project, because as consumers and viewers, we get treated to the end result of these concepts, but I feel there’s more to be celebrated behind the scenes, but these research projects in any sector are often very secretive. With this 8 years’ worth of research by the new experimental division, IWC’s endeavours have resulted in a perfectly shaped spring made from a futuristic material that due to its microstructure, is far more elastic and giving than your average metal spring. The shape and material aids in distributing an incoming stress from any area on the case evenly across both its length and width, and I’m going to say it again, allowing it to absorb 30000g’s of accelerative force. That should be commended. The chosen material for this remarkable feat was one of which I hadn’t heard of before, Bulk Metallic Glass (BMG), and so I began researching this glass like metal and how it can do what it does but now is not the time, nor am I knowledgeable enough in that area, to properly explain this really quite interesting new material in full detail but essentially BMG’s, depending on how they’re processed, lack the crystalline lattice usually found in metals which allows for them to have characteristics such as high strength, high hardness and large elastic deformation, which for this purpose, seems aptly useful.
An exploded view showing the unique independently moving crown and winding system and titanium casing ring which lowers the weight the SPRIN-g system must hold.
This brings me onto the testing. The watch was tested with the Fracture and Shock Physics group at Cambridge University, so evidently the right people for the job, but one question I’d like to ask is if IWC had any expectations for how much force they wanted the watch to withstand at the start of the design process. Were they designing to reach a certain limit? Or if they tested the BMG cantilever spring and those were the numbers achieved. With a reading 30 times that of the expected amount a pilot’s watch may face if knocked during flight which sits at 1000g, it seems way way over engineered for what’s needed.
Being as technically advanced as the Shock Absorber is, the only real choice for the case material for IWC was of course ceratanium. Their developed material has become common place amongst the pilot range in recent years, providing the lightness and robustness of titanium, but the scratch resistance of a ceramic, all whilst providing this stealthy matte black finish that comes about during the firing process. When I first saw this watch, it was a very much, a feeling of intrigue because of its familiar pilot casing, yet something unfamiliar about the styling but when you delve into it, it becomes a very very cool piece, that seems to wear very nicely as demonstrated by CEO Christoph Grainger-Herr.
Other shock absorbing watches do exist out there, mainly in the form of Richard Mille and their exports in the golf and tennis sectors, but they do not come close to the amount of force that can be withstood by the IWC, and of course, and come at an astronomical price in comparison, but sadly the XPL, is similarly as rare as the aforementioned being limited to an annual production of 10 pieces.
I was drawn in by this automatic Big Pilot and inspired to discuss it because it asks the question why. Why is this necessary? Maybe it is a common issue that pilots keep banging their watch against technical instruments, but I think not. I don’t know how in a real-world situation anything would experience anywhere close to that amount of g force, or how they even test up to those numbers for that matter, but it’s IWC showing what they can do. It is IWC exploring different avenues and staying true to their roots of innovation and engineering.
Mechanical watches already have shock protection within them. The balance staff pivot is the finest pivot in the watch, and with an accidental knock to the case, before shock protection, either replacing the staff or remaking the staff, was the most common repair a watchmaker would have to do, and trust me, that job is not fun. There are numerous different types of shock settings, but all do the same job for the watch whereby, if a knock does occur, the balance staff has room to just slightly follow that force, helping to prevent a broken pivot. Now, I don’t see these features going away anytime soon, but what if all cases had the level of shock absorption the Big Pilot XPL has? Even with shock settings, a large directional knock can still cause a balance staff to break, so this technology would genuinely, literally give you another layer of protection, which may not be overly necessary, but why not?
Cross sectional image of a balance staff between its upper and lower shock settings (c) Great British Watch
I think, as a Horology student and learning about the advances over the centuries in timekeeping, brands have almost slowed down in their pursuit for the improvement of watches, but I can see this SPRIN-g technology filtering down in some way and I really hope it does. Given that the XPL in the name stands for Experimental, I’m really looking forward to seeing which exciting directions this new division of IWC will go and no doubt already are going.
Nathan Hardy With a technical mind, a passion for design, and a keen interest for watches, Nathan chose to study Horology at Birmingham City University, currently undertaking the designing and making of a horological timepiece, alongside completing a selection of complex services to aid his portfolio. This allows him to have an understanding for the inner workings of watches, of which he is keen to share and raise awareness.