Miniaturisation has often been the driving force behind disruptive technologies. Without it, we would still have clocks instead of watches, mainframes instead of laptops and landlines instead of smartphones. The ability to initiate such downscaling is deeply embedded in the industry of Western Switzerland. This is because precision has always been a prerequisite in mechanical engineering, be it in watchmaking or metrology. In watchmaking this tradition has its roots as far back as the XVIIIth century. Recently, it was transformed into a marketing argument, when the precision of quartz threatened to undermine the reputation for accuracy of Swiss-made mechanical watches. Highlighting the rich tradition has transformed high-end Swiss watches into instruments that are more about measuring social status than measuring time. But it has also revived the fortunes of the Swiss watch industry. And now this is giving watchmakers the financial means to reinvest in micro- and in some cases nano- technology, in order to re-engage with the latest technologies (see our Feature Watchmaking p. 32) Of course, part of the motivation for doing this is the high esteem and cachet that our society attaches to high tech products. But the consequences of these investments are being felt far beyond the watchmaking industry.Investment in microtechnology research and development is giving numerous suppliers and research institutions the opportunity to investigate new applications. This is exemplified by the research of Professor Philippe Renaud at the Swiss Institute of Technology of Lausanne (See his profile p. 16), whose micro and nanotechnology research is spilling over to biotechnologies, medical technologies, electronics, new materials, metrology, energy, space, and so on. One particular case in point is Microelectromechanical Systems (MEMS) and sensors, designed by researchers such as Nico de Rooij (see Microcity p.11 ) and manufactured thanks to extreme precision know-how and engineering skills found in companies in Western Switzerland.
Micro and nanotechnology are enabling technologies. As such, they are fertilising entire industries, allowing researchers to create new applications, suppliers to diversify, and companies to reinvent themselves and their products. Sensors, for example, have not only increased the appeal of a watch, as is the case with Tissot’s world success, the T-Touch, but they are also being used to monitor health, observe the environment to improve agriculture (see Wisefield p. 26), and even to prevent catastrophic events (see Swiss Experiment p. 24). Now, the ability of sensors to make everything smarter, be it a building, a car, or a cloth, opens up new opportunities for Swiss industry and its long-standing expertise in miniaturisation. In particular, embedded sensors need to be able to operate at low energy. Low power has been a long tradition in watchmaking, which for years has nurtured breakthroughs in energy use and energy sources at Western Switzerland’s labs. This expertise is now finding new significance in energy efficient chip design for nomadic devices, electronic medical implants and even for picosatellites.Newcomers and established companies are building businesses on this unique potential. Our selection of company profiles is testimony to the ongoing change. In collaboration with the region’s research institutions these companies are reinventing industries, be it at a manufacturing level, or a product level. This mix of Swiss expertise in miniaturisation and precision, with fundamental and applied research, explains in part why Western Switzerland has been able to maintain a strong industrial base - and one which will continue to thrive as many foreign companies are drawn to establish R&D operations in the region to benefit from the micro and nanotech cluster effect.
Fabrice DelayeEditor of technology by Bilan