Down to the Nanosecond: Firehouse Horology Takes Time-Keeping to the Next Level

Firehouse Horology inspects a new silicon wafer to be used in fabricating mechanical watch components.

Firehouse Horology inspects a new silicon wafer to be used in fabricating mechanical watch components.

The mechanical watch may seem decidedly old school, but Firehouse Horology is using nanotechnology to bring luxury timepieces into the 21st century.

Based in CUNY’s Advanced Science Research Center, Firehouse Horology utilizes the most advanced nanofabrication tools to manufacture a silicon hairspring, a tiny flat, spiral spring that is used to regulate timekeeping in a watch.

Firehouse Horology inspects a new silicon wafer to be used in fabricating mechanical watch components.

Firehouse Horology inspects a new silicon wafer to be used in fabricating mechanical watch components.

“Mechanical watches have been made the same way for hundreds of years, from steel and brass,” says Nick Manousos, who co-founded the company along with Kiran Shekar in 2015. “A few years ago, people realized that silicon would be perfect in mechanical watches.”

What makes silicon ideal are its properties -- it is anti-magnetic, extremely hard and unmalleable, and, at one-third the density of steel, lightweight. In addition, it can be polished so it doesn’t require lubrication and oil to run well. Finally, it can help timepieces do their job of accurately keeping time.

“We can use nanofabrication techniques to manufacture parts for mechanical watches with accuracy down to the nanometer,” Manousos says. “Watchmakers think in terms of micrometers, or 1,000th of a meter. We think in terms of 1,000th of a micron.”

Kiran and Nick standing outside the lithography bay at the ASRC NanoFab.

Kiran and Nick standing outside the lithography bay at the ASRC NanoFab.

Together with a few part-time engineers, Manousos and Shekar have been working to perfect their patent-pending hairsprings. Inside the Orange Room, Firehouse uses electron beam lithography to create patterns and designs down to the nanometer. A fluorine plasma etcher allows them to then accurately etch shapes onto silicon.

“We like things to be as high quality as possible,” says Shekar.

A mutual love of watches brought Manousos and Shekar together. A software engineer by training, Manousos decided to try something new after 15 years in Silicon Valley. He set out for Florida, where he enrolled in a watchmaking group. Shekar, who has a background in semiconductor processing and finance, has a passion for craftsmanship and owns a collection of luxury watches.

Kiran and Nick developing a test chip after direct laser writing of a new component revision.

Kiran and Nick developing a test chip after direct laser writing of a new component revision.

The two met in New York and decided to form Firehouse Horology, which they hope will help America reclaim its role as a leading maker of watches and watch parts.

“At one time, the USA was number one in mechanical watches, in terms of both quality and quantity,” Shekar says. “Now the industry in America is all but non-existent.”

Among the first companies to move into the ASRC, the founders of Firehouse say it has served as a perfect home.

“ASRC makes it so easy for companies to do their work in a nice environment and collaborative atmosphere without bureaucracy or red tape,” Manousos says. “They want start-ups and there is also great collaboration between the university and industry.”

Nick placing a newly fabricated silicon hairspring into a mechanical watch in the NanoFab.

Nick placing a newly fabricated silicon hairspring into a mechanical watch in the NanoFab.

In addition, the companies within the ASRC work well together. For example, Manousos says his company has turned to Lumiodefor help and tips about the machinery and vice versa.

A self-funded company, Firehouse Technologies is now busy trying to commercialize their hairsprings and gain a piece of the $25 billion luxury watch market. Yet even when they succeed and grow, Firehouse expects that it will be able to remain at the ASRC since they can make 100 springs on one four-inch wafer – a benefit of nanotechnology.

“Our plan is to fill a void in the watch market from right here at the ASRC,” Manousos says.

And when they do, the ASRC will be there to celebrate their success.