Creating the Sinclair FM Radio Watch
By Dagfinn Aksnes
Designer of the Sinclair FM Radio Watch
© Dagfinn Aksnes
Image credits Tom Gibson Photography and Dagfinn Aksnes
The story of the design and manufacturing of the Sinclair FM radio Watch contains many experiences and lessons which may still be interesting and relevant for designers and anyone involved with innovation today.
The way in which we conceptualised, experimented, visualised and prototyped this complex product may be worthy of study and discussion because it illustrates proven approaches to design in the early phase of innovation. Later on the very positive and fruitful collaborations with many UK manufacturers illustrate the value of a technology network and how it can be used to increase the power of innovation.
There are also powerful arguments for the technical and economic wisdom of manufacturing in the UK or Europe, especially in the light of many failures associated with manufacturing in the Far East and all the potential pitfalls that may be encountered in such undertakings.
The innovation process we used became the prototype of the Design Innovation Process that I later evolved and which provides a strong proven track record for successful innovation. The ability to spend an appropriate amount of time, effort and resources in the early phase of innovation is still not the industry standard although much more value could be created by working this way. The Design Innovation Process provides a credible alternative to stage gate processes which can stifle early phase innovation and hamper creative working throughout.
I am grateful to my colleagues, especially Sir Clive Sinclair and Mike Pye for allowing me the freedom to explore freely and take full advantage of a creative environment which could be characterised by chaos, disorder and uncertainty in the early phase. However these were the conditions for creative ideas to thrive and a very necessary ingredient for innovation to work. Both Sir Clive and Mike were very experienced in the early phase of innovation and understood the need to allow adequate time and resources for it. But this wisdom is by no means universal and today many innovation projects fail because of a lack of understanding and knowledge of the importance of the early phase. Current discourse on the internet and my own experience clearly highlight this unfortunate situation.
During the early phase we did a lot of exploration and experimenting in order to develop ideas for solving the various requirements. This work was of fundamental value and although some experiments did not work, they were not seen as failures but as useful learning along the way. This approach is a vital part of a strong innovation culture, but elements like these are often missing in organisations, making it difficult for innovation to progress.
An example of this was the positive encouragement to experiment with metallised Mylar film, to explore the piezo-electric properties of this material as a basis for an ultra thin speaker. Amazingly, I managed to make recognisable sound with this new technology, however in the end we decided to use a conventional moving diaphragm speaker due to the superior sound quality.
The collaborating companies were chosen wisely and with very few exceptions we maintained the same sub-contractors throughout the project. This meant that I had personal face to face contact with the people who did the work, they were all within a few hours’ drive from Winchester, except Timex in Dundee. Whenever the need for communication or problem solving arose, it could be dealt with more or less immediately on the day or at worst within a few days, depending on my work load. We did not have emails in those days but the fax technology was used frequently and had the advantage that the recipient received in their hands a piece of hard copy with the relevant request and any associated sketches or drawings. It seems to me that the imperative in such a communication is stronger than in an email which may not be looked at straight away.
CAD was in its infancy but far too costly and too cumbersome to be relevant for our projects at that time. Our prototyping approach was certainly as rapid as todays “rapid prototyping” and in some cases far more rapid. Because we worked in real materials the results were highly relevant to design for production, this was of the greatest importance in the miniature components of the watch. We could also achieve super finishes and minute detail when this was important. Joining of parts were straight forward and modifications and secondary operations could be readily achieved. The power of analogue processes in prototyping should neither be ignored nor forgotten, as they do in fact compliment the digital approaches we see today.
In terms of risk, yes of course, we took huge risks during this project. But would this kind of innovation where we pushed the boundaries of technology and created a whole new market in telecommunications be possible without risk? We had both the confidence and the ability to deal with the risks and find solutions to the challenges we faced during the work. To put this risk in its proper perspective, all our production tools worked right first time and no time or investment was lost due to risks taken in the early phase. We also put in place strategic measures in tool design to allow for inserts to be replaceable if required due to faults or wear.
The Design Innovation Process is able to explore the opportunities inherent in the early phase, which are created by risk, uncertainty, disorder and chaos. These are vital opportunities that would otherwise have been missed. Then the process ameliorates the risk, gradually reducing it during the project until it is finally eliminated.
The story has now been revised and is published here by popular request from those who have an interest in this product and its impact.
The Sinclair FM Radio Watch was recently chosen as one of “Fifty Watches that changed the world” in the book written by Alex Newson, Curator at the Design Museum and published in September 2015 by Conran Octopus Books ISBN 978-1-84091-679-9.
The watch has also been chosen to be on permanent display at the new Design Museum in Kensington, London, when it opens on 24th of November 2016.
The project was from the outset shrouded in secrecy which was standard Sinclair practice, especially as the watch project was the precursory work required for the development of the mobile telephone. This evolutionary step was clearly stated from the outset and was always in our minds during the watch project. Clearly the mobile telephone could not have succeeded without some of the miniaturisation of the mechanical as well as the electronic content that we achieved, but that is another story…..