Design Isn’t Easy

Clive Maxfield
|  Created: October 19, 2019  |  Updated: March 16, 2020

The Sandman Doppler Alexa-enabled alarm clock (Image source: Palo Alto Innovation)

The fact that design isn’t easy may not strike experienced engineers as being hot news, but younger members of our profession may not have seen the memo. Even something that sounds simple, like an alarm clock, can pose unexpected challenges.

I know whereof I speak, because I've been waiting to take delivery of my new alarm clock for more than two years as I pen these words.

Way back in the mists of time (circa 2014), my old alarm clock died, so I invested in a cheap-and-cheerful "bargain" item that I picked up from Walmart for ~$10. This little scamp was "interesting" to say the least. First, it purported to offer a mind-boggling array of functions, but they were all accessed and controlled by three confusingly market buttons whose operation appeared to vary on a daily basis.

Guided by the manual, which was hand-crafted by someone with an unusual sense of humor, I managed to set the current time and an alarm time of 6:30 a.m., but then I lost the manual, after which I could never successfully manage to modify either of these values. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the clock gained a couple of seconds each day, so its drift from reality grew increasingly pronounced over time. As a result, if I awoke in the middle of the night and wanted to check the time, I had to remember to apply the current offset.

So, you can only imagine my surprise and delight in June 2017 to hear about the then-forthcoming Sandman Doppler Kickstarter, which planned to be Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Alexa-enabled. I could barely contain my excitement. As soon as this Kickstarter launched, I was at the front of the queue, bouncing up and down like Tigger squeaking, "Me, me, I want one!" (see Voice-Controlled Alarm Clock for the 21st Century and The Sandman's Coming to Take Me to the Land of Nod).

Now, the creators of the Sandman Doppler at Palo Alto Innovation are a great bunch. They also have a great sense of humor; for example, as it says on their "Our Story" page: "Palo Alto Innovation, is a team of designers, engineers, and businessmen who love gadgets and want to create something we are proud of. We are currently located in sunny Santa Clara, California because rent in Palo Alto is too expensive."

So, they call themselves "Palo Alto Innovation," but they are based somewhere else because it costs too much to rent space in Palo Alto -- you have to laugh.

As you can see in this video, the Sandman Doppler is going to be temptingly tasty (although this video was posted a year after the original Kickstarter, it very much reflects the original description).


Now, since the guys and gals at Palo Alto Innovation had already enjoyed success with their original Sandman Clock product, you might have expected the Sandman Doppler project to go smoothly, but such has not been the case.

As Lily Tomlin famously said, "I always wanted to be somebody, but now I realize I should have been more specific." Similarly, I told everyone I was hoping to receive my Sandman Doppler by Christmas, but I should have been more specific. I originally anticipated seeing my Sandman Doppler sitting on my bedside table by Christmas 2017, but now I'll be happy if it crawls through the door by Christmas 2019, and I wouldn’t be overly surprised if I end up waiting until Christmas 2020.

On the bright side, the folks at Palo Alto Innovation have posted numerous updates (currently 30) explaining the problems they've run into, the solutions to those problems, the new problems with the solutions, the new solutions to the new problems... you get my drift.

I'm a pretty mellow fellow. I'll just be happy to greet my Sandman Doppler with open arms when it eventually wends its weary way to me. I also feel sorry for the guys and gals at Palo Alto Innovation, because this project must seem to have grown into a nightmare from their point of view.

The bottom line is that designing things isn’t easy, and whenever we forget this and underestimate the task at hand, Lady Luck (by which I mean "chance personified as a controlling power in human affairs," and not the American rapper of the same name) is always ready to make a dramatic entrance and remind us of the error of our ways.


About Author

About Author

Clive "Max" Maxfield received his BSc in Control Engineering in 1980 from Sheffield Hallam University, England and began his career as a designer of central processing units (CPUs) for mainframe computers. Over the years, Max has designed everything from silicon chips to circuit boards and from brainwave amplifiers to steampunk Prognostication Engines (don't ask). He has also been at the forefront of Electronic Design Automation (EDA) for more than 30 years.

Well-known throughout the embedded, electronics, semiconductor, and EDA industries, Max has presented papers at numerous technical conferences around the world, including North and South America, Europe, India, China, Korea, and Taiwan. He has given keynote presentations at the PCB West conference in the USA and the FPGA Forum in Norway. He's also been invited to give guest lectures at several universities in the US and at Oslo University in Norway. In 2001, Max "shared the stage" at a conference in Hawaii with former Speaker of the House, "Newt" Gingrich.

Max is the author of a number of books, including Designus Maximus Unleashed (banned in Alabama), Bebop to the Boolean Boogie (An Unconventional Guide to Electronics), EDA: Where Electronics Begins, FPGAs: Instant Access, and How Computers Do Math.

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