One of the primary benefits of the FIRST Robotics Competition is its emphasis on the engineering design process during build season. All successful FRC teams, without exception, implement some sort of design process. These processes are not a mystery – there are many resources online for teams looking for help. The VEX EDR Curriculum and Karthik’s Strategic Analysis are both great places to start.
The Build Blitz participants are well-versed in their own versions of the engineering design process, having used it for years both on their own FRC teams and in their “real world” jobs or projects. We sat down with each team to ask them a few questions about how they view the design process and how they are applying it to Recycle Rush. The varied answers offer an exclusive insight to the core of what it takes to succeed in competitive robotics.
What is the most important step in the design process you use for FRC?
“Brainstorming. You need ideas. Without ideas, whether they’re off-the-wall, outside-the-box, or just ‘normal’, you won’t even have a place to start.”
“Understanding the problem. Make sure you start from scratch and take time to understand what’s actually important, forming a list of requirements. Karthik’s Strategic Analysis can help with this.”
“Separating what I WANT to do from what I NEED to do. Many times, a glamorous idea will jump out at you right away, but you need to avoid limiting your creative vision by jumping to this conclusion. For example, in Recycle Rush, building as many giant stacks of Totes as possible immediately comes to mind – but when you step back and look at the game as a whole, there may be other ways to achieve higher scores.”
Most teams have created a design process based on historical assumptions of FRC games. With the major changes in Recycle Rush, what parts of your design process needed to be changed this season?
“With changes to the playoffs and how teams are ranked, you may have to think differently about your match strategy. Being the best partner you can be is crucial. Since the ranks are based off of average score, it’s very likely that the #1 seed will be the best scorer. However, the best PARTNER will be the #1 pick by that seed – not necessarily the second-best scorer.”
“With the standard bot sizes thrown out the window, an important constraint has been removed. Defining your constraints is an incredibly important part of engineering. The removal of such a basic constraint does allow for creativity, but can be overwhelming.”
“This game’s non-defensive nature has completely changed our build philosophies. You no longer need to be crazy robust. This is an entirely new way of thinking about complexity and how it relates to robustness. You still need to emphasize consistency, but that no longer means being robust enough to survive a hit from a cinderblock.”
“You’re no longer limited by many of the traditional rules. You can do whatever you want – which could be dangerous. Teams need to be able to predict and judge what they are capable of. Now, more than ever, there is a high risk of overreaching.”
What mistakes in the design process do you commonly see FRC teams making?
“Getting to the ‘end’ and just sitting there, complacent with their result. Design is an iterative process – it may take only 5 more minutes of iteration to score 5 more points every time.”
“Jumping to the ‘how’ too fast before evaluating the ‘what’ or the ‘why’. The answer to ‘how do you score in Recycle Rush’ should not be ‘with an elevator,’ it should be ‘by stacking Totes.'”
“Not realistically understanding their team’s capabilities. This game, more than ever, will be won or lost in the build season. Don’t overreach – you will not succeed. However, don’t underreach either – you will be leaving points on the table by not being everything your team can be.”
“Overestimating what their team can do. This applies to robotics games in general beyond FRC. And, I suppose, to life in general.”
“Going straight to design without prototyping. It’s important to prove the viability of a system before going deep into CAD. If you make the world’s best CAD file for a robot that doesn’t end up being able to compete, you won’t have time to step back and create a better system that actually works.”
How can teams without professional engineering mentor support improve their design process?
“Take advantage of the community in general, whether it’s Build Blitz, Robot in 3 Days, Chief Delphi, or something else. There is absolutely no shame in researching what others have done before you. Be cautious, though. Try to parse out the noise by looking to those who tangibly succeed (win) consistently, or to those who are highly respected by the community. The Simbot Seminar series is a great example.”
“Every decision you make should have a ‘why’ associated with it. Try to avoid choosing things arbitrarily. If you don’t have a good reason or can’t come up with one, keep investigating until you can find something that does have that solid ‘why’.”
“Make sure you HAVE a process. Watch out for the ‘Ready-Fire-Aim’ syndrome. If you implement some sort of process, whether it’s the VEX EDR Curriculum, Karthik’s Strategic Analysis, or something else, you will already be a step above those who jump right in.”
For teams without the ability to use CAD, how would you recommend that teams structure their process to make up for this missing resource?
“Spend even more time on accurate physical mockups. For example, if you’re trying to pick up Totes from the floor, make sure you have the actual Totes, you start them in the correct layout, your carpet is as close as possible to competition field, etc. Most CAD starts with ‘Crayola CAD‘ anyway; you should try to do something similar in the physical world.”
“Plywood and 2×4’s work great. However, VEX EDR, VEX IQ, or other construction systems are inexpensive ways to make accurate small-scale mockups quickly. Think about it – every episode of Mythbusters starts with a small-scale mockup before they move to the real thing.”
“I’ve seen some teams be successful using large sheets of paper or whiteboards for 1:1 robot drawings. It’s a throwback to classic drafting techniques and helps to visualize everything.”
“Get CAD. At the very least, experiment with some free 2D sketch tools like SketchUp Make (formerly Google SketchUp), PTC Creo Sketch, or DraftSight (from the makers of SolidWorks). Additionally, both SolidWorks and Autodesk have free or discounted options of their professional CAD suites for educational use. Even using 2D ‘Crayola CAD‘ will save you enormous amounts of time in the process as you try to lay everything out.”
Any final pieces of advice for teams, either about the design process or about Recycle Rush?
“Be the best team YOU can be. The goal of any FRC team should be to build EXACTLY as complex or as powerful as they can without overreaching.”
“Reliability and consistency are paramount. If you do ONE thing, every single match, without fail, you will beat the guy who does many different things poorly. Every time.”
“Never underestimate the power of prototyping. You don’t know what you don’t know – it’s much more difficult to try and predict how something will perform than it is to simply build a mockup and test it.”
“Savor the opportunities granted by Recycle Rush. There is nothing more fulfilling than coming up with a creative solution to a complex problem, and this game is FILLED with complex problems. We should consider ourselves fortunate that FIRST has given us this complexity to work with.”