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  #31   Spotlight this post!  
Unread 04-08-2012, 02:44 PM
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Re: The missing feature: A common thread

On our team, we do first focus on strategy and what a "difference maker" robot needs to be able to do, and from that we set "need to haves" and "nice to haves." As much as I like this system and I feel it's a good way to digest the game, I feel as if sometimes we limit ourselves by making something a "nice to have" because it is hard to implement. From my experience, whether or not our drives team has gotten time to practice with our robot makes a bigger difference than anything else. I joined the team in 2010, which was not a very successful year for us. I saw us finish late and struggle with one feature of our robot the entire season. Our drivers got practically no practice, and therefore we didn't really succeed at all. However, in 2011 we used known technology from previous years' robots and made a very successful bot that was SO CLOSE to winning two regionals. The key difference between these years? In 2011 we finished our bot very early (for us) and our drivers got a ton of practice, to a point where it was almost as if they operated autonomously. After seeing how these two years turned out, I hounded the team all year long that it was important to push hard and finish the bot early, because it is a LOT easier to identify problems and fix them at school, with all of the space and resources we needed (not to mention a lot more time). However, there still was an astonishing lack of urgency demonstrated from a good portion of the team. On our team of usually about 35 people, there always only seems to be a group of about 5-7 students who are carrying the team. I want to ask...how exactly do people on other teams get students motivated? Myself, a few other students, and the mentors on our team are constantly drilling urgency, but few ever seem to listen. I'm one of 14 seniors on my team this year, and most of our "key people" are seniors, and I'm thoroughly worried about the condition our team will be in next year. Any insight? How do the powerhouse teams get their students motivated to finish the bot so early?

Also, we seem to have a problem with the idea of a "concept lock," constantly changing our design way farther into the season that we should. How do the elites know when enough is enough in regards to designing?
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Unread 04-08-2012, 03:36 PM
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Re: The missing feature: A common thread

I think what everyone has mentioned is true, but I have not seen anyone really mention the fact that most of the power house teams have been around for many years or least has a mentor that has been. They have seen what works and what doesn’t work for many of the tasks.

We are a small team that is 5 years old and by no means a powerhouse, but we learn a little bit more every year. This year we had a ball harvesting mechanism. This is the second bot we have built with one. Lunacy was the first. On Lunacy the team was starting from scratch trying to come up with conveyor material (something that would give tension but not break, have enough traction to pick up balls, stay centered on the rollers….). While the team had a system that harvested balls it took major design time an iteration getting it to work as it was thought up. When the team made it to our regional they saw that many of the powerhouse teams were using polycord belts (something our team didn’t know existed). Guess what, our harvesting system this year had polycord belts and worked beautifully and we got to spend most of our time working on our shooting system, and bridge lowering mechanism not seeing if shelf liner world work better than leather belts, or if rivets or sewing would hold this fabric belt together.

We still have a long way to go to get to the powerhouse level, but every year we learn and get better. It takes a good strategy, design, and execution to get there. We are still at the level where we have to throw out strategies that we do not have to the resources to built in the given time frame, but hopefully we can attract more mentors, sponsors, and eager students to design to the optimum game strategy in the future.
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Unread 04-08-2012, 05:02 PM
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Re: The missing feature: A common thread

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Originally Posted by Chris Fultz View Post
When talking about the game, try to keep high level for the first part of the discussions. More on this one to follow.
To add to this point, think about this years game. If you began talking about keys to the game, did you say -

"shoot baskets"
"drive up onto the bridge"
"cross the barrier".

By using those terms, you immediately began to design your robot, by thinking "shooter", "traction wheels", "big wheels", etc. While you may have ended up there with your design, you keep your ideas more open if you think about it like this -

"get balls through the hoops"
"be balanced by the bridge"
"get to the other end of the field".

By thinking of the key elements in these "higher" terms, you can be more open about the "how" - "how" to get the balls through the hoops (shooter, conveyor, tube system), "how" to get onto the bridge (drive, fly, be carried, crawl up the side), and "how" to get to the other end of the field (drive over barrier, drive over bridge, jump, get pushed, flip, walk).

Some of these examples are a little extreme, but the point is to stay at a high level of discussion early so that you don't lock your thinking into a design idea too quickly.
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Unread 04-08-2012, 05:58 PM
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Re: The missing feature: A common thread

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I believe that many teams approach the game wrong if they, in fact, really want to win. They view it as "How can we do the task well, quickly and within our manufacturing means." The elites look at how to accomplish the task the BEST way (that means strategically). They MAKE their design work. They worry about the actual design process last--and rightly so. They know that you have to score, and quickly, to win. There have been phenomenally manufactured robots who have been horrible on the field because the designers were thinking more about manufacturing than strategy. Conversely, there are numerous instances where middle or lower level bots have made it to divisional finals because they had the right strategy and made a robust bot albeit not a manufacturing marvel.
Keep in mind that one of the reasons the "elite" teams don't worry about manufacturing is they don't have to. Most elite teams have access to sophisticated CNC machinery, which eliminates most difficulties associated with tolerances, weight and manufacturing weird shapes.

In my mind, the major difference between "powerhouse" teams and the rest of us comes from fast machining ability. It's not like they are all geniuses (or at least not much more so than the rest of teams). They just have more time than the rest of us, more experience than the rest of us, and better tools than the rest of us.
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Unread 04-08-2012, 06:12 PM
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Re: The missing feature: A common thread

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Originally Posted by DampRobot View Post
Keep in mind that one of the reasons the "elite" teams don't worry about manufacturing is they don't have to. Most elite teams have access to sophisticated CNC machinery, which eliminates most difficulties associated with tolerances, weight and manufacturing weird shapes.
I don't really know what level of teams you are referring to as "elite" but I think you are really over-estimating the number of teams who have access to these machines and simply "get parts made".

If you talk to these "elite" teams I think you will find many of them are using basic manual mills, drill presses, lathes, etc. and making a lot of the parts themselves.
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Unread 04-08-2012, 06:22 PM
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Re: The missing feature: A common thread

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Originally Posted by Chris Fultz View Post
I don't really know what level of teams you are referring to as "elite" but I think you are really over-estimating the number of teams who have access to these machines and simply "get parts made".

If you talk to these "elite" teams I think you will find many of them are using basic manual mills, drill presses, lathes, etc. and making a lot of the parts themselves.
To continue your line of thought it's rarely this easy even if you are getting parts made. We rely quite a bit on sponsors who make us parts and lost well over a week of our schedule when delays started stacking up.

We have access to a CNC mill in our lab and parts don't just pop out of the machine. It is a very involved and time consuming process to manufacture everything.
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Unread 04-08-2012, 06:25 PM
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Re: The missing feature: A common thread

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Originally Posted by Chris Fultz View Post
I don't really know what level of teams you are referring to as "elite" but I think you are really over-estimating the number of teams who have access to these machines and simply "get parts made".

If you talk to these "elite" teams I think you will find many of them are using basic manual mills, drill presses, lathes, etc. and making a lot of the parts themselves.
I regard a team as "elite" as one that can more or less depend on making it to championships every year.

While there are exceptions to every rule, I have found that many of the high preforming teams in my area either have sponsors that machine a large number of parts for them, or have many CNC type machines that allow them to manufacture complex parts themselves. While I don't really want to turn this into another "ethics of fabrication" thread, ability to manufacture quickly seems to be a common element in teams that preform at a very high level year after year.
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Unread 04-08-2012, 06:25 PM
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Re: The missing feature: A common thread

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Originally Posted by DampRobot View Post
Keep in mind that one of the reasons the "elite" teams don't worry about manufacturing is they don't have to. Most elite teams have access to sophisticated CNC machinery, which eliminates most difficulties associated with tolerances, weight and manufacturing weird shapes.

In my mind, the major difference between "powerhouse" teams and the rest of us comes from fast machining ability. It's not like they are all geniuses (or at least not much more so than the rest of teams). They just have more time than the rest of us, more experience than the rest of us, and better tools than the rest of us.
What I think that you are leaving out of your assessment is the recognition of the ability to think and solve problems like an engineer. Skill sets that continue to adjust and adapt to the challenges provided by FRC, continue to fortify the strengths of the teams. The wise use and applications of those skill sets are what you can see missing as a feature on the field. Any field. Pick a field. You'll see that feature missing.

Jane
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Unread 04-08-2012, 06:33 PM
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Re: The missing feature: A common thread

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Originally Posted by DampRobot View Post
I regard a team as "elite" as one that can more or less depend on making it to championships every year.

While there are exceptions to every rule, I have found that many of the high preforming teams in my area either have sponsors that machine a large number of parts for them, or have many CNC type machines that allow them to manufacture complex parts themselves. While I don't really want to turn this into another "ethics of fabrication" thread, ability to manufacture quickly seems to be a common element in teams that preform at a very high level year after year.
I think you may have been generalizing a lot with the "Elite teams have parts made for them" statement, but I'd absolutely agree with you. Whether they make the part themselves via their own equipment, or have a sponsor machine the parts for them, good machining capability can be a staple of making a great robot. If nothing else, it opens doors to new possibilities.

This year, my team experimented with Swerve drive. We never would have been able to fully manufacture a prototype and competition bot without A) our CNC mill to make the modules, and B) one of our sponsors making us the frame. The machining was solid, the programming was a little sketchy, but overall, we had a style of drive train you don't find on the 'average' team. Our machining capability played a huge part in that. And because of that, we can continue to improve it. Should the decision be reached to do so.

I agree, lets not turn this into an ethics of sponsor machining debate, but I have to agree that machining certainly helps. If you have access to CNC machines, laser cutters, water jets, etc. you'll be able to manufacture components of a higher caliber which, in the end, can lend itself to a higher caliber robot. It's not necessarily a direct correlation, but I certainly can't deny that it helps.
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Unread 04-08-2012, 07:03 PM
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Re: The missing feature: A common thread

Hi-tech machining and fabrication is not the key; it's the simple act of understanding your capabilities and resources that will separate the high level team from mid level.

A box on wheels with a solid bridge mechanism coupled with drivers with lots of stick time would almost certainly have been a picking team this year or very valuable team to a top alliance.

Also practice, practice, and practice. It's an axiom that Paul Copioli shared with me during the Overdrive season; a team that builds two simple robots will almost always out perform the best complicated robot with drivers with little practice. We had a bot with lots of potential that year but it needed a lot of time to tune and develop it properly. It was also a little difficult to operate. If we would have had a practice bot that year we would have done much better. After that year we started building two bots and you can see the improvement in our performance.

Our drivers logged at least forty hours of stick time before their first regional and almost an equal amount before the second. Most drivers will never get more than a few hours of stick time every year. Our practice bot broke repeatedly but we learned from that and our comp bot never had a mechanical problem.

Also being flexible during the design process. Our shooter took almost five weeks to develop this year and many on our team wondered if it would even work. We were going out on a bit of a limb. We designed our robot to accept our fling-a-pult but also to use a conventional shooter just in case it didn't work. I still have the parts for the conventional shooter sitting on my desk at the lab.

The last thing those elite teams have is institutional memory. For example teams that played Aim-High had a huge advantage this year. They didn't have to develop the knowledge of picking up balls and moving balls through the robot, not as easy as it looks. They also have experimented and developed different drive systems and only need to adapt this knowledge to the new game.
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Unread 04-08-2012, 07:05 PM
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Re: The missing feature: A common thread

The majority of parts I end up making on our CNC could easily be made on a manual machine...if you were aiming only for functionality and didn't care about making fancy parts. We machined at least 50 unique parts on our CNC this year from week 1 to week 6, but the vast majority were nice looking parts that could have been cut on a bandsaw and sanded to fit, or made on a manual machine. It's a huge drain on time and resources to make parts like this, and it's not like its impossible to hold a tolerance on a manual mill.

CNCs aren't magic. Your parts aren't going to be made to spec if you don't know what you're doing on the machine and it takes a fair amount of time for every unique piece. This may or may no seem obvious, but it seems like a lot of people are under the impression that a CNC is going to solve all your problems.

If you do have a CNC, chances are you're not doing too badly. But that's not because of the machine.
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Unread 04-08-2012, 07:37 PM
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Re: The missing feature: A common thread

I think many teams need to take the time to stop and look for weaknesses in their designs. Kinda related to Amdahl's law, you want everything to work fast, without there being a bottleneck somewhere.

You could have a really fast and accurate shooter, but that's no good if your ball-collecting mechanism is slow and clunky and can't actually catch and send balls to the shooter fast enough. The shooter would be hindered by the collector, so trying to make the shooter even better wouldn't do much good unless you improved the collector first.

The opposite also applies. You could have a great collector mechanism that quickly grabbed balls off the field, but that's no good if the shooter takes a while to fire, or if it's not very accurate. The collector would be stuck doing nothing waiting for the shooter to fire a ball, as you can only hold 3 balls at a time. If it missed, the robot would need to spend even more time recollecting more balls to shoot.

Basically, focus on making the weakest part of the robot better. Any team can do this. If you don't, all the other parts of the robot won't be able to perform at their best.
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Unread 04-08-2012, 07:42 PM
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Re: The missing feature: A common thread

I think I just need to clarify what I was saying.

I wasn't implying that you need machines to do well, or that having simpler machines put you at a disadvantage (most of our best seasons came years before we had a CNC mill or a sponsor to do parts for us).

The point I was trying to get at is having specialized machinery speeds up the process at which special parts are made. Like it was said above, it takes longer to create these parts on a bandsaw or drill press and finish them to specification than through other methods. It's also easier to get higher precision from using CNC equipment than a drill press or bandsaw. I know THAT from experience. Faster, more precise machining means the robot is 'completed' earlier, means more time to program and practice with a robot. Which leads to better performance.

Specialized machining methods do help. But it DOES NOT guarantee success. It's merely an aid. In my opinion, a very useful aid.
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Unread 04-08-2012, 10:01 PM
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Re: The missing feature: A common thread

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Originally Posted by DampRobot View Post
Keep in mind that one of the reasons the "elite" teams don't worry about manufacturing is they don't have to. Most elite teams have access to sophisticated CNC machinery, which eliminates most difficulties associated with tolerances, weight and manufacturing weird shapes.
I must be on the wrong team then, because we have no automated fabrication capabilities. We do have a sponsor who cuts our 1/8" thick side plates to size for us (I lust after something that'll cut thick aluminum better than our band saw) but that's about it. Our machining capabilities consist of a wood band saw that we abuse by cutting metal with, 2 drill presses, a chop saw, and lots of hand tools. Oh, and a metal lathe, which we hardly use (because our designs generally don't need that). Not even a bending brake. But that's not why I posted this.

Don't underestimate the value of collaboration with other teams. During the build season, we routinely visit other teams, sometimes in person and very frequently Virtually using Skype or Adobe Connect or something like that. Plus e-mail, lots of e-mail.

As an example, a bunch of us went to visit team 75 at the end of Week 1, where we saw a Bridge for the first time, as well as 75's awesome mechanism for getting over that bridge. We stole that idea lock, stock and barrel and used it to our advantage. We gave back some advice on making their wooden bridge act more like a metal bridge, which they implemented, allowing them to have realistic behavior to work with.

We also got an idea for bumper mounting from another team, and explained our reasoning for going with a narrow bot instead of wide.

Last year, we had a local business give a class in Leadership to 4 teams' student leadership. They learned what the job of a leader really is, and got some ideas on how to be better at it. I think all of us benefited from that.

This goes on year after year. It is a give and take, and everyone benefits. Plus, there's Pizza!
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Unread 04-08-2012, 10:07 PM
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Re: The missing feature: A common thread

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Originally Posted by Adam Freeman View Post
Another powerful thing mentors bring is experience. Yes, real world engineering experience...but more importantly in FRC, the best experience is actual FRC robot design experience. Knowledge of the motors, electronics, gearboxes...where they can be used, how strong or rigid something needs to be. Great students can influence a team for a little bit, but mentors help keep a team strong over a long period of time...which is what is needed to become a "powerhouse" team.
This. Although I wouldn't count us in the top tier of teams, we're definitely on our way there. A number of our design decisions this year were made based on successful designs of the past and knowledge of team history (particularly, designs we've done).

With regards to the difference between actual FRC robot design and real-world design, I couldn't agree more with how useful familiarity with the FRC components is. When we went with mecanum drive last year, our electrical mentor (who we regard as a demigod) pushed us to use Jaguars, because he was confident that the Victor's measly 120Hz refresh rate would hamper effective driving, but we ended up discovering that it was perfectly sufficient, and seeded higher at CMPs than we ever had before. It ended up that his familiarity with real-world applications, and unfamiliarity with FRC applications, while extraordinarily valuable, ended up backfiring on us and cost us valuable time in build season.
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