2020 Motors and Controllers FRC Blog should have been posted in May

I would like to share my thoughts and hear others’ around the idea of FIRST allowing or even encouraging the different vendors to announce new products only 2 months before kickoff.

I’ll start off by saying I’m all for the technological progression the program is heading in, thanks to VEX, CTRE, Andymark, REV, Playing with Fusion and all the other vendors that have grown to become an Integral part of the FRC world and rightly so.
I have nothing bad to say about them and their effort to bring us all better products to make FRC more competitive, technologically advanced and well balanced, I’m sure they do their best to get new products out as soon as possible, make them affordable and have them in stock for all teams to get.

With the latest product drop we - the teams, are once again put in a place where we have to make a crucial decision about whether to ‘bet’ our time and money on those new products without knowing if they’ll even be supplied in time for us to learn to make good use of them. On the other hand, if we choose not to buy into the ‘temptation’ we risk being left behind and outperformed by teams who bought into it.

FIRST and FRC specifically are not meant to be easy or straight forward, but I believe this scenario – which is a repeated occasion (REV’s Spark Max and Neos we’re dropped and approved by FIRST on November 14th 2018), puts teams with their backs against the wall and gives a big unfair advantage to more financially capable teams that would not need to think twice about buying the new products and give them a try, and if history repeats itself as it tends to do, it would also create an unreasonable clicking war where teams spend the whole day November 6th refreshing the vendors’ sites trying to beat others to the throne – assuming the demand outweighs the supply in hand (which is a reasonable assumption).

I have more to be said about this topic but for now my main point is this – with electrical products such as motors and motor controllers I believe FIRST should think into the way teams are forced to deal with those late product drops and the unfairness it may create, if they were to publish next years’ motors and controllers around May or so, we would all be given enough time to consider our actions and to get our hands on those products if we chose to do so and study them thoroughly.
In addition, teams will use the products on their summer projects and they will all be battle tested, their bugs will most likely come to the surface ahead of time and the vendors will have enough time to fix the problems before getting to the season itself.

I would love to hear others’ thoughts around this topic and see if I’m in a minority, or maybe we have enough people with similar states of mind to get FIRST to notice and maybe act in accordance in future seasons.

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While I like the idea, the reality is that the new motors and controllers probably didn’t even have finalized designs by May. From what I could tell, the only Falcon motor in the world at that time was at CTRE’s booth at Worlds hooked up to an old Cyclone prototype. It would be nice if there was a formal announcement from the suppliers that new stuff was coming, but there’s no way they would be able to show off their products that early unless they entirely changed their production schedule.

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I’m just glad these are being released now instead of during “Vexmas” or available Week 4 of build season. I think this 2-month notice is an acceptable amount of time to test these for use in-season, although I wouldn’t say no to a September release of products.

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This situation can be seen as the chicken and the egg. Let’s take the CTRE Falcon as an example. CTRE can’t make their product announcement until FRC gives them the OK that the motor will be legal.

FRC can’t give the OK until they see the finished product. CTRE won’t start the manufacturing until FRC has given their approval. FRC probably reviews engineering samples (I’m speculating here because I don’t know the approval process).

Long story short, there’s a lot of approvals, testing, planning, and money tied up in this process. Each step dependent on the last.

At what point would you want to say “OK, no more new products allowed”?

There will never be a perfect answer to the question. Treat it as an engineering challenge. We chose not to invest in NEOs last year because of the total cost and the risk involved. This year, who knows? Teams will have to evaluate it for cost, risk, and benefit.

I don’t see any of these products as earth shattering. None of them are must haves. Nice, but not necessary.

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What I’m saying is that the pressure in regards to those things should be put on the vendors trying to make a profit off of those products, not the teams - if they can’t meet a way earlier deadline set by FIRST then they’ll have to wait for next years’ deadline or release with the realization they’ll have to wait for next year to see their sales reach their expectations.
We would all be able to go one more year without Falcon 500 motors for example, but with the all out drivetrain arms race that we saw in 2019 and the realization that 2020’s game might be as defensive heavy as the previous one, the advantage those motors give in that regard could really influence the decision making process we are all faced with in a few days, and I suspect not all of us are gonna come out of it with an equivalent result given the possible supply and demand problem I mentioned earlier…

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How would you write this rule. Which suppliers would it apply to? Which types of products? Are you thinking of something like “All COTS parts must have been commercially available as of May in the year prior to this current season?”

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That’s a good question I don’t have an immediate answer for, though I can’t say your wording specifically doesn’t work for me - as far reaching as it may be.
I may be more sensitive to those topics coming from an Israeli team - given the fact all costs are vastly inflated for us and it takes longer for products to get to us on the regular, so the unknowns in this case make it a really high risk situation for us all - November 6th pre-order gives me little to no information about when I’m expected to have the products in hand.

I don’t have a solution to your specific question at the moment, but the process of approving the current products obviously led us to the end of October for some reason and I’m sure FIRST would not approve new motors, controllers and other electrical products if that point would have been one or two weeks before the season, and so I think they can push this round of approvals way back.
I don’t like the idea of competing with hundreds of teams for a chance to spend thousands of dollars to not get into a technological disadvantage, without even the promise we’ll be given what we paid for in time for it to matter this season.

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I bring it up because I find when proposing changes, it really helps me think things through all the possibilities and ramifications when I actually try and craft a rule. It’s good process that helps come up with solutions and generate ideas.

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I totally agree.
There is no reason all vendors will only release minimal information about their products just to make it legal for 2020 season. As I see it (and saw it in previous years) the suppliers will release more information a few weeks before kickoff, the suppliers will only get their supply just in December and teams will get it in January with no time to test it.
If the suppliers want it to be legal they should be ready in advance. If they don’t they will have to wait another season for 2021.
This only applies for products which need to be approved by FIRST as Roborio, PDP, PCM, VRM, Radio, Motor controllers, Motors, etc’…

Here’s a thought to ponder:

As noted, at least one of the items was literally a prototype at Champs this last year. Do you expect a company to go from prototype to approved-and-ready-to-sell product in 1 month, given that we don’t know when FIRST makes the decision to allow the parts?

Don’t pressure the vendors. Pressure FIRST to make these decisions (or at least make them public) earlier. If FIRST makes the decisions earlier, the vendors will follow.

But as we’re aware, it can take FIRST several months to wind down, then wind up.

I get that y’all have to worry about customs, prices, and how to get a big pile of these to your country. The OTHER option would be to see if you can convince one or more of the vendors in question to have a storefront/warehouse in your country, which you specifically order from. That way, they ship 1 big shipment, pay the customs for 1 big shipment, and you don’t have to worry as much about those (instead of paying customs for 200 smaller orders–gotta be at least a little bit cheaper to pay for 1 big one, I would think). I want to say that VEX has something like that with Canada… not sure how you’d set it up elsewhere, though.

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To have this discussion we need to understand First’s time line and approval process for new products. I can guarantee CTRE didn’t wait this long to release a brushless product because they wanted to. Remember it was something like two years ago they were demoing brushless.

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I’m afraid the fault here is completely that of FIRST, according to CTRE support they were waiting for FIRST to approve it back in 2016. Along with the fact NEOs were also approved at mid-November, this is without a shadow of a FIRST issue and not a supplier issue.

We are one of the (as far as i know) few Israeli teams that order directly from Vex via FedEx, and have a sponsor take care of taxes and customs, which makes the process much easier and cheaper for us but other teams have to order through FIRST israel’s official vendor Yarok. This does not really fix the issue, as Yarok tends to have some pretty long shipping times, some times over a month (we’ve even had a delivery arrive after two), and prices are still very expensive.

With the Falcon 500 we’re talking about some products that are very expensive anyway, which is already quite off-putting especially after teams invested in NEOs last year, but even more than that, all we know right now is if were gonna pre-order them on the 6th of November, we can only guesstimate they’ll ship around mid to late November. From there on, we would get in roughly a week, meaning we’ll have more or less a month for testing, as for teams that order from Yarok… well… it’s a bit of a wager

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Putting a slightly different spin on this, we tried the NEOs in 2019. We ordered enough motors and controllers for the drivetrain initially (including some spares). The motors arrived the day before kickoff (I remember bringing them, still in the box, to our brainstorming session the day after kickoff). Our lead programmer put these motors on our 2018 practice bot and started messing around with them while the 2019 bot was being designed. We gave him a drop dead date that if he could get them working by that date and we determined that they were better than the miniCIMs that we used in 2018, then we would put them on the 2019 robot. We were able to get the bugs worked out and with some side by side testing with our 2018 comp bot (still fitted with miniCIMs) we made the decision to more forward with the NEOs. It was a good exercise in risk management and risk mitigation and I consider it to be one of the more real world processes we have followed on our team (think of it like an engineering gate process where you burn down the risk before you get to the gate review and the new technology needs to buy its way on with acceptable risk before proceeding through the gate.

Fast forward to this past summer. REV has their summer sale. Given the success we had with the NEOs in 2019, we decide to take advantage of the summer sale to buy more motors and controllers to save some money.

If we had known that the Falcon 500 was coming, would we have invested in more NEOs? Hard to say. Certainly without having detailed specs at that time, it would have been impossible to compare them and see if the Falcon was worth waiting for. Since we did go ahead and buy the NEOs, there is a fairly low chance that we will get the Falcons, even to try them out, this year. We still have more thinking to do on the subject, but at the moment, the fact that we invested in more NEOs and we are living within budget constraints, it will be very difficult to justify the Falcons.

So, if VEX had signaled, back in May, that a new motor was on the way that would compete with the NEO and shared some if their plans, it might have played a factor in our decisions. Of course, if the signal publicly that such items are coming, then their competitors (REV, AM, etc) have time to react to that which could, potentially mean that by the time the new products are approved and ready for mass production, their competitors will have come out with new products of their own that would beat it. This is a reality of the for-profit marketplace. The timing of when you go public with your plans for new products has to be timed very carefully. As an example, car companies use camouflage and security to make sure that their competitors do not get a sneak peek at their new designs before they are ready to release it publicly. It is all part of the business of maintaining your competitive advantages.

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Assuming the FRC build/competition season remains on an early January Kickoff through late April competition schedule…

Would teams be willing to pay 5-10% more in FRC-specific COTS product costs, if they were required to be available for purchase in April/May before the following season?

I think a different implementation would be limiting the allowable amounts of products approved/released after a certain date.

I understand that these companies have a release loop. But these projects can be planned ahead. Why would they plan to release it at this time? It would mean a year of small releases but could they just start earlier.

I disagree. Not all teams are that capable. We haven’t even considered this because we don’t have the money to blow on these with only a hope that we might have then ready for the season, not even buy tested. It took us this whole past summer to have a drive train with neos attached.

We have no way of knowing how long these products have been ready. The vendors need First approval to make motors legal.

And to finish the thought: given the market these companies operate in, any product that isn’t legal isn’t going to be profitable, and thus doesn’t make any sense to release before a legality announcement.

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Does FIRST have any bandwidth for evaluating new products before the end of April? If not, the release dates we are seeing now seem reasonable considering manufacturing lead-times and shipping times.

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