Acquiring CAD computers for an FRC Team


Our team’s been fortunate enough to use SolidWorks over the past year to design our robot. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the CAD work has always fallen on one person (me the last few seasons, a mentor before that). I am graduating in a few weeks, and before I go, I’m working on catching up our rising members on SolidWorks. A few students have their own laptops or family computers at home capable of running SW, but most don’t have access to a machine they can reliably and regularly CAD on. There are several students on the team that are great in the shop and are enthusiastic about learning how to design, but are pretty much excluded from CAD because they can’t provide their own machine.

So my question is, how do teams with fairly complex robots and large (5-10 member) CAD teams deal with this? Are their grants for teams that could provide computers? If you had to recommend a laptop or desktop (not going to name a budget, but as cheap as possible and still capable is best) to buy, what would you recommend? Do you allow students to take computers home and work, or do you have a computer lab with workstations open during meeting times?

Leverage your school’s resources. If that’s not an option, look for used HP Z-series workstations. You can get an HP Z420 with 8GB RAM for $380.

Just be aware that if you are using the Solidworks licenses through the FIRST sponsorship, from what I remember is that you cannot install them on school computers.

That line is blurrier than you describe.

As long as the robotics students are the only ones with the right user account credentials to access the software and they’re only using it for FRC or etc, Dassault isn’t going to come down on you with lawyers. Looks bad for everyone.
Or if the computers are physically located in the robotics lab, and only the robotics students use them, and the school really was donating them to the program but we’d never formalized the arrangement… you get the idea.
Don’t sweat it too much, just don’t use the FRC licenses in classes.
Dassault is kind of picky about this, compared to Autodesk’s more user-friendly approach, which I believe is part of why 192 was still on Inventor when I was there (we had an academic class component).

On OP’s original subject…
We keep in touch with the school’s IT department and pick up every cast-off computer we can get. Usually donated. Wipe the hard drive, small upgrades to internals, and we’re good to go. Got 8 computers in the lab right now, and we’ve gotten enough laptops to start piloting a “loaner laptop” program to reach some of the students you’re describing.

We are fortunate to have a civil engineering firm as a sponsor. In addition to the financial support they also have an employee who donates his time as a mentor. Talking to him one day I told him we needed to upgrade our computer in order to run solidworks and it was going to cost us about $400 for the GPU and the other upgrades. He calls me the next day to say he found an old CADD workstation in the closet destined for the trash. We took it back to the workshop and opened it up just to see what it was. Found all the hardware / software was adequate for solidworks. Also found out why it wasn’t working – the heat sink paste was not contacting the CPU and it was shutting off to save itself. $7 for a tube of paste and we have a working terminal that is only a few years old.

If you have any big business sponsors, ask them about any old office equipment that they might be retiring. Companies throw away a lot of things that the team could find useful.

Good Luck

We use CAD laptops borrowed from a sponsor and we’re free to do whatever with them in terms of software. I’m not entirely sure how well the software is running on them, since they’re at least 5 years old, but from what I’ve heard it’s pretty decent.


I’ve had good success with used workstations off ebay from reputable sellers for a few random setups.

A third vote for used computers. A few years ago we spent a few grand and got 6x Dell M4600 laptops with a handful of upgrade parts to make them all pretty decent, with docking stations and monitors.

FWIW: donated SolidWorks cannot be installed on computer with school district logins or that a school district currently owns. We’ve dug into this with our sponsor school quite thoroughly. Will the black choppers come in to get you? Probably not.

We have had great luck using we have received 8 computers that we use for CAD and programming.

A few years ago, Solidworks/Dassault gave us permission to install on school resources provided the licenses were used exclusively for FIRST students and not used in instruction. It would be worth looking into this if you have computing resources in the school. The school IT may be a roadblock at that point.