Posted on the FRC Blog, 2/4/16: http://www.firstinspires.org/robotics/frc/blog/distributors
Written by Frank Merrick, 2016 Feb 04
There’s been some buzz in the community about the availability of COTS parts and what companies that distribute parts potentially useful in FRC did or didn’t know about FIRST STRONGHOLD ahead of time.
This season, as a trial of a new approach in this modern FRC era, we selected three distributors popular with the FRC community - AndyMark, REV Robotics, and VEX - and lifted the flap ‘a little’ on the game before Kickoff. The intent was to give them a heads up on what challenges the teams needed to overcome to play the game well, so they could make more fully informed decisions about stocking levels and thus better serve the teams. Improved service to the teams, not perfect service to the teams, was the goal of this effort. Parts availability challenges are part of the deal in FRC, and maybe to a lesser extent in real-world engineering design as well, as frustrating as they can be. No distributor, even with advance knowledge, could possibly predict how many of component X they should have on hand to meet the need of every customer that comes to them, while at the same time not investing so much in inventory that they get stuck at the end of the season with a warehouse of parts that won’t be moving anytime soon. You’ve probably noticed that, over the last few years, the FRC games have widely varied. A super-hot component one year, like Mecanum wheels in 2015, can easily become component non grata the following year. And distributors, as much as they love FRC and do great things for the community, still need to be financially viable, or they won’t be distributors, and a resource to teams, for long.
All three distributors heard the same information under this trial and around the same time (disclosure happened in late September and early October). They were given general information such as that the robots would be driving over obstacles, climbing, and throwing game objects. All distributors made their own decisions about stocking levels and what components they should stock. As an example, while we told distributors that robots would be climbing obstacles, we did not tell them what specific components we thought would be useful in addressing that challenge. Each made their own business decisions.
In some individual cases distributors were given more detailed information out of necessity. For example, as AndyMark had agreed to make the game objects available to teams, they knew about, and stocked, boulders ahead of time. Specific details like this were on a ‘need to know’ basis, if they didn’t need to know, they didn’t get to know.
We selected these distributors because of our trust level with them and their popularity with the community. We have known and worked closely with each of these distributors for years, and we needed to be completely comfortable in the knowledge that they would not share this information publicly or privately with individuals that did not need to know. Popularity with the community was also important. We would not reveal this information to distributors with just a few parts for sale, or distributors only known to or popular with a smaller segment of the community.
I’m hoping all this makes sense to folks. We took what actions we thought reasonable to help with component availability, without giving away all the game secrets or specifically asking distributors to put themselves in financially untenable circumstances. For sure, some components still stocked out, and those stock-outs are painful to teams, but we think the stock-outs would have been worse if these distributors did not have this information in advance.