[FRC Blog] Distributors

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.


Eh I dunno about this.

I’m kind of torn about this, I believe (again this is just my opinion) I think all of the companies should have picked one thing like a tread drive base, or ball intake and made variants on it.
Then again this is a clutch reaction I’m sure I will think of something less stupid later.

If the obstacle was just the rock wall like 2012, treads would make little sense and stocking a billion tread modules would be a painful hit. Similarly, there’s almost certainly obstacles that pneumatic tires would be useless against, and stocking enough of those for every team would also hurt. Like Frank said, out suppliers still have to be profitable and make good business decisions. If they can’t be certain item X is going to be absolutely necessary, they’re not going to stock enough for every team in the world.

Yeah I kinda forgot about the company making a profit part so I found a major flaw in my plan.

I dunno I’ll just stick by they should release at or after kickoff. Know that we now teams might just purchase anything new that comes out in case its useful for next season.

It looks to me like FIRST struck a decent balance with their process. Kudos to FIRST and the vendors who bust their butts to get us the COTS items we need in Jan & Feb.

I think this is just about the right balance. If it weren’t for this reveal, I presume that rhino tread would not be on the AM web site, not just out of stock. Even if you gave the game rules to vendors in October, there would still be stock shortages and overages because teams don’t always do the expected - and that’s one of the things that’s great about this competition.

I’m glad they posted this. Was curious as to how AndyMark just so happened to come up with the Rhino tread but no other supplier made anything similar. AM does have an advantage by knowing more than others but at least others are aware of basic things and can make their own business decisions. Definitely needs to be a balance between telling everyone everything and everyone nothing. I like the way FIRST did it.

I’m really appreciative that they are willing to disclose their process.

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To be fair, they were probably already working on a COTS tread to round out their drivetrain selection; this information probably just accelerated their choice to market it.

Also consider the Gearbox with PTO ANDYMARK came out with it seems useful for climbing.

Only disclosing information to certain suppliers will obviously disadvantage new suppliers attempting to break into the FRC COTS market.

But as Crown KOP suppliers those three deserve to be told. I think more communication, could have enabled ANDYMARK to make the KOP drivebase more suitable for the game, such as a front wedge and potentially 8 inch wheels.

Yes, it gives those few companies an advantage, but it’s not really that big of an advantage. Using this year as an example, the info they would have gotten basically told them to invest in treads, pneumatic wheels, and maybe PTO’s. Everything else in their inventory, with the exception of mecanum wheels, is probably still selling like normal - you still need motors and gear boxes and such. There’s plenty of room there for someone new to come in and start competing, and thus earn themselves a spot in the community.

I’m glad FIRST tried this, and I hope they continue to do so in the future. No one is really at any detriment with this system, and a lot of teams and companies certainly benefit, particularly the teams with tight budgets that can’t afford to buy popular parts immediately following kickoff that they might not even use. If we want FRC to grow, we need to keep lowering the entry barrier, and this absolutely helps in that regard.

Good job FIRST

Personally, nerd that I am, I’d love to see what the companies got disclosed. (It’s not like there’s anything left to hide about this game now!)

What’s really awesome about this is it actually lowers the cost of goods sold for the suppliers and (in an effiecient market place) for the teams too. Awesome way to improve the experience, I love the 3 suppliers that were selected too, that should help make the marketplace more efficient.

My inner finance nerd would love to know how this change affected secondary suppliers that distribute through the above companies. Like did Lil Timmy’s FRC Flywheel Kit benefit from an unexpectedly early second large order. You could make the assumption that shooting would be part of the game. I guess the 2017 game hint will include supply chain analysis.

I think it is really unreasonable to assume that companies designed and released products tailored to this game based on information given to them only 2 months in advance. The Rhino tread kit and AM PTO were almost certainly in development before then, though it’s possible their stock or small elements of the design were influenced by the game. More than anything I think the disclosure gives suppliers time to order more of their existing products, not time to create new specialized products for this years’ game.

^ this