How does a team improve on their engineering/construction skills?

Hey guys,

I’m interested in making our team become more competitive at competitions. SO, what do you think is the best way to improve our mechanical and electrical skills? During the 2023 season, we had a pretty good run, getting to 21 in NC; however, our arm mechanism was slightly wobbly, and our intake had small reliability issues, preventing us from cycling that quickly.

Does anyone know how we can catapult ourselves to the top 10 and improve ourselves?

As far as Mechanical the main thing is going to be building and designing a lot and then evaluating those designs. The Open Alliance teams have a bunch of CAD available for various mechanisms and you can also look at those for ideas for different mechanisms. These teams also have build threads on CD that you can ask questions about why they chose the designs they did. For things like wobbling/reliability you’re also likely to be benefited by having the ability to iterate quickly and being able to improve on designs. Iterating is partially a design question of building in adjustment, but also a question of having the fabrication ability to quickly put new things together.

I’m less able to comment on electrical, but the big thing there is being a little bit obsessive on making sure you have good connections and are really following best practices.

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  • Practice in the off-season – build 'bot(s) and take them to off-season competitions
  • Take some time to be critical of the performance of your 'bot; make it a special session. Identify the problems and figure out how you would fix them.
  • Actually fix those problems as an exercise – make design changes, fabricate new parts, try them out. Did the solution work as expected? If not, try again.
  • Practice building things in general, such that it takes you less time/effort to build them and rebuild them. Also, you’ll get better at building things well (better tolerances, fewer “extra” holes, etc…)
  • Look at the teams who have achieved the success you want, and ask them how they did it.
  • Improve your construction methods and tools; if certain tools or techniques are difficult, make jigs or change to tools that provide easier routes to the same results.
  • Build fast; fail-faster – build something and discover that it’s wobbly, then iterate and fix the wobbliness
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First, inspect your current mechanism, determine why they were wobbly/unreliable and brainstorm how you could have identified those issues before/as you build them.

Second, during the season design & build faster, the first few versions of your mechanism(s) will not be prefect, so don’t be building them week 5/6.

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For electrical, the main thing is really quality control (the same could also be said for manufacturing mechanical parts as well).

At the beginning of the year, I check every single crimp my students do. They quickly realize that I don’t mind throwing away every single bad crimp, and they have to re-do 50% of their work. The realization that someone expects high quality work motivates them pretty quickly. Now they all to tug tests and checks every time, before it gets to me.

This can be applied to all work, making sure there are good connections, good cuts on pneumatics tubing, soldering, wiring management, protecting wiring. My suggestion is this: if you have enough students, after you assign someone to do a task, you also assign someone to to checks after, every single time.

Things will always go wrong at events and practice, and we apply the same philosophy. Have a critical eye and don’t just make one fix after something breaks. For example, if you find a CAN connector failure, check ALL the other connectors too. Make checks after each match.

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Review CAD from other teams who built similar mechanisms without the same problems to see what they did differently. Ask questions when you don’t understand. Use the new-found knowledge to design better next time. Optionally, do some CAD R&D and implement those changes, you can use this CAD model as road map for next time.

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Hey Guys, thanks a lot for replying! I’ve taken all of these tips into consideration!

Design for reliability and redundancy is huge. I will never forget the first intake I caded because once it was done and assembled, a mentor kicked it a bunch and it didn’t entirely hold up. Rather than think we needed to be careful with the intake/robot, instead the intake got remade so it stood up to damage.

Find teams that are building the kind (in terms of quality) of robots you want to build and ask them how and why they do what they do. Often it is more important to know the “why” since that drives the “what” and “how”.

The CAD rarely contains any information about the “why” so I find that having team members look at the CAD design from other teams to be productive only after they have a good understanding of the physics and the manufacturing aspects so they can figure out the “why”. Otherwise, they can come to the wrong conclusion regarding why something was done.

Sometimes, the “why” doesn’t make sense because there are design features leftover from previous design concepts. Often, one can only learn this by talking to the designers.

To improve the quality of construction of your control system (electrical and pneumatic), find the people on your team who have demonstrated that they are careful and meticulous. Some of these people are likely to be a bit OCD. Some people are born with better fine motor control than others.

The construction skills can taught to anyone willing to learn. Unfortunately, I have not found a way to teach and enforce being careful and/or meticulous.

This emulates what was done at many of the manufacturing companies I have worked at. They evaluated the people’s aptitudes and natural abilities and trained them for positions where those aptitudes and abilities give them the greatest chance of success.

A few years ago, our mechanical mentors had to step away for personal reasons, and the students on our team who were well-versed in mechanical design graduated, we were in a similar position. There are a few things we learned, and a few resources we identified.

First, a few resources.
The University of Michigan’s Everybot documentation taught us a lot about what we were doing wrong about application in the mechanical sector.

There may be an updated version for last years’ game, I am not sure.

Second, Rev has some excellent resources on their website. You can order hard copies of this document in an excellent little book.

Then, they have a lot of other resources and examples in their documentation area.

Here are the main things we have learned from this documentation as well as our experience.

  1. Precision matters. Measuring, cutting, etc.
  2. Everything on the bot must be properly supported
    Be incredibly wary of any system that is cantilevered (suspended on one side)
  3. Constrain motion as a default: This goes with lesson 2, but if something can move, it will. Support systems completely, and only allow them to move when you need them to move (and along the axis you would like it to move).
  4. Shortcuts rarely pay off. If someone says, "we are just going to attach this piece like this for now, we will fix it later, chances are good that the time you will fix it will be at an event after it breaks.

Last year, we built an Everybot, and it helped us a lot. The new starter bot is a potentially wonderful place to begin, but I would recommend considering one of the many pre-designed bots from WCP, Rev, Andymark, etc. Making one of those, and adding a mechanism of your team’s own design to add features to play more of the game (most of them use the MCC theory).

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