Lessons Learned during Steamworks

Steamworks was a fantastic season, and our team had a great time this year. We’re a rookie team, and we didn’t have much experience with FIRST until this season. Here are some of the lessons our team learned this season:

Start Early
I founded the team in November, and we had missed the deadline for many grants and sponsorship opportunities. We had a month to fundraise $6000 for registration, and had to raise an additional 2000 for parts and other expenses. We were unsuccessful in fundraising on time, however FIRST was gracious enough to let us pay at a later time. We received our kit during the 3rd week of build season, and everyone was panicking.

Talk with other teams
Our school had no equipment, so we had a hard time initially building our robot. Thankfully, 1418(Vae Victis), and 620(JMHS Warbots) reached out to us and let us use their workshops.

Mentors are important
We had no mentors this season, and that really set us back from all the other rookie teams at our events. We also had little experience in robotics, and were very confused about everything. If it weren’t for 1418 and 620 guiding us, we wouldn’t even have a drivetrain that worked. Many parents did not want to mentor, since they had no experience with robotics, and we didn’t realize that they could help us in other aspects.

Communicate with the Parents
We had a lot of issues with the parents, particularly due to the sheer amount of time our team members spent working on the robot. In the beginning, we did not effectively communicate with the parents, and this resulted in us gaining very little initial support. Some of the parents changed their views about our team once they began to see our efforts come into fruition. We started having parents willing to volunteer and fund us once they saw our drivetrain driving around in our school parking lot.

Don’t wait 'till the last three days to build bumpers. We were lucky enough to build a decent set during that time frame, but I do not recommend waiting until the last week to build bumpers. We originally had two sets of bumpers that we would attach to our robot by using T-Nuts and screws, but we were worried that the constant replacements of the bumpers would result in the T-nuts coming out of the wood, so we made a quickly made a new set that used reversible covers with Velcro during our second district event. The match before we mounted the bumpers on, the T-Nuts on two of our bumpers fell out.

It’s better to be really good at one or two tasks, than be mediocre at many tasks
Initially, our team split up into three groups that developed manipulators for each task in the game(balls, gear, climbing), but this was a terrible decision, because we were a small team(10 people). We made no progress at all, and our designs did not work well. We changed strategies and had the entire robot redesigned during week 5, and had a decent gear mechanism and a climber that was almost finished(We never got it to work until the last two games of our second district event)

Other teams are willing to help you
When we were at the district events, our robot was in no state to pass inspection. Two teams noticed, and came to the rescue. We had to redo our electrical connections, and our bumpers didn’t mount properly. Special thanks to 2363(Triple Helix), they helped redo our electrical connections, polish our code, and lent us their tools.

In the end, despite the stress and issues we had during this season, this was my best season so far, and our teammates had a great time. We learned a lot, and went on to win Rookie All Star and Rookie Highest Seed Award at our second district event. We hope to do even better during our future seasons. Thank you all for such an amazing competition, and an amazing season.

This is possibly one of the most important things for a new or small team to know. The amount of help that well established teams can offer is incredible.

We had a mediocre “Gear box” cheesecake design that we gave to I think around 4 teams. Mechanisms are just the surface though.

Team 384 (Sparky) let a rookie team borrow its prototyping robot at off season events last year since they didn’t have a robot yet. This let the rookies get a real feel for an FRC competition. (or maybe it was their main robot… I know the prototyping robot got some upgrades.)

Team 1418 (Vae Victus) Very graciously hosts a gathering on Week 6 where they set up a 3/4 size field on their auditorium stage and let teams come to drive around, see how other teams built their robots, test autonomous modes, etc. This is invaluable for many teams new and old. It’s not uncommon for a team that struggled that year to get some hefty help at this… Event? Gathering? (If someone from 1418 happens to see this, I am curious as to what you guys call it.)

And those are just a couple examples from our district only.

Out of curiosity, what team are you from? There were a lot of rookies in CHS this year.

That is also a very important thing for new teams …and a lot of other mid level teams to know.

All great recommendations for starting a new team. This year was the start of my 2nd Rookie team and my 4th year in FRC. Having known most all of what you just described made this year go by much smoother, we even made it to Worlds.

Now it is off to build the program and get more students involved.

We were rookies this year also and we echo many of your lessons learned. Here are ours:

Team 6547 - Flaming Metal Robotics
Lessons Learned in Our Rookie Season
First Steamworks 2017

Read everything you can find about FRC. I would recommend that you locate the manuals for the prior season and read them. While they do change from year to year, it will give you a great foundation for what to expect.

Locate other teams and develop relationships with them. One of the great things about FRC is that other teams WANT to help rookie teams. Teams will have off season events in the summer and fall that are great learning opportunities. One team (#1477 Texas Torque) even lent us a robot and showed our team how to drive it at an off season event. Another team (#118 Robonauts) chose us in their alliance in the finals at the same event in order to give us more chance to practice. (Trust me, it had nothing to do with our performance in the preliminary rounds :ahh: ). Teams also host training sessions and are available for any questions you have. We went to multiple events held by #3847 Spectrum. We also went to a kick off event held by #5414 Pearadox. Going to events held by other teams let us develop relationships that made it easy for us to contact other mentors or student team members with questions. We had great success in our rookie season, winning both our regional and the Texas UIL State Championship. That would not have been possible without the help and guidance we received from other teams, especially #1477 and #3847.

Bumpers! Make them as soon as you possibly can. While they may seem easy, they can be really tough to make! The longest set of rules for our year had to do with how the bumpers must be constructed. It took us several days to finally get ours right. If you wait until the last minute, you might not get them done before you have to bag your robot. Speaking of that - we forgot to take our bumpers off of our robot before we bagged it, which meant that we had to turn it sideways to get it through doors when we were going to competition - not something you want to do!

The BUDGET. You need to understand how much it will cost to go through a rookie season. What we did was search on the Chief Delphi web site for rookie season budgets. That led to team web sites that had budgets posted online. Things you need to think about: the cost for competing in one regional event was $6,000 - that did include the rookie kit of parts, which had much of what you need to make a competition robot without any effectors. The kit of parts has a lot in it - make sure you carefully go through it. One of the great things in ours was a gyro - which ended up being a key component on our robot. There is also a “virtual” kit of parts - things that are free, but that you need to order. If you want to compete in additional events, you need to figure out how much those cost and add to your budget. Grants are available to help pay your cost. Find out the deadlines for those grants right away. Make sure you apply for them as soon as possible. Make sure you understand when the grant funds will be available. If the grant does not fund until mid-way through the build season, you will need to know that . One thing you can do is borrow parts from other teams and tell them you will replace the part once your grant funds. They have been there and they will help you if they can.

Time management - this is a tough one because as a rookie, you don’t have a frame of reference for how long it will take you to build your competition robot. What we did was set deadlines for different milestones. In your rookie season, everything will take longer than you think and will cost more than you think. This is because the team does not have experience. Without experience, it takes everyone longer to figure things out. Another problem we encountered was breaking parts or using a lot of materials because of inexperience with using various tools. Part of what we learned was that you need to think about lead time for materials that you order. Also, order your materials right away because a lot of other people are ordering the same things from the same vendors. If you get your orders in early, you can save on shipping because you won’t have to pay for rush delivery.

Read the updates - make sure that someone on your team is responsible for staying on top of the updates that are issued throughout the season. There are many critical pieces of information in the updates. If you do not read them, there is a good chance you will miss something important.

Get your robot inspected before competition! Ask other team mentors about how to locate people who have volunteered as robot inspectors at competitions. Sometimes those people are mentors or coaches of teams near you. Once your robot is almost complete, bring it to one of the inspectors and have them take a look at it and let you know what you need to fix. This can keep you from having to fix things at the competition that you could have fixed ahead of time. A big thank you to Kevin Sevcik who was able to give us great advice about making sure our robot was in compliance with the robot rules.

Find the right mentor(s) for your team. If your team does not know about design, prototyping, electrical, mechanical, and programming, then you need to find mentors. When looking, make sure you find people with the technical knowledge that you need. Also, depending on the goals for your season, be honest with yourself and your mentor about the time commitment that is needed. Our team had one mentor (Ryan Berg) with broad knowledge and he spent hundreds of hours with our team. We were very lucky to have a mentor with lots of knowledge and the willingness to put in the time to make us into a great rookie team. He was also the drive coach and our team competed in championship events. You need someone who is willing to make a firm commitment to the team and that they know their area of responsibility.