Money, Problems, & Performance: How to get better with $X dollars?

Thanks to @Allison_K for the idea and some of the wording for this topic.

What actions can teams take to improve their performance with a given amount of money?
What are examples of things teams can buy/do in each tier that will improve their team?

Do you have an example(s) of a situation in which you were able to identify and solve a problem in a manner that directly led to greater success? (Winning matches or winning events).
How did you identify the problem?
How much did it cost to solve the problem?

Tiers

$0 Tier
$1-$99 Tier
$100-$499 Tier
$500-$999 Tier
$1,000-$1,999 Tier
$2,000-$4,999 Tier

This is kinda similar to the Spectrum First $1000 and $10000 lists, but it’s more of an in-the-moment, for however much money you have, what’s both within your reach and sphere of influence.

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$1-$99 Tier:

Nordlock your battery terminals.
Nordlock your main breaker.
Use nylon locknuts too!

Yes, nordlocks are expensive but not overly so. It’s like sub $50 for most teams and I can’t tell you how much better you will perform when you aren’t browning out because of loose main power connections.

EDIT: Bonus $0 Tier:

If you’re running the RoboRIO 2.0, tape the microSD card in and don’t ever pull it out.

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In the same vein, for the $1-$99 tier: To prevent loose connections or bad crimps and improve reliability… ratching crimpers and good crimp connectors (Anderson PowerPoles for power, latching polarized connectors for PWM / CAN bus). You can easily lose a match due to a wire pulling out and a mechanism dying on the field. Ratcheting crimpers means the crimp isn’t subject to the strength of the person doing the crimp–the ratchet won’t release until the crimp is fully crimped. Polarized connectors like PowerPoles make it easier and faster to connect/disconnect wiring (with fewer errors) when needed for maintenance.

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I’m going to pick on you and I’m a little sorry :slight_smile:

Your example isn’t wrong or bad but that’s a solution statement, not a problem statement. I try to direct our team to use problem statements instead of solution statements in the problem solving process, because that more effectively ensures everybody understands the issue we are having and what the consequences are. It also keeps the floor open for brainstorming solutions together, so we are more likely to hit on a great one, rather than debating the merits of a single idea in a vacuum.

What’s your problem statement? Battery connections come loose and cause us to lose matches on the field?

Edit: Nevermind I see problem statement now :upside_down_face: Dumb dumb moment.

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It was buried at the end. It’s because I’m a consultant… I blurt out the obvious solution up front and then charge you an arm and a leg to use the white board to explain the problem at the end. :wink:

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$0 - Document best practices for everything. Enshrining knowledge in a digital way to pass on to the future is immensely powerful.

$99 - Get a hot glue gun and glue all of your important plugs in place. Radio, Rio Ethernet, things like that. Less data loss, fewer disconnects, more winning.

$499 - Avoid the sloggy performance of old batteries, buy fresh batteries for each year. Happy, healthy, NEW batteries yield the best robot performance.

$999 - Invest in nicer tools. Small shorts, termination annoyance, and frayed wires can be addressed with a ferrule kit and crimpers. Pit fixes are faster with ratcheting wrenches. Anything to ease tasks that require manual dexterity and precision.

$1999 - Broken or damaged driver stations have lost many a match. Buy two identical DS laptops, clone them, and keep both fully updated with DS software, robot code, and IDE. If one fails at the field you have a backup to use immediately (at least before the match starts).

$4999 - Forgetting stuff at your build space, not knowing where things are at an event, and having to dig through things in the pit all cost precious competition time. Invest in a pit setup that you can use in your build space and then bring to competition. Practicing like you play will yield faster and more efficient repairs, less frustration, and an overall better competition experience.

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In the $0-99 tier:

Transfer Punches - need to mount a bracket onto tube (or 2x4… whatever) much easier than a pencil. And at sub $20 also can make a great gift for that robot nerd in your life…

Attachable Light - Always need more light when cutting. Honestly, doesn’t matter the brand, point is put more light where you’re working. It’s easier and safer.

Height Gauge - One of my favorite tools, if someone can find an analog one at similar price I’d be very happy (I hate battery operated measuring devices) but great for marking a line across parts or getting an accurate height.

Spray Adhesive - Weird one but… if you are doing 1:1 scale print outs useful for adhering to the plates. Course, can also just use painters tape.

Granite Surface Plate - Great in tandem with the height gauge, consider the size of parts you need and plan accordingly. This isn’t great quality but it’s better than your workbench top and more than likely good enough for most FRC uses. Since it’s not clear to some folks - this is really a nice to have. If you’re having issues with measurements being consistently off by a smidge this could help there both in the “actually help” sense but also in encouraging the switch of thought from “quick measurement” to “precision”. I included it because they aren’t terribly expensive and can be useful for teaching concepts.

Sheet Metal Bender for Vice - for when you need to put a bend somewhere but don’t have a lot of space for dedicated tools… Ain’t going to be making a full bot out of it but adding a stiffening flange to a bracket should be doable.

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$100-499 tier (or $499-$1000 tier if you buy more than 3)

Problem: We had very few programmers and very limited on-robot time to give them to actually practice programming. This also led to a lack of advanced programming techniques like motion profiling due to usually only having zero to one functioning drivebases to work on.

Solution: Romis - this allowed us to grow our software team from 1-2 people to having 6 people contributing in the 2022 season, since students were able to take them home and learn with an actual robot they could program. We were also able to learn how to use PathPlanner and motion profiling on the Romis, which made transferring that knowledge to our robot significantly easier, and so we were able to have a motion-profiled autonomous routine for the first time in 2022 as well.

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I guess for context, the thought process behind this was a theory that problem solving processes is actually the secret sauce that makes good teams good. Not that money isn’t really useful, but I was thinking about the relationships between performance, money, and problem solving.

Of the three, performance is the only one that’s truly transparent. It’s a public, recorded, observable process. If ever anybody wonders who won an event you just go look it up and the data is there. Funding can be judged to some degree. To speak of my own team, I’d be hard pressed to say we’re hurting for funding when it’s observable that we lug 16 batteries around everywhere we go.

But problem solving ability and process is the complete opposite, it’s incredibly invisible. Even the kids that spend 1,000 hours per year around me have no idea how much problem solving is going on in my head. And that’s true in general, unless the problem solver is spewing a stream of consciousness as they think, or has a really great ability to communicate the thought process after it happens, it’s entirely possible that teammates directly surrounding the process either weren’t aware of a problem in the first place, or were aware of the problem but as far as they could tell the solution was some form of wizardry.

I suspect a common line on thinking from observers of high performing teams considering how to drive their own improvement, is that they try to draw inspiration for improvement based on observable characteristics, and because material goods purchased are one of those, it’s easy to make a logical leap that the material good is what drives the success, rather than the problem solving culture that was behind the purchasing. In any case, I think finding a way to make the problem solving process more transparent would be generally beneficial, within and between teams.

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Using the WCP telescoping blocks to build our prototype traverse climber.

We saw the video posted and CD and knew we needed to test it out ourselves.

Cost to solve was the cost of the WCP kits, plus keeping a float of common gear and aluminum sizes. Probably 2-3k in strategic inventory all-in to turn around a prototype in 24hrs.

-Mike

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Organize each mechanical system for the robot

$1-$99 Tier

Problem:
In the past (probably before 2015), we wouldn’t organize our spare parts well during the season. We might have had 1 or 2 bins that contained all our spare parts for the robots. This often led to digging through the bins to find something when a robot fix was needed at events and would make the process take a lot longer.

Solution:
We have different bins for each system (drive, intake, climber, etc.) that are managed by their student system lead to keep them organized. This way, it is much easier to find the needed spare part. If specialty tools or hardware are needed for a specific system, those will also be stored in the same bin.

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$0-$50

If you have a 3D printer I highly recommend the 3D printed port covers for the rio: FRC RoboRIO Pin Covers (Correct Scale) by hydroptix - Thingiverse

It’s nearly free and all the teams I’ve been on have the horrible habit of drilling holes near the Rio for metal shavings to fall into the Rio. It is never a fun match when the Rio goes into short protection.

100000000% this. It doesn’t even need to be in the $1000 category some cheaper ones can be had for $30.

$100-$500

Ratcheting box wrenches are a godsend when you design a robot that can’t easily be taken apart.

Battery Tester: Computerized Battery Analyzer - AndyMark, Inc Buy this and test every single battery and don’t use the bad ones. Just because the charger/battery beak says it’s charged doesn’t mean it’s just like the other battery you just used.

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And if you don’t have a 3D printer or just prefer it, taping over any ports/connectors you aren’t using on the RoboRIO helps solve the problem.

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Tier $0-$99
Learn CAD. Inventor and Solidworks are both free to students. There’s a half a million YouTube tutorials on those software packages and a ton of great presentations from FRC Mentors for FRC specific skills. Even if you don’t have access to CNC Machines, printing a drawing 1:1 scale and going to the band saw and a drill press can get you pretty good results. We did it on 340 for years.

Tier $2,000 to $4,9999
That being said, get an OMIO. Learn how to use it. You’re going to break a lot of bits and make mistakes but your robots will improve dramatically.

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Plywood is your friend. So many things can be made from good plywood, baltic birch preferably. Both our district championship robots had major components made from plywood.

For example our original climber for Steamworks was hard to line up on the field. We made a new prototype climber with plywood and it worked so well we never changed it or even paint it.

$0-$99 the wood itself and simple power tools. You can make a lot with a hand drill and jigsaw.
$100-$499 good bandsaw and drill press
$1000-$2000 router table or higher power laser.

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I have been looking for your secret! Now I have found it. I am that person, now to try to pass on that knowledge and desire to others around the room.

This is kind of an interesting $0 solution to a problem that requires at least some $s to have

If you are digital or hybrid scouting (taking paper sheets and inputting them into excel) have a person whose job it is to make sure the data is logical, not correct just logical. I have had many interactions over the years with alliance members, people who post scouting data publicly and even my own team where I have discovered in the data there is a wild number like a 16 ball auto. It is much easier to correct a mistake or a fat finger input within a match or two while it is fresh in the scouters mind than when you are doing data analysis for alliance selection or a late quals match and now have to go hunting to correct the rogue data point.

Bad data is worse than no data.

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I have some $0-99 stuff:

  1. Extra pair of digital calipers. This is like $25 on Amazon. Make sure to get a stainless steel one.
  2. Extra caliper batteries! Like 2 or 3.
  3. Huhao or Grewin endmills for your router.
  4. 6qt latching tubs for parts. Target has good prices?
  5. Ratchet wrench sets from Harbor Freight (< $10 each)
  6. A nice set of Bhondus metric and imperial allen keys in different colors ($40)
  7. Deburring tool.
  8. One extra of each hand tool, like screwdrivers.
  9. Battery beak. Brushing up against $100 now…
  10. A few nice #9 drill bits from McMaster, uncoated split point.
  11. A full box of common 10-32 screw lengths from Bolt Depot
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Some sub-$100 sagas:

  • We needed ballast for Championship. We went to Target for 5-pound free weights with a hexagonal base, then secured them to the robot with safety wire. It twists with pliers for a secure mount, and it’s trivial (but important) to coat the tip with hot glue to keep it from scratching you up. If you have to ballast up quickly, hard to beat.
  • We’d shipped some real spaghetti wiring for a couple years, driven by higher priorities and it being “good enough” (narrator: it wasn’t). Our wiring for Championship was infinitely better when we started applying these zip tie anchors all over the robot. Use some alcohol wipes to clean the surface right before you stick them down.
  • During Electric City playoffs, the four NEOs powering our drivetrain were too hot to touch. And that’s on the back housing where there’s air behind. We cooled the motors down closer to ambient using a mix of canned air dusters and this fan. We even added brackets to run two of them on our test mule drivetrain under heavy practice, one pointed at each gearbox.
  • In 2018, we were hand-making custom angle brackets for a bunch of junk. For no good reason. They took forever. And none of them could be swapped to another part of the robot. We bought a bagful of Keystone 4337 brackets and never looked back–the holes are fit for #10 hardware or 3/16" rivets, and they’re dirt cheap so you can spam them down. I haven’t looked at the vouchers yet, but if there’s a Digi-Key voucher then you can get like 300 for like $5 past the voucher amount. That’ll last you a while.
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Problem: imprecise hole locations leading to parts not lining up.

Solution: Calipers, scribe, spring punch, center punches, pilot holes

Cost: < $100 (if you’re ok with cheap calipers.)