At least for me, a strong desire to improve and a willingness to self-learn has allowed be to become an accomplished designer despite many unusual circumstances.
During my first year (2019), I didn’t get to do much in both the FTC and FRC season due to a horrible team culture. Freshman (including myself) were unfairly discriminated against and only given grunt work such as deburring parts while never being taught anything design-related from anybody on the team. Despite having a strong desire to do design-work, any ideas I had or attempts to design anything were dismissed due to the bad team culture. I was told that even trying to do every basic game task was considered “”""“too complicated”"""" and that I shouldn’t even think about trying to do so. By the end of the season, the only things I had any input over was fixing other people’s design mistakes. With this bad culture where was also a general lack of design knowledge and experience on the team. The mechanisms that were designed for our 2019 bot were inefficient and unreliable. But they weren’t because of my failure, I wasn’t even given a chance to fail or succeed.
Despite having a horrible first season, I had a stronger desire to do better. Part of me knew that if I put in a bit of effort, I could design a much better robot for the next season. Another part of me wanted to prove all the people who said I couldn’t do anything wrong. I also knew I was fairly decent at CAD because I did very well in the CAD class that was offered at my school. But I also knew that nobody on my team was going to teach me how to design robots. Because of these circumstances, I went he route of self-learning and spent countless hours watching match videos and robot reveals, viewing robot CADs, and reading CD threads. I specifically was trying to learn why in terms of design. Why things were done the way they were, why certain designs or design ideas were effective. I would be researching on my own time
My second year (2020) was when I really got my first shot at designing anything. During the FTC season, while the robot I ended up designing wasn’t really all that good, I had the opportunity to make mistakes and gain experience about design execution. I did make numerous design mistakes including spending too much design effort on things that aren’t the primary scoring mechanisms instead of it, not designing rigidly or robustly enough, and numerous smaller mistakes.
When the FRC season came around later, I used the experience from the previous offseason and FTC season to significantly contribute to the design of our intake, indexer, and shooter. When the game was revealed, I had a general idea of what designs would be effective. While there was still team culture issues, I was too dedicated to be shut out like I was last season. I applied the concepts I learned to contribute to the design and assembly of the intake, transfer, and shooter. The design ideas I had were pretty good, but there were a few issues in the execution of the mechanism. While the mechanisms were designed to interface with each other, but they were still mostly designed as separate mechanisms which resulted in some suboptimal interfaces that were prone to jamming. There were a several smaller execution issues, however the mechanisms did mostly function and were able to score in the high goal. For the first time, I saw my efforts result in on-field success which further motivated me to do better.
COVID hit my third year (2021), however, it did not slow my learning all. I was on a team of only 3 students this year and the other two were primarily software focused so I primarily did everything design-related. The 2021 FTC season was remote and drawn out which gave me several months to refine a single robot. Due to both an extended seasons not being able meet in person for the first few months and unable to physically prototype, I learned rapidly to iterate and evaluate designs in CAD. I designed the robot as one robot rather than a bunch of mechanism thrown together. If an intake is feeding into an indexer which feeds a shooter, they should be designed together rather than separately. But more importantly, I learned to optimize and microoptimize the details that contribute to scoring as much as possible. This could take many forms, including reducing weight, space, friction, part count, and complexity on some mechanisms, even if only in minor amounts. Small optimizations add up fast and at some realistic point, they become not so small anymore. Some of this was learned using existing resources, but experimentation was also crucial to the learning process. I tried out new ways of designing parts and mechanisms. While many people did not like the remote season, I personally liked it. Due to nature of it, I was able to see my own effort and determination turn directly into results. My team’s success was only possible because I was determined to improve.
In my fourth (2022) FTC season, I designed this robot which was unreliable for the first two league meets and then rebuild it to this to win the league tournament and an invitational event. Because I took the time to learn how to design well last season, I for the most part knew what I was able to quickly design and iterate the robot.
The 2022 FRC season was much different from all the previous seasons I’ve experienced. As a result of the timings of students graduating and joining, I was the only student with significant design experience (not good), however, the team culture issues also went away with the student cycling (good). I was able to lead team into designing and fabricating this robot which ended up winning two events which was something unthinkable when I first joined.
The specifics were very messy, but after four years, I left the team in a much better state than when I first joined it and managed to take a lot out of the experience. However, I really hope people don’t have to follow a similar path, most notably having to take so many things into my own hands to when it shouldn’t be that way also comes with numerous downsides. The only reason why I did things the way I did is that there wasn’t really another option apart from quitting or practically quitting FRC and taking nothing good out of it.
These were the biggest take-aways from my experiences that really can apply to anyone:
- Determination is what allowed me to learn and succeed despite heavily unfavorable circumstances
- Holding students back and shutting them out creates negative experiences and significantly hinders learning and growth
- True understanding of an idea is not just knowing what, but why. Why was this decision made? Why was this part designed like this?
- Don’t re-invent the wheel if you can’t make it better, however…
- If you can reasonably do so, than absolutely do so
- Blurring the lines can be beneficial. It helps when design and fabrication students are the same people. It helps when mechanism are designed together by the same people rather than separatly