Should There be a Total Cost Limit in FRC?

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A lot of the conversations surrounding the Bill of Materials and the Cost Accounting rules in FRC end up “in the weeds,” so to speak. In reality, there are a few different parallel conversations that make up the BoM discussions, and it may be useful to attempt to separate them out into their own topics. One of the most fundamental of those conversations is a question of Cost Limits.

There are weight limits, size limits, and (ever morphing) time limits in FRC. Should there be cost limits as well?

Let’s attempt to leave aside the conversation of how to enforce cost limits for the time being (there are plenty of threads already dealing with that, and I’m sure more to come in the future). For the purposes of this discussion, I’d also like to attempt to focus on the total cost limits. Individual part cost limits is also an important topic, but has slightly different factors to consider.


The vast majority of teams already operate under cost and budget restraints in some fashion or another, but that may not end up applying directly to the robot and those restraints are dramatically unequal across the field of all teams. Codifying total cost requirements would, theoretically, serve as a tool for helping create parity across teams. This is something we see playing out in the realm of professional sports, and often starting and being updated within the lifetime or recent FIRST alumni.

The concepts of spending limits in competitions is not a topic that every competition or every league agrees upon. There’s a range of different approaches across professional sports and other competitive formats. Among North America professional team sports, the National Hockey League has the strictest salary cap (a “hard cap”) of the major leagues, while Major League Baseball is currently uncapped but does employ a luxury tax. These leagues have to balance maintaining appropriate amounts of competitive parity to keep league interest high across all markets with allowing their larger markets to flourish enough to generate revenue. Granted, they also have other systems of helping foster competitive parity (namely prospect drafts that give priority to the teams struggling most). Additionally, they also have organized players unions to deal with collectively, and salary caps (and floors) become a labor interest in that fashion. In part because of the lack of organized players unions, eSports have yet to adapt salary caps in their leagues (to the best of my knowledge). eSports also have differing financial models (many being prize pool based and teams are left on their own to determine regular payment for players).

I’d also be curious to learn more from knowledgeable fans of autosports how costs limits and competitive parity are implemented in Formula 1, NASCAR, etc. This may be a more direct parallel to FRC.

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Removing the limits absolutely allows teams with money to put objectively better parts on their robot. Sure, small teams could try to develop their own Limelight, their own swerve modules, and more. But are they going to be as polished, as well tested, as well designed as something that’s been reviewed by he community and improved by so many hands? Unlikely. And I would challenge anyone to build a superior gearbox with CIMs instead of Falcons or NEOs. Weight, efficiency, performance - good luck. Does it mean they can’t build a great robot? Not at all. But shaving 8-10 lbs off a robot is not trivial. The often used adage of “well just your robot better!” implies that a team with vast resources also aren’t at the top of their design game, which is very unlikely.

So for a low resource team, I could see how hopeless it would feel to face teams that continually have the best parts, the best tools, and the best materials. It’s pretty tough to beat carbon fiber with plywood, unless the carbon fiber team is clueless at engineering principals. Which, if you’re spending that kind of money, you’ve done the math.

We’ve managed to move from a very low resource team to decent over many years by working hard to raise more funds, finding better tools, and improving processes. We’ve seen both sides of the coin, and know how hard it is to work your way up. Low resources teams need both recognition and support to raise them up. I see a lot of world class teams doing this, which is encouraging.

But our job is to teach and inspire, and few people are inspired by showing up to a competition they don’t even have a chance of being competitive with other teams. Making high quality parts more cost effective will help teams with less resources build better, more engaging bots. And the overall quality of the competitions will improve, thus bringing in and inspiring more students.

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Oh man is this overestimating teams who spend a lot of money by a long shot :joy:

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tldr, I’m slightly against it because I feel like any effective cost limit would lower the ceiling rather than raising the floor.

The reason I’m slightly against rather than totally against is that there can be cases where there does need to be a ceiling, to keep the essence of a high school sport.

The effect of limiting the total cost changes a lot depending on what “total cost” is limited, here are the first examples that came to my mind, and why I don’t like them.

  1. Limiting total cost to build 1 robot

This has, in my opinion, three main outcomes. Either (1) the limit is way too high and no one ever reaches it, (2) the limit is somewhere that simple robots don’t reach it but complex robots might have to cut a few corner, or (3) it’s a major design decision for almost every team. The previous BOM rules put us right around the border between (1) and (2), probably a bit closer to (2).

While I like the idea behind this, limiting the total cost to build a single robot doesn’t limit teams equally. While it ensures that all robots have a theoretical hard cap, it doesn’t stop teams from outspending each other on prototyping, or even having the resources to prototype effectively. Therefore, this limit simply constrains the maximum competitiveness of the robots in competition, making the game less fun to watch, and not a good path to go down.

  1. Limit the total cost spent on prototypes and additional robots built throughout the season.

This has primarily three outcomes, the same as listed above. However, it disproportionately affects high level teams, for fairly obvious reasons. Aside from (probably) being the hardest to implement, this has the ability to have the same negative effects as the first option, but worse. While option 1 can be worked around with clever engineering, and can be a good learning experience when properly done, option 2 could easily strand teams if they “run out of money” in the middle of the season because they got too zealous with iterating.

  1. Limit the total amount of “red numbers” on the team’s overall budget for the year.

The good part about this would be that it should be easier to track than option 2, as teams really should be keeping some record of their budget. However, I honestly think that’s where the benefits stop. Suddenly, teams who get a large unexpected grant have to decide between expanding now or expanding a bit at a time, to not run into “budget” issues the next season? Large purchases, saved up for possibly years, now come with the cost of being limited by that purchase by more than the money missing from the bank account?

I think that this option, if effective, both lowers the ceiling at competition and discourages team growth, which are both undesirable.

If I absolutely had to choose one of these options, it would be number 1. Leveling the playing field is a laudable goal, but that absolutely should not come with the caveat of discouraging team growth or experimentation.

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I expect that by 2022 (and likely 2021) there will be dozens of teams whose BoM would have been over $10k using 2020 rules. I’d bet about a hundred of you to a 2022 southern CMP corndog if I could figure out how to score it, even knowing I won’t eat nearly that many corndogs in five days.

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I suppose I’m a casual fan on IndyCar. I believe it’s the cheapest of itself, NASCAR, and Formula 1

edit - To limit costs, they lease engines and purchase their bodies from Dallara

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No.

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? What post are you replying No to?

Responding to the OP.

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The 254 prototypes made out of cardboard and 2x4s would still beat the pants off other robots. A Formula 1 car made out of 2x4s could not do that. In addition, a very large actual expense of building these robot parts is labor, which we’ve decided to ignore in these rules in the past.

I don’t think it is a good idea, and I really like having students machine the robot, which this rule would favor.

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The fact that you think a high resource team will be able to spend literally twice as much as they already spend on a competition robot just because of a lack of BOM shows how little you’re aware with how not cost limited high resource teams are right now.

The BOM as it was didn’t affect the high resource teams at all. Cost wasn’t a limitng factor, robot rules and capabilities were. The BOM was just an annoying piece of paper that you needed to know all the loopholes for. Removing it will not make high resource teams any more then they already have been (and def not anywhere close to double).

Removing the BOM hasn’t hurt or helped high resource teams in anyway. They will continue to operate exactly how they have been operating. All removing it has done is help the higher mid resource teams.

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NASCAR currently has no distinct spending caps. there are rumored plans (and i could of sworn that they got confirmed, but I cannot find any indication of them) for 2021 thats now been delayed along with a new spec car that will also cut costs.

Quite honestly, I dont think NASCAR or F1 will be a great comparison due to the disparity between the “top” teams and the backmarkers. In 2016, BK Racing declared bankruptcy, which gave one of the best looks into the costs to run a team in the Cup Series, and they were spending roughly $20 million a year to run 2 cars that barely placed better than 30th on a good week. Bob Leavine, owner of Leavine Family Racing (1 car midpack team) posted on Twitter (will link to a reddit thread) saying it costed roughly $400k/race, bringing his costs to $15 million alone to the car. Penske Motorsports (front runner in both NASCAR/Indycar) being cited as saying roughly 20-30mil per car.

Many of the smaller teams also have alliances with the top teams to share data and R&D materials, and a recent AMA from Rick Ware Racing on Reddit indicated that these alliances can start at $5 million per year. Furniture Row Racing shut down during the 2018 season for this reason (and sponsorship issues) specifically, which was insane considering their driver was the current defending champion and was considered the team to beat.

I said above that i dont think this would be a good comparison, but actually writing it out points out a serious difference in what the last 10-20% of funding can really do for a team, which could translate over to FRC. I’m still unsure if this will actually show up here though, at least for the all but the top 2-3% of teams which already abuse the loopholes of the bom to no end as is.

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How is that? Without the BoM, non-team labor is free, too. Or at worst, at least if each piece has no more than a $500 cost.

I see how that could be unclear, I meant with Sean’s proposed rule, and assuming you had to include labor (this is supposed to mimic the real world after all!)

Did Sean actually propose a rule? If so, I totally missed it. After four reads. Please elucidate.

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Ehhhh… I can’t really think of anything on 148 that we would do differently now.

People like to tout “carbon fiber” or “titanium” or other exotic/expensive materials as being something that high resource teams would adopt en masse now under the new rules. I don’t see it. These materials are really impractical for FRC, and not at all conducive for fast ideate/test/iterate cycles.

But even more generally, a lot of people put too much weight in the success of powerhouse teams being the result of specific widgets rather than other factors.

Tell a powerhouse team that they can only use wood to build a robot, and they’ll still end up on Einstein.

I agree with keeping the $500 per line item cost limit. This has way more of a beneficial impact at maintaining parity than an overall limit.

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How does this address one of the biggest differences – access to sophisticated machinery? We can turn $49 worth of stock into a part another team might pay $490 for.

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What differentiates sports teams is often not what is spent on the players, but what’s spent on the training facilities, the practice facilities and location.

Very few NCAA baseball teams come from the northern states, just like NCAA hockey doesn’t have many southern teams.

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Formula 1 has not had a cost cap, but will be implementing one for 2021 at $175M per team with a lot of exemptions. The reasons for trying the cap are less focused on the cost of a car and much more on other team capabilities. From a pretty interesting article, " Considering that the top teams are current spending upward of $500 million, we’re talking significant cuts. But Gene Haas says that the big teams have five people for every one his team has. Cutting their research and development efforts is the only way a new team will ever catch up."

I think this is the F1 equivalent of what @artdutra04 is trying to say with:

I think mentor count and capability as well as sponsor count, capability, and contribution make FAR more difference in team results than robot cost limits could come close to counteracting.

The consideration of enforcement is essential to addressing the question. Enforcement is an integral part of the cap or limit and what changes a theoretically idyllic answer into a practically counterproductive answer.

From the same article linked above, “But consider the costs of having to hire accountants to review each team’s budget and the costs to the teams of having to adopt accounting procedures that allow them to comply with the regulations. That’s especially onerous on the smaller teams, who are already at a disadvantage.”

To summarize, cost limits, even if going beyond competition robot costs, would not limit the volunteer or donated engineering horsepower that is one of the largest factors, if not the single largest factor, that drives differences in team performance. To comply with cost limits requires lower resource teams to divert resources already in short supply to an administrative task that is unlikely to actually level the playing field. The more complex and wide-ranging the cost limits are, the more significant this counterproductive effect would be.

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And what proposed rule would that be?