Should we hold FRC Suppliers to a Higher Standard?

Continuing the discussion from Introducing: The Falcon 500, Powered by Talon FX:

Tim had a really thought provoking post in the Falcon 500 thread, that I didn’t want to let get buried. This is something I’ve been thinking of a lot lately. Do/should we hold FRC specific suppliers to a higher standard than we would with say a consumer electronics supplier like Apple? We spend a lot of time learning, talking, and (hopefully) practicing Gracious Professionalism in FIRST, but can it and/or should it extend to the markets surrounding the program.

I can see both sides of this argument, but I’m also a firm believer in being the change you’d like to see. So maybe defaulting to industry standard practices shouldn’t be our baseline. At some point if we really want to create culture change, we need to take the lessons learned in the program and extend them outside. At the same time, companies need to make money. Where is the line? How much can we expect?

(And yes, I used to work an FRC supplier, VEX, but haven’t for over 2 years)

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Disclosure, I am seasonally employed by VEX Robotics as a Mechanical Engineering Intern.

This is a very worthwhile topic to discuss as a community.

I just hope this discussion can remain constructively critical, rather than combative. There is an important distinction, and I think the line has been crossed elsewhere on the site. Criticism is something i believe is an integral entity to success at any level. However, when there comes a point where it is hard to ascertain what one’s goals are with their critiques, and what they wish to accomplish, no one benefits.

I just want to caution some users that their thoughts might be better heard if they are presented in a manner that is much more constructive. People will inherently listen much better when there is a much more welcoming, constructive tone.

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I think the line between consumer/user and supplier is a lot fuzzier in FRC than probably any other interaction people (especially kids) have.

I’m sure you know as well as anyone that a lot of these kids will look up to certain teams/mentors up to or past a point that is unhealthy. We, as a community, are also very fortunate to benefit from the fact that a lot of these teams/mentors want to use their status in a positive way. Students sometimes go to intern at these suppliers or can interact with people that are suppliers face-to-face at competitions (though often probably don’t realize it)

A real life scenario:
My kids were inspected by Andy Baker at champs last year, and it was really cool to me to hear from both my kids how cool/nice Andy was and that they were excited that “the Andy from AndyMark inspected us” and to be able to casually talk to Andy later and hear from him that he was really impressed by my kids and that they were a good group to go through inspection with.

A hypothetical add-on:
It wouldn’t have been cool if Andy came by and questioned a design decision with something like “you know if you used our AM product XYZ you’d be better” - especially if my kids didn’t know he worked for AndyMark. It’d be totally cool if he came over said “Oh, I really like your use of AM-XYZ” though. If Andy really wanted feedback on part choice or something, or to suggest one of AM products over the way we designed it, I’d assume/hope he’d talk to a mentor or phrase it in a way that at least comes across as a “as an alternative in the future, you could consider XYZ”.

I do think it’s easier to hold people you interact with and respect to a higher standard than the the companies we see marketing that we don’t have personal interactions with.

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This is also something I have been thinking a lot about, for numerous reasons. There were a couple posts in another thread that touched upon the subject, as well as plenty of previous discussions regarding topics like cheesecaking, the end of bag day, and COTS availability.

There’s a lot of angles you can consider when thinking about this discussion:

  • These are products intended to be used in an engineering competition, not general consumer electronics. The intended client base is explicitly being told to design, fabricate, and thinker with these products. How does that impact the type of behavior our suppliers should have, particularly when it comes to warranties, spare parts availability, and user maintainability?
  • These are products intended to be used in a time sensitive competition, not general consumer electronics. How does that impact the suppliers responsibility to maintain inventory and shipping options, despite the wildly differing demand across the calendar?
  • How does the end of bag day impact the previous bullets, and supplier timelines in general? What paradigm shifts does it cause with regards to updates to existing products or entire new product launches?
  • These are products intended for use in a quasi-open ecosystem engineering event. It’s not a truly open market where teams can use any components they want, but it’s also not a closed ecosystem where teams are limited to one supplier. How much cross compatibility should be reasonably expected from suppliers?
  • When is it appropriate to stand up and challenge these suppliers, given that ostensibly their mission is to provide products for our niche market? How much rope should they be allowed to have?
  • Some of these suppliers are only one or two people. What types of expectations should we have for these barebones start-ups? What are reasonable levels of communications or shipping delays that we can tolerate from them?
  • Are there differences between what we expect from suppliers that come from “inside the tent” vs those that come from “outside the tent?” There are TONS of applicable products and suppliers out there in the world of hobbyist, prosumer, and industrial robotics/electronics/etc that could be applied to FRC. How should we treat companies that come from these backgrounds into FRC compared to companies that spring up from within FRC with FIRST exposure and backgrounds? Should we be doing more to attract these outside suppliers?
  • How much should we be leaning on suppliers to impact the behavior and options of teams at events? Should we expect suppliers to be pushing the boundaries of what’s legal in the rules? Should we expect FIRST HQ to be acting as a check against suppliers to enforce supplier behavior when it comes to “loopholes” and “grey areas” in the rules?
  • What are the types of cultural values that suppliers are able to push out in their behavior? Should we be leaning on suppliers to combat Throw Away Culture? Local Sourcing? Sustainability? Marketing Ethics?

(Disclosure: My team has no active affiliations with any FRC supplier, but one team alumni does work for IFI and a former mentor/team founder previously worked for IFI/VEX.)

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Honestly, I don’t even think we need to say that FRC suppliers should be held to a higher standard because they’re affiliated with FRC and should be graciously professional. I think it’s enough to expect that companies that market to high school kids be held to a standard that says we should not exploit high school students’ lack of subject knowledge.

In fact, I would say that any marketing scheme that makes things seem more necessary than they are by exploiting their lack of knowledge is unethical and I would not like that. For example, if car manufacturers were relying on people’s lack of knowledge about speed limits to sell cars (“you’ll be able to get to your destination faster with this car that can do 250mph”) , then this would be unethical.

I think this is the easier line to draw – the harder one is what to do about suppliers making their products seem more “essential” than others while providing relevant context. I honestly don’t know what to do about this one. It’s weird because I expect that to a certain extent, all of the engineers working on their product truly believe some of the hype around their products, because they’re obviously biased towards their creations.

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The way I see it, FRC-specific suppliers are in short, collections of knowledge and ideas from FRC-affiliated people and FRC teams. So, yes. Definitely. We should hold them to the same standard we hold our teams at. I’d also appreciate if non-FRC-specific suppliers were held to the same standard, but especially with larger companies, that’s a lot harder to do.

So let’s stick with FRC-specific suppliers for now. First, there are two types of these companies - team-affiliated companies and more generic companies.

Team-affiliated companies, such as Swerve Drive Specialties, are companies created specifically to sell a specific team’s mechanism, like 2910’s swerve drive. I applaud these suppliers for creating a system where teams can share their innovative ideas and unique mechanisms, and I believe they are at the right standard. These companies do however have their flaws, such as SDS’s low number of products (Swerve Modules MK1 and 2, as well as spare parts is their entire stock, as far as I can tell), as well as a few others.

VEXpro and AndyMark are different in that they aren’t suppliers created by a team or affiliated with a specific team, yet their products are designed specifically for FRC in most cases. I believe that they are at the same standard as team-affiliated companies in most cases. However, as Tim mentioned, they may have created a system where, for example, a feature, that hasn’t been tested, appears to be wrong or misleading in a rather important way. This seems a bit like a few ads I’ve seen (I won’t rant on about them, don’t worry) that imply that a feature they have is perfect, when it actually isn’t.

Note: The companies mentioned are just examples off the top of my head, and I have no intention of blasting a specific company.

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I think my question, before we fall down the well of which supplier did what to who, is to ask “how exactly can the FRC community hold a company responsible?”

Very few teams will choose not to buy a superior product because they don’t like a company. Especially in the numbers it would require to change behavior.

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Given that my offhanded comment spurred this thread, I’m gonna do my best to explain my point beyond just what I said before.

Absolutely and wholly. FRC vendors almost entirely understand the struggles of teams on a personal level, much more than Apple employees might. They are their own market and we’ve seen as much with recent small entrants into the space to solve specific problems (for example, Thriftybot.)

I think the line exist between truth and marketing. For many years we’ve had product releases in this space where the gist of the release is “We made this, we hope you think it’s useful!” Even when things don’t go well, we can expect the analysis to be truthful, the “why this didn’t work.”

That method seemingly worked well enough to spur the “big vendors” in FRC to exist, AndyMark, VEX, REV, CTRE, etc. I’m not sure if this theory is false with recent releases under fire by others, myself included. If an engineer or advocate genuinely believes something and is wrong, that’s a mistake, but to spread something wrong deliberately (or what’s seen as deliberately) can incur some serious malice and burn community good will very quickly. (See Diablo’s mobile game incident.)

If a hard line can be drawn, I don’t know. Especially given that even if we don’t like advertising of a product, we must be objective (or as objective as possible) when choosing features. After all, it’s still a competition and performance matters. All that said, I do think that suppliers have a moral responsibility to be as truthful as possible, to be better than their peers in industry. Gracious professionalism is not a static concept, it’s a living breathing culture that must be maintained or risk dying out, and that doesn’t change whether you’re wearing a vendor nametag, a blue polo, or a team tee.

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I think that VEX/CTRE are in a somewhat tougher marketing situation with the Falcon than other products. With the NEO, REV was basically guaranteed hundreds of orders if their entire marketing effort was “It’s brushless. It’s better.” With the Falcon, VEX has to say a bit more. Sure it’s better than a NEO, but it’s not a major leap. That being said, it does seem like there may have been a couple areas where they pushed too hard.
I think that these suppliers are definitely seen as members of the community, not as just profit-making machines. However, I think VEX has become such a large company in other markets that it doesn’t feel like it’s “ours” like the smaller suppliers. I don’t think that it’s necessarily the marketing department’s job to provide an unbiased assessment of their product, but the FRC community seems to expect the companies to want to be helpful to teams above all else. I think the transition to this more “corporate” business relationship is not great, but inevitable.

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One of the other situations I’ve seen mentioned that may be relevant is Vex’s introduction of the falcon shaft being very similar to Apple and the lightning cable/port (pretend the alternative is still micro-usb and not USB-C). There’s an argument to be made for both sides. One side is that its a superior shaft/port. The other side is that its not the standard and they are essentially “forcing” teams to shift into their environment and ecosystem to use the new shaft/port.

Does this fall under the higher standard that we should hold FRC suppliers to? Should Vex have provided a better transition into the falcon spline? Should they have not changed? Is it okay for them to make the change to spline even if a large reason is to increase their profits by having people buy into their ecosystem?

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I mean, if the product is not making a major leap forward, than neither should the marketing. I understand where you’re coming from, but I think it’s fair for consumers to be upset if a product is overhyped when the difference is minor.

For what it’s worth, I think if Vex had marketed the Falcon as similar specced to the NEO and focused heavily on fewer failure points, the CTRE software libraries, and the Falcon shaft, they would not have received nearly as much backlash, and probably (hopefully?) a similar number of orders. Certainly I would have more overall respect for the company.

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Yes. End thread.

Id argue we should hold all suppliers to that standard, not just the ones in our little world.

…and news orgs, and politicians, and youtubers…

But to me this is all about more than FRC suppliers; Fake news and ‘influencers’ are rife in modern society and for the most part it’s hard to tell when someone is honest and when someone is full of ■■■■.

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I can’t wait for the first FRC influencer. Whats the new overhyped product they will promote that you’ll suddenly see teams adopt just to seem cool?

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Based on some comments I saw throughout the offseason, I’m pretty sure all they had to say was “It’s brushless but made by Vex this time”.

Cooler Master/Mindsensors RGB motor controllers

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I think the context of this conversation can and should be expanded… I believe that we should hold all influential people within our community to a higher standard.

One of the missions of FIRST is to create a culture in which science and technology leaders are celebrated like athletes and movie stars. One byproduct of that is hero worship which I view as very prevalent within the FIRST community. Personally I think hero worship of any kind is offputting, but it’s real, and if we’re going to celebrate people, at least let it be good people that are making positive changes in society.

Over the years I’ve seen people on this website and elsewhere, that I look up to, and that I view as the leaders and heroes of our community make statements or do things that I find offputting. Outside the context of FIRST, their actions may be perfectly harmless/reasonable… but because I associate them with this program, I’m programmed to think about it differently. I think we all naturally hold each other to a higher standard because that’s the culture of this program. When people that are hero-worshipped in this program take a stance, or have an opinion on something, that stance/opinion is amplified significantly. The actions of a few people can impact hundreds of students, and influence them for better or worse.

I don’t view myself as a hero/leader of this community by the farthest stretch of the definition… but I’m in a visible position within my region and I tend to make statements on this website that I later regret. Others hold me to a higher standard than what would be expected outside this program. I hold myself to a higher standard because of this program. To answer the original question, yes, I believe that FRC suppliers should be held to a higher standard, I believe that we all should be, because of the critically important task that we’ve all taken upon ourselves of shaping the next generation of science and technology leaders.

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Nidec existed for a hot minute…

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You can very easily turn this argument around. For example:

Should Rev have provided a better output shaft in the Neo? It it okay for Rev to make their output shafts unreplaceable? Is it okay for Rev to make their motor controller to motor connections failure prone by not integrating the motor controller? Is it okay for Rev to not include cooling features if that increases their profit due to higher motor failure rates?

My point being that there are pros and cons to every decision and there is not one absolute correct decision. Good products will be purchased, bad products won’t be. I don’t see any reason to hold suppliers to any further standard on the products they offer/design/produce.

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Short answer: Yes.

A majority of the FRC suppliers are making products and market specifically to the FRC community. Additionally, many members of these companies have deep ties and roots in the community, so FRC suppliers are much more connected to their audience than your average consumer electronics supplier. Therefore, I think that they should be held to a higher standard.
Many teams trust and rely on these companies a lot more than your average apple or microsoft consumer, so misleading marketing tactics and stretching the truth for profit really takes advantage of that. Additionally, FRC is built around the idea of gracious professionalism, so as a supplier, they should follow this as well, and set a good example.

Additionally, I think that there is something that needs to be clarified sometimes: the difference between misleading marketing and a disconnect between the supplier and the community. While this rarely seems to happen in the FIRST community, I think that sometimes products aren’t always best suited or designed for use in FTC or FRC, but are marketed in a way that may seem misleading. An example of this, and I have zero intention of throwing them under the bus here, is the Andymark Standard Mecanum Wheels. Andymark markets these wheels as a good mecanum wheel for FTC use, especially since it is more affordable than many of the other options out there. However these mecanums don’t perform very well, as they tend to strafe poorly, and the rollers seem to break easily. This may seem deceptive, especially as the load rating is above the max weight for FTC; however I think the issue here is in the testing of the mecanums themselves. In the durability whitepaper posted by AM, the tests done, while showing that they can move with over 50+ lbs of load and don’t break unless dropped from a decent height, aren’t very realistic when it comes to FTC performance. FTC robots, especially recently, are getting faster and more powerful, making them subject to high speed movement and possible collisions. So testing these mecanum wheels through moving forward, backwards, sideways, and turning under weight isn’t sufficient enough to prove that they work under weight, and doesn’t even look at the wear over time, which I think is where these mecanum wheels tend to become more problematic. While this type of issue may be more acceptable with any other company or product, I think that because of the relationship AM has with the community, they should be held to a higher standard, and issues like this shouldn’t exist; however, I don’t think this issue is nearly as bad as misleading marketing.

Also, in mentioning the issue with the Andymark Standard Mecanum Wheels, I by no means am trying to throw Andymark as a supplier under the bus here. My team and I purchase from Andymark very often, and have never had an issue with an AM part. I think that a lot of what Andymark sells is well suited for the FIRST community, and this issue doesn’t hurt AM’s reputation in my mind.

I think most FRC suppliers have a firm grasp on their position in the robot world. Whether it’s the Andy Baker thread or IAMJVN or Dave Says It’s Pimp, we’ve had a long history of worshiping the heroes among us, and many of them have made their careers out of that relationship.

If and when a supplier does make overboard statements about their products, I always interpret them as (1) firmly tongue-in-cheek (2) backed by as much data as they can provide (3) generally in-line with their usual level of hyperbole.

Keep doing what you do, and help the next generation be careful and skeptical consumers.

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I would hope that the members of the FIRST community are learning to make better decisions based on objective data making the role of influencers moot.