Why Grant Imahara is wrong (about FIRST robot design)

I’m not going to endorse grabbing aluminum with no plan, but I think the amount of time and effort he expects teams to be able to spend on design is unreasonable. In particular, in my experience it takes at least four and a half of the six weeks to fabricate the robot. That varies by what qualifies as fabrication (wiring? last minute modifications?) but you still need time at the end to test the programing, practice driving, and ship the robot. So basically, if your team is not cutting aluminum a week in, you’re in trouble. There is simply not time for the computerized, iterative design process that Imahara advocates.

The reason WildStang was and is able to do otherwise is because of the tremendous resources available to them, that – this is where Grant falters – are not available to the average team. Most teams do not have a water-cooled CNC mill to accelerate production; many don’t have a mill at all. Or a lathe or welder for that matter. On the other side, the virtual side, not every team has lots of computers. Those they do have go to the programmers before the CAD crew. (They can’t trade off midseason because programers have lots to do before the robot is built, like figure out how to set up the camera and find the target). Also, AutoCAD has a learning curve to it, which is unavoidable for software of its power, but is a barrier nonetheless. The common thread here is that most teams are struggling to produce any robot at all, and don’t have the equipment, personell, and trained mentors required for CAD, which is not, strictly speaking, necessary.

Instead, Imahara needs to recognize and encourage the back-of-the-napkin sketch and real world prototype, both of which are much more within the realm of possibility for teams and high schoolers. Furthermore, he implies that teams who do not use advanced tools will do poorly, but I’ve seen robots held together by rivets that still did remarkably well. He also should emphasize teamwork, trust in mentors, and to learn from experience. Both good and bad designs from previous seasons make valuable lessons. Develop a “bag of tricks”: rather than engineer a human-like arm on the spot, have years of experience with arms and be able to adapt previous versions to the new game. Same goes for drive trains.

While Imahara outlines the ideal process, he (or his writer) has a very poor grasp of the capabilities of most teams. The handful that are able to work as he recommends also have experienced engineers to guide the process. It’s the small, new, and low-budget teams that need and seek design advice from a YouTube video.

Personally, I think that FIRST and many teams do not use the offseason to their advantage. The time should be spent to teach students how to use their tools while the team learns something as well, like prototyping a component for that bag of tricks. I remember mentoring one team whose students were struggling to produce useable AutoCAD drawings during the build season. They were not getting all the benefit they could have gotten from their high school’s CAD lab, a potentially huge and certainly uncommon asset. What’s counterintuitive is that the solution is not more time in the lab, because the children understood how to use the program. The problem was that they didn’t know the clearest way to label their measurements. That’s why another (older and more successful) team I’ve worked with has every student spend his or her first year in the machine shop: so they don’t measure to the center of a drilled out hole.

It’s that kind of thinking, which sounds like common sense but isn’t, that is the first step to cultivating a team that can use its tools effectively, quickly, and safely. Each team has different capabilities, and therefore both the design and the design process must be tailored to the team’s strengths and weaknesses.

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