Note: This article is part of a series, documenting the All Sparks through the FIRST robotics season. To find the other parts of this series, see the list at the bottom of the article.


 

All Sparks Prototyping 3

Our team prototyping process is well underway and, like any good robot prototyping process, ours involves a lot of whiteboards, Expo markers, and scraps of material from around our shop. All of our prototyping starts with the team deciding which actions we want the robot to be able to do, and breaking down the possible ways to perform those actions.

Once we have whittled down all the possible options to a reasonable number, we split up the different designs into subgroups led by one of our student team members. These subgroups then break off and finish brainstorming the best ways to complete their task and create a prototype mechanism that can perform the necessary action.

The first prototypes tend to be very coarse manifestations of a concept or idea just to see if it is feasible. After a prototyping subgroup has designed a rough proof of concept, they can start refining their idea and their prototypes become more polished. Once a prototype group knows that an idea works, whether it be from trial or research online, they might use Solidworks, our computer-aided design software of choice, to create a digital representation of the finished prototype that they can then fabricate using our shop’s laser cutter or 3D printers.

All Sparks Prototyping 1

Once the prototyping groups have tried and refined all their initial ideas, the entire team gets together to meet and discuss the prototypes. This meeting not only lets other team members know what the prototyping groups are doing, it also acts as a forum for other team members to make comments and suggestions on a certain prototyping team’s design.

Often, there are ideas that come out of the team meetings that will lead to the development of new prototype subgroups. The brainstorming process will begin again, and new prototypes are developed based on either an alternative strategy, or on a new version of a strategy that was discussed earlier. This cycle means that, even though many of our prototypes may fail initially, we are constantly building on previous developments.

 

One of the most important facets of this cycle is the speed at which it happens. Often, a subgroup will take an idea and have one or more working prototypes made within a few hours. One team mentor likes to remind our team members to “fail faster” when they are working. The focus of this process is on discovering flaws in ideas and figuring out ways to help correct those flaws in order to get to a working, feasible robot idea, rather than on building the ideal designs immediately.

Now that you have an idea of our prototype process, we’d like to offer 5 tips that we think everyone should keep in mind whenever prototyping.

  1. When you start, make sure that you have broken your end goal down into individual tasks. If you try to tackle too many jobs with one prototype, you will likely end up with a jumbled mess and nothing to show for your efforts.
  2. When the prototyping groups start brainstorming, everyone needs to keep an open mind and think outside the box (or outside the tote, in this year’s case). If a team gets too attached to one idea and comes up with a bunch of prototypes that are slight variations of that one idea, it is likely that the team could miss much better solutions.
  3. Keep things simple. When working with any kind of robotics, the best way is often the simplest way because simpler machines have fewer points for potential failure.
  4. Do not throw out an idea just because the first prototype didn’t work. Prototyping is about learning. If the first model doesn’t work, try to find out what went wrong and fix that problem in the next design. You should never be building just one version of a prototype.
  5. The most important part is sharing with your peers. When you prototype you learn a lot about the game, and what problems are likely to arise for other teams. It is important that you share your findings with your team so that they can learn from your mistakes and triumphs, and you can learn from theirs. Your teammates and mentors can also be a great source of new ideas.

The All Sparks FIRST Robotics Season