Crash Course FRC – Build Process

To understand why the “greats” of the FIRST Robotics Competition achieve so much in so little time requires us to go outside the bot, and to look at both the people and the process.  In this series we’ll be delving into a few amazing teams, why they’re so dang awesome, and probably get a reminder why I should fanboy a little less in public.


Process

To be effective at competing in the FIRST Robotics Competition, we need to outline our criteria for competitiveness.  For some, simply making it to the field is the challenge, for others, it’s maximizing their district points.  For the sake of this, we’ll say to be “competitive” is to contribute as positively as you can to everything you participate in.  Not only matches, but also the lives of those on your team.

Time Management

The unfortunate fact of life is that expectations can and frequently are subverted.  The FIRST Robotics Competition is not just a six week build season.  The entire rest of the year (yes, all 46 other weeks) are training season.  For some teams this consists of off-season participation, practice builds, driver drills and a variety of other projects to bolster their students skill-set.  This isn’t to say you should pour every hour you do into build season into the rest of the year – quite the opposite in fact.  Your team’s time should be spent effectively.

https://media.discordapp.net/attachments/431237761769537556/503368076960596007/Aclo9GIGElR49ET5MIsYlhnc2-IhkPWjYkncowQz69enLBP82Ywbktj31b7mQ_v5xzbwCbRhaLSwtsjXAXUpNnHQEt8-hHT_c6Ya.png?width=1260&height=569
Team 971’s 2018 Build Season Schedule.  More photos of their build season can be found here.

That being said, effective management of time includes the build season, and if you can deflect training to outside the build season, things like assembling a kitbot (did you know plans can be obtained as a PDF?), how to use the variety of the tools in your shop, your overall shop & build procedures, you can enable your team to more effectively use your non-negotiable time on the unstoppable countdown Stop Build Day or, starting in the future, when you compete.

Teams like 1678 give lessons to other teams at the Capital City Classic, and at other off-seasons.  This enables a direct connection between experienced teams and those who want to learn, and attending one event like this can be a key part of your fall training.  Even if your team isn’t in the state of California, you can still benefit from those lectures given that 1678 publishes them all online, and a variety of other lectures or lesson series can be found online.

Project Management

The other major part of time management in a FIRST Robotics Competition context is that of your build season time.  Six and a half weeks may seem like a long time for folks who are new, but in the immortal words of Douglas Adams:

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

That being said, it’s pretty important to stick to your deadlines and FRC teams have a few ways to mitigate this.

Well, how do real engineers keep track of their projects and deadlines?  Traditionally through use of something called a Gantt chart.  This gives you a day-by-day breakdown of the project (ie. the robot), it’s discrete subsystems and progress, the works.  It’s as granular or as ambiguous as your team chooses to use it.  To learn more about Gantt Charting and other project management tools, ProjectManager.com does a pretty good overview and usage explanation.

A more simplistic form of project management that might be used in FRC is that of a Kanban board.  The most common form you’re probably familiar with is the website Trello, but there are a variety of options available.  With post-it notes as your “tasks” and a whiteboard outlining the different task statuses, you can visually see the completion state of any project all at once.  With different colored post-it notes, you can even make different dependencies more easy to see.

Image result for Kanban post-it
Photo of a 3-column Kanban board.  Taken from here.

That being said, it’s not easy.  Even with all of these tools available to you, there’s still potential to make mistakes and have things go wrong.  Season-stoppers can happen, and they’re damn near impossible to work around.  The way to work around failure is to build it into your schedule.  Worst case, you’re still on schedule, best case you now have time for the other tasks you need to improve on and approach mastery.  Even when things like the slump hit your team, scheduling time for it and making it an expected part of your season helps.  That isn’t to say it’s possible to mitigate it, but so as long as you expect it, you can work around it.

Conclusion

In short, how your team spends it’s time both in and out of competition is an important part of your competitive ability.  Training for roles, expectations, and general technical skills are essential.  Combined with good time management in the build season, a trained team can do amazing things.

Cover Image Photo Credit: Team 254’s 2014 Build Log

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