This past year I joined Team 4095, Andromeda One, as their SOLIDWORKS CAD Mentor. As a SOLIDWORKS veteran, I knew about FIRST Robotics and their competitions. My colleagues had even spoken of their experiences both as team members and as judges at local competitions. In my town, the Ayer Shirley Regional High School didn’t have a team to give me a local opportunity to participate. That changed a year ago when the team was formed. They managed to earn the Rookie of the Year award at both a regional competition and at the WPI New England District competition. My eighth grade son wanted to join the team and needed me to be a mentor. This started an unexpected experience for me.
The team’s leader immediately put me in charge of the CAD team in September. My colleagues in the SOLIDWORKS Education team helped us obtain our SOLIDWORKS licenses. The pre-season started in earnest. My team consisted of two eighth grade students who had only heard of the term CAD. I had three months to teach these kids how to model the various parts and assemblies of a robot ahead of the build season. This was a tall task.
I realized early on that we would not be able to accomplish a highly detailed model. Rather, I chose to work with them on the basics: sketches, features and mates. After all, this was a second year team using SOLIDWORKS for the first time. Our goals included developing basic mechanisms for the initial concepts and modelling 3D printed giveaways during competitions. At work I would be asked if we were working with SOLIDWORKS Simulation on our models. I would chuckle and say, “Not this season, maybe next”.
FIRST Build Season
Saturday, January 3 – The six week build season kicked off with the introduction of this year’s competition, Recycle Rush. What an exciting time. The team immediately went into design overdrive. Concepts are hashed out and discarded into the “Recycle Container” as we identified the game and the various ways of scoring points. The CAD team was right there in the thick of things, with a little help from FIRST. We were able to leverage the game field, game pieces and robot base within SOLIDWORKS to measure and model up the concepts that were being proposed.
After the team ruled out the various concepts, the build began. My team turned to modelling the various brackets for the sensors that were needed for the robot. These models were then printed on the school’s Makerbot Replicator 2.
The six week build season was a blast for this engineer turned software salesman. It had been ages since I participated in a design/build. We brainstormed many different concepts. Some ideas were ruled out because of complexity. As a sophomore team, other concepts were ruled out because we didn’t feel we had the skills to pull off the mechanism. Others we ruled out because we didn’t have the experience to work with the particular actuator or sensor. The robot that was bagged at the end of the build season was a solid robot that had only minor technical issues during its three competitions. I’d say that was quite a win for this rookie mentor and sophomore team.
FIRST Competition Season
Heading into the end of the build season and throughout the competition season, my team turned to its second goal of 3D printing giveaways. We felt the 3D printed coins and cards with the team name on them would be a hit. The school’s 3D printer was printing morning and evening.
Team 4905 did well in its two Regional competitions, qualifying 4th in the first competition and 2nd in the second competition. The high point came when the team won the Chairman’s Award in its second competition. Who’d have guessed a Division 7 high school would win this award in its sophomore season?
The team earned a spot in the New England District Championship on merit alone. Without the bonus points and automatic entry that the Chairman’s Award gave us, the team proved it could compete. While we didn’t do as well as we hoped during the championship, we learned how other teams work throughout the competition season. We are targeting to return to the New England District Championship next year and compete with the other veteran teams.
FIRST is a Year Round Sport
Now that we are in the offseason, the team is regrouping to determine their next steps. As the SOLIDWORKS CAD mentor, I am pulling together a more targeted plan of teaching SOLIDWORKS to my team. Maybe we’ll even incorporate a Simulation or two during that initial build plan next season.
FIRST Robotics is an amazing experience. I would recommend it to every student and potential mentor. It doesn’t matter if you are an engineer or not, there is something for everyone. Our team was run as a basic design/build house complete with administrative, sales, marketing and engineering groups. This is a cool experience that I will be part of for the foreseeable future. As Dean Kamen, the founder of FIRST Robotics, said during the Reading Regional Competition, “Not every high school athlete can turn pro, but all of you will.”
Let’s build something amazing!