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What is the “right way” to go about building a robot? Well, obviously there is no one “right way” to go through the engineering design process, but there are some roads that are less helpful to travel down. One mistake that rookie teams often make is zeroing in on a design almost immediately, and not taking the time (or having enough engineering/robotics background) to investigate different ways of playing the game and different object manipulators.
Think About Individual Tasks
It's easy for students to get stuck envisioning the functionality of an entire system at once; during Starstruck, it was easy to get caught up in thinking about picking up stars and getting them over the fence. Instead, initial brainstorming thoughts can be restricted to just getting stars over the fence, ignoring for now how the robot would pick them up or deliver them to a launcher/dumper.
A team's ideas at this stage don't have to be practical, don't have to be pretty, don't have to fit together with any other system, and don't have to even be made out of VEX parts (cardboard and duct tape are good stand-ins). It's important to keep a very open mind at this stage, and not to kill any ideas before the team has had a chance to investigate them at some level that's deeper than just talking or drawing.
Breaking down the design process into this one very specific component, for example, can allow a team to get un-stuck in their thinking, and not be caught up in trying to figure out the whole system all at once (which can lead to mentally killing off many ideas as “that wouldn't work”).
Document the Road Not Taken
For teams interested in competing for the Design Award, it's important to document the ideas that didn't work, as well as the ideas that are chosen to move forward with. The team should include a small, basic diagram or photo of each thing they are prototyping, explain what happens when they test it, and why it is a dead-end. Or, an idea might be a dead-end in itself, but parts of the concept might still be useful and can be borrowed or modified for use in other prototype ideas.
Competition judges want to see that the team did look at and test a lot of different ideas, and the only way that they will know about it is if there is documentation of it in the team's notebook. See the (coming soon) wiki article on the Engineering Notebook and Design Award for an in-depth look at what should be in a team's notebook if they're interested in being a Design Award contender.
Check the VEX Forum & YouTube Often
The minute the year's new game is announced is when people start talking about it on the VEX Forum. It is highly recommended that coaches and team members dive in and read what others are saying, and join the conversation if they have something to add (don't be afraid—everyone has a “first post”). YouTube will have prototype videos on it in short order (search for “VEX robotics [name of this year's game]”). By mid-summer there will even be videos from tournaments that have already occurred in international locations.
At first thought it may seem like “cheating” to get ideas from looking at other robots and using others' ideas from the Forum. Get over it. Unless someone hands a team the blueprints and the team makes a clone-bot, whatever the team builds will ultimately be unique, even if it is based on designs that the team didn't dream up out of thin air.
In fact, as the season goes on, many robots will change their object manipulators based on what they see other robots doing at tournaments. “Hey, they can [fill in the blank] much better than we can. Let's change our [robot part] to work like that team's.” By the time VEX Worlds rolls around, there is a very small number of manipulator types, because one or two designs have shown superiority over others during the course of the season. Teams that didn't start with that type often build one in the middle of the year based on what they saw other successful robots doing.
Ignoring the VEX Forum is like trying to write a research report without going to the library or reading stuff online. Go check it out now.