FRC Blog


Feb 04, 2016 Written by Frank Merrick.

There's been some buzz in the community about the availability of COTS parts and what companies that distribute parts potentially useful in FRC did or didn't know about FIRST STRONGHOLD ahead of time.

This season, as a trial of a new approach in this modern FRC era, we selected three distributors popular with the FRC community - AndyMark, REV Robotics, and VEX - and lifted the flap 'a little' on the game before Kickoff. The intent was to give them a heads up on what challenges the teams needed to overcome to play the game well, so they could make more fully informed decisions about stocking levels and thus better serve the teams. Improved service to the teams, not perfect service to the teams, was the goal of this effort. Parts availability challenges are part of the deal in FRC, and maybe to a lesser extent in real-world engineering design as well, as frustrating as they can be. No distributor, even with advance knowledge, could possibly predict how many of component X they should have on hand to meet the need of every customer that comes to them, while at the same time not investing so much in inventory that they get stuck at the end of the season with a warehouse of parts that won't be moving anytime soon. You've probably noticed that, over the last few years, the FRC games have widely varied. A super-hot component one year, like Mecanum wheels in 2015, can easily become component non grata the following year. And distributors, as much as they love FRC and do great things for the community, still need to be financially viable, or they won't be distributors, and a resource to teams, for long.

All three distributors heard the same information under this trial and around the same time (disclosure happened in late September and early October). They were given general information such as that the robots would be driving over obstacles, climbing, and throwing game objects. All distributors made their own decisions about stocking levels and what components they should stock. As an example, while we told distributors that robots would be climbing obstacles, we did not tell them what specific components we thought would be useful in addressing that challenge. Each made their own business decisions.

In some individual cases distributors were given more detailed information out of necessity. For example, as AndyMark had agreed to make the game objects available to teams, they knew about, and stocked, boulders ahead of time. Specific details like this were on a 'need to know' basis, if they didn't need to know, they didn't get to know.

We selected these distributors because of our trust level with them and their popularity with the community. We have known and worked closely with each of these distributors for years, and we needed to be completely comfortable in the knowledge that they would not share this information publicly or privately with individuals that did not need to know. Popularity with the community was also important. We would not reveal this information to distributors with just a few parts for sale, or distributors only known to or popular with a smaller segment of the community.

I'm hoping all this makes sense to folks. We took what actions we thought reasonable to help with component availability, without giving away all the game secrets or specifically asking distributors to put themselves in financially untenable circumstances. For sure, some components still stocked out, and those stock-outs are painful to teams, but we think the stock-outs would have been worse if these distributors did not have this information in advance.



I understand fully that First makes their decision as far as what to release to distributers since many of these also mentor teams and don't want to give an unfair advantage to the teams they work with but for two years in a row, many of the teams we've heard from like ourselves have been unable to make purchases we were planning on due to shortages and that especially last year caused alot of headaches for the design team to have to totally redesign or as was our case use less efficient and or effective parts. That has caused alot of complaints and stress during an already stressful time for all of us wethere parents or students...I just wish there was a way to make it more easier as you are trying to do to make what is stocked so that what teams are all going to want i.e 8 inch pneumatic wheels....thanks for all the hard work on all involved from distribution and First.

As a veteran team (9th season) and a Applied Tech teacher with ten years experience I can say that the issue is not with the suppliers, I completely understand where they are coming from and would not accept, if I were an owner of one of these fine companies, to be left sitting on a bunch of stock just to satisfy teams being able to get product on time. 

I know I am beating a dead horse here, but a lengthened build season would help in several ways:

1) Increase the amount of time that we have to secure parts from vendors

2) Increase the amount of directed teaching and mentoring that students receive, this increasing their learning through the process which is the main goal for this entire program

3) Allow for more practice time with the main robot (or the only bot for those teams who only build one) also a major part of the design loop, testing/ evaluating and re-design/ improve


FYI: If you still need wheels, check Harbor Freight.

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