I was digging through some old photos on Facebook the other day and found an interesting conversation on a picture of one of my friend’s electrical boards. On it, some kid from another team made a comment about how complex their robot was for running 8 motors, when his team had only 3. I posted a comment basically asking why that was and if their robot was working alright, since it was just a few days before ship. He responded  by saying something to the effect of “yeah, it’s working just fine, if we added more we’d be overweight anyway”. Another friend offered to help make suggestions for weight reduction so that they had weight for a better drive, ball magnet, etc. and the kid responded with some comments about how their robot was just fine, it could kick and hang “just like 148 could”, and that he did not want to reveal any team secrets by showing the robot a few days before ship.

This team went on to lose more than two thirds of their matches, and they only got their fourth win at their third event.

I started thinking about those comments today and was wondering what was going through this team’s head. It seemed they had a bit of an inflated ego, and that this ego led them to decide that their robot needed zero improvement. Not only that, but even just a day or two before ship, revealing anything about the robot would give them a competitive disadvantage. The former is a bit of a problem (honest self analysis is difficult but immensely helpful in the design process) but it could be solved if it weren’t for the latter. What if the robot was posted to CD a week before ship? Looking at just their TBA picture I could point out where they could shave down at least 5 pounds (they had 80/20 brackets and 1/4″ plate on everything). What if it wasn’t even posted on CD, but just shared with some friendly teams or other people that need advice?

I’ve always thought that a secret philosophy with robot building is always hurtful. There are several different cases, and I think for each one there is benefit to being open, although this cuts off severely once you reach the very most competitive robots. This plateau is one that far too many teams think they are on, when they really aren’t there yet. As a rule of thumb, if you have to ask, you aren’t there yet.

  • Case 1: A young team without many resources or engineers. This team is very, very unlikely to come up with a World Champion robot. In terms of their competitive success, if they share their robot and solicit input throughout the build season, they could potentially get design critiques and improvements that would help them find on field competitive success. If the choose not to share, it’s unlikely that this team will gain anything. They are not very notable at all so no one would strategize against them with the “leaked” knowledge of their robot. They probably do not have a fantastic innovative mechanism that is only good because no one else has it. Overall, they personally have everything to gain from sharing a robot.
  • Case 2: A middle ground team with engineers, some friend teams, and some talent. This is where I would put Shaker Robotics. This team also has the same things to gain as the young team above. In addition, this team has the additional chance of inspiring other, younger teams with their designs and prototypes. Even older teams could stand to benefit from their design sharing. At least one team on Einstein this year asked for the exact part number of a gate latch I posted on CD (no word if it was used on their robot). This team gets a bit more notability and attention than they otherwise would, and that increase in attention alone can make up for any negligible loss in competitive advantage.
  • Case 3: A high resource team that has a very good robot. This team stands to lose from revealing the nuances of their design, however they have a lot to gain as well. They will garner attention well before their first regional, so even with some bad luck they will stay on the radar. Others will be inspired by their success, making more teams competitive and deepening the field of play. On the off chance this team made some mistakes, others can point out slight improvements they could make to be even more successful. The competitive drawback is mainly if their mechanism is something not many teams had thought of before; however by being the originators of the design and having worked on it for longer, as long as this team continuously improves they will always be “a step ahead” anyway.
  • Case 4: This is the case of team IFI, team 469, and the other top tier teams. These teams really have nothing to prove, will garner a lot of attention on their own, and will inspire others no matter what day they choose to reveal their robot. These teams are strong enough that they may have mechanisms that are so ridiculous they could win the World Championship. I’m not going to weigh the pros and cons of sharing designs for these teams, because it’s pretty obviously at their team’s detriment. I have been on a team that firmly believed that they were a Case 4 team.

Something to note is that often, teams feel they are in Case 3 and Case 4 when they are really a Case 2 team. Their mechanism is probably a design a lot of teams have already thought of, and have on their robots, so “revealing the secret” of their design probably won’t lead some team to beat them. Even on the off chance that these teams are at the very top of FIRST this season, the worst possible outcome is that another team gets inspired and does a little better than you, but when you factor in things like the entropy and luck of FRC, the inspired students on the other teams, and the opportunity benefit of getting design critiques or notoriety, is that slight risk really worth cutting your team off from everyone else?

Shaker Robotics will once again be posting “everything” in 2011. There is merit to not posting “everything” initially as it can take away from the learning process on other teams, but as we complete prototypes and head toward the final weeks of build you will be able to see all our results and designs. One of my favorite things about this team is that our ego isn’t yet big enough to think that we’re at the top. We’re pragmatic enough to know that we are not the top tier and that everyone stands to gain from us sharing parts of our design, especially ourselves.

I’d be interested to know what others thought about sharing and whether or not I made any sense. I mean, it is 8 AM.