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Using the FIRST Robotics and Additive Manufacturing for Workforce Development

 Beth Love

By Beth Love
STEM Academy English Teacher and
FIRST Team 3824 RoHAWKtics Mentor
Hardin Valley Academy, Knoxville, TN

The future of U.S. manufacturing is evolving rapidly. This presents educators like myself with a fundamental problem: How do we develop tomorrow’s manufacturing workforce? One possible solution has emerged in the community that, 70 years ago, secretly manufactured the materials that won World War II: Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

It all began three years ago when a handful of students at Hardin Valley Academy (HVA) approached a teacher and asked: “Can we start a FIRST Robotics team?”

As with any normal group of students, they waited until the last minute and had one week to raise the $5000 entrance fee. The teacher called a few friends to ask for funding but was short. Enter a few engineers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) who were community volunteers and had connections mere teachers do not. Within a few days the team had the entrance fee and our first FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics
season began.

We had six weeks to build a robot.

But when the team met at the school, the mentors for ORNL asked to see the shop. Shop? High schools no longer support shop classes. It’s a liability. One student spoke up: “We have a 3D printer.” In the eyes of the mentors, this was a seminal moment. One mentor rapidly taught three students Computer Aided Design. They began using their Stratasys uPrint to print out brackets, couplings, gears, pulleys. But it wasn’t enough. Oak Ridge contacted Jeff DeGrange, VP of Stratasys, and asked for help. Stratasys saw the potential and offered both financial and manufacturing support.

Building a robot was a grueling process, but we finished on time and competed at the Smoky Mountain Regional, where we won the Rookie Team award and secured a spot to compete at the National Competition in St. Louis in April of 2010. Kids from all over the country met at the Edward Jones Arena cheering for their teams while their robots were competing on the field. Our team finished 56th, an incredible feat for a rookie team.Hardin Valley Academy students describing their work in Additive Manufacturing at the NAAMI press conference

In the fall of 2011, the lab mentors, Lonnie Love, Craig Blue, and Martin Keller, agreed to return to help the team. This time around, the team decided they would print the entire robot! No one had ever done this, let alone high school students.

ORNL would even let our team have space at their Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) to work. But our kids wanted to open it up to other schools’ teams, too. So we approached the MDF staff. Not only were they receptive, but they took it a step further and were able to help secure funding from DOE’s Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO), the lab’s contractor (Battelle) and Stratasys to support eight teams in the East Tennessee region.

On Jan. 8, 2012, over 200 students, teachers and volunteers gathered at the MDF for the kick-off of FIRST’s 2012 game, Rebound Rumble. The teams were to design, build and program a robot that could not only play basketball, but could balance on a teeter-totter bridge with another robot. As soon as the announcement was made, the teams retreated to their respective work areas the MDF had set up to begin planning.

Build season for FIRST is an intense six weeks. Teams work every night and all day Saturdays in order to meet the deadline. We found that some of the first year teams were struggling with design issues, programming, electronics and other issues. So, our students decided to add a collaboration component to the MDF outreach. FIRST’s mantras are “Gracious professionalism” and “Coopertition.” These are beliefs that encourage high-quality work, emphasize the value of others, and respect individuals and the community as well as the philosophy that teams should help and cooperate with each other even as they compete.

Our team decided that, in the spirit of these two ideas, we should reach out to all teams during a “Lunch and Learn” on Saturdays. During the sessions, a representative from each team would report to the group about their teams’ progress on their robots, discuss any problems they were having and share ideas that may help the other teams. This turned out to be a great success.

As the weeks progressed, the teams were more open to sharing: design issues were drawn on white boards, strategies were debated, programming problems were worked out, and as a result, hundreds of parts were printed. We had miniature engineering and manufacturing companies working in one building—and all run by high school students.

We were so successful that on one Saturday, as we arrived to work, a school bus carrying five students from Hawkins County, an hour and half drive from Knoxville, drove up to the high bay. They had heard what we were doing, were desperate for help and wanted to know if we could give them advice. We invited them in and had mentors and students work with them all day. When they left that evening, they had a working robot.

By the end of the six week build season, we quickly realized this program had come a long way from simply building a robot to a true Workforce Development program.
HVA's FIRST Team 3824 Additive Manufactured Robot

Our first competition took place in March. The Smoky Mountain regional had 54 competing teams, including every team with whom we worked  at the MDF. HVA FIRST Team 3824, the RoHAWKtics, made it all the way to the last round of the semi-finals, only to lose in the last match. We had many judges comment that we had the best robot on the field because of the uniqueness of it—all due to additive manufacturing.

We competed again three weeks later at the Peachtree Regional in Atlanta. Sadly, we lost again in the last round of the semi-finals, but we won much admiration from the Board members of FIRST and many others. U.S. Department of Energy’s Secretary Chu saw our robot in action during a visit to the MDF. In August, we were invited to Youngstown, Ohio to the NAAMI press conference to announce the Obama Administration’s Additive Manufacturing initiative. Our kids met Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank, Obama Economic Advisor Gene Sperling as well as Defense Department and Congressional leaders.

Our kids spoke to them about Additive Manufacturing’s role in the production of our robot, but also the skills they acquired during build season and how they hoped that they could go to college, further develop these skills, and come back to our community and find jobs. If this occurs, the workforce development cycle will be complete.

Workforce development for manufacturing starts early. We need competition (i.e., FIRST) to excite the kids, access to new technologies, such as additive manufacturing, and help from experienced mentors. This combination can ensure a solid foundation for the future of U.S. manufacturing. ME


This article was first published in the February 2013 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.  Click here for PDF


Published Date : 1/8/2013

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