Around 8 months ago, myself and three others began to design and build a robotic object manipulation device for the RoboCup@Home Competition in 2013 that is able to handle a variety of household objects.  My experience in this project taught me aspects to a design project that to be learned by doing.

Team Formation

I think this is where a lot of students struggle when things go wrong.  It’s always possible to get a teammate that is hard to work with.  While it is no fault of either person, the two personalities (either in values, cultural background, style of working, way of thinking, etc.) are different enough to cause disagreements.  At times, the disagreements can become so heated that the team’s progress in the project is hindered.

I realized that there were communication issues among each other in the group, which delayed progress in the early stages of the project.  These issues came about in the form of misunderstandings of what people said during team meetings.  I found myself in the position where I was expressing my own interpretation of what people said in the hopes that everyone would reach a common understanding.  As the project went on, family issues prevented one member from continuing this project further.  In a way, this eased our communication problems since communication between three people was a lot easier than between four people, based on what I experienced in the project.  Afterward, our team became a lot more efficient and progressed at a faster rate than before.

One of the things that the mechanical engineering curriculum at UBC teaches is team dynamics.  After learning a lot of theory as to how to work best with teams, doing projects with other people puts that knowledge to the test.  Some people don’t really manage working with others and feel set in their ways.  Differences among people exist and I realize that adjustments in the way I work with them is required in order to promote a healthy functioning group.

Project Scope

In retrospect, I would have advocated reducing the project scope since; I feel that the hours we put in were beyond what the course asked for.  I estimate that each member put in over 300 hours on the project.  Since a large part of this course is about design justification, time is very realistic constraint that can limit project scope.  At the same time, there are other courses to worry about.  By spending extra time on 45X, less time is available for other courses.

In the beginning of the project, I couldn’t predict well how long things would take.  Therefore, time for “messing up” or “unforeseen consequences” should be budgeted for.  Many people say things like “I can finish this in about 2 hours”, but in reality, it will take him two days.

Documentation

Very often I found myself referring to old dossier documents to find out information that I needed to know. For example, if I forgot how much something cost, I looked back on the dossier to find out.  If I forgot one of the project requirements, back to the dossier I looked.  At times, it is a bit of a pain to write some sections of the dossier since I couldn’t make sense of the some of the wording.  To deal with it, I had to ask the project supervisor during team meetings.

Project Logistics

I booked as much machine shop time as we could ahead of time knowing that we would need it.  The team would have liked to send in parts for the waterjet or have the technicians work on them, but we were way too late for that.  With a simpler project scope, we could have designed our parts faster and could have been further ahead in those manufacturing lineups to decrease the lead time.  My teammates and I spent quite a bit of time in the machine shop to get as much as we could ready for the design review.  At the same time, I had to look at when ordered parts arrived such that things would arrive in time so that we had everything prepared while building the prototype.

Time Management

While doing 45X, I was also working on New Venture Design and Thunderbots at the same time, which also took up a lot of my time.  As with design projects, they take up the most time relative to other courses.  For me, I had to juggle these three for the entire year.  This gave me a lot of stress at times, but it taught me to be more productive.  For example, on the way home, I would be responding to e-mails that I received during the day so I would have more time to work on the project when I got home.  Since my commute to campus is 1.5 hours just to get to campus (one direction), I had to learn how to make use of this time.

Project Management

I took up the role of “project manager” in the beginning of the project and this role showed me a lot of the logistics that had to be considered in a project.  Very often I found myself asking for progress on certain tasks and pushing teammates to finish faster.  Different issues often came to my head that I had to find an answer for such as “are our parts going to arrive in time for machining” or “do we need to have another meeting with the client”.

For Future 45X Students

Don’t wait until the last minute to do something.  There is always something that needs to be done in this course from beginning to end.  Mech students like to aim high, which is good, but 99% of the time there is not enough time to accomplish the “perfect” design that they always aim for.  This leads to a lot of sleepless nights or worse, a prototype that isn’t ready to be handed in.  Be ready to bite the bullet and make compromises like cutting features to make work less for the team and to meet deadlines.  No design will be “perfect” at the end of the course and this fact, however brutal it may be, must be accepted.