What Marvin the Robot Taught Me About Failure

There are many lessons to be gleaned from failure, as illustrated in the following story of Marvin the Robot.

I led a robotics design team during the final semester of my sophomore year. Our challenge was to design and create a small robot for our college’s annual competition. The winner would advance to the state competition, and the top three teams would then compete in the the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) competition, which, as additional incentive, was to be held in Hawaii.

The robot had to autonomously traverse a 10 foot long track and dispense ping poing balls into baskets at each end of the track. The robot that successfully deposited six baskets in the shortest time would win the competition. There were financial constraints – the robot could not cost more than $300 to build.

Our team was divided between mechanical and electrical engineering majors. Together, we developed a creative solution through an iterative process of trial and error. The primary challenge we overcame was to signal the robot that it had reached the end of the track by the use of a sonar sensor. Once it was within range, the sensor triggered the robot to slow down and dispense the ball. For other design challenges, simple solutions proved to be the most effective. We used empty spice containers as the holding dispenser for the ping pong balls. The cost of a couple of dollars for the containers was an added advantage.

After many hours spent in the engineering lab and manufacturing center, “Marvin” came to life. It was not the sleekest of robots, but it provided a functional, robust, and low-cost solution to a complex problem. We won the school competition, and placed high enough in the state competition to qualify for nationals. Since we had several weeks to prepare for the big event, we set an ambitious goal to make Marvin even better. This led to our first critical mistake:

  • Mistake #1: Lack of a back-up plan. Instead of building a second iteration while keeping the original robot intact, we instead dismantled Marvin. We were overconfident in our ability to rebuild. This was motivated in part by a desire to improve the robot’s functionality, but also a less noble motive. Tired of the constant ribbing we received about Marvin’s crude appearance, we set out to make a sexier robot. This led to our second mistake.
  • Mistake #2: Valuing form over function. There was no scoring provision for appearance. The robots were evaluated strictly on performance, and instead of designing for looks, we should have focused on what counted most – speed and accuracy.
  • Mistake #3: Overconfidence resulting in a lack of preparation. It was difficult to maintain focus on the robot with each team member’s various summer plans. Although our intent was to have Marvin race-ready before tucking it away in checked luggage, we ran out of time. We reassured ourselves that we could finish Marvin in the hours prior to the competition. But hope is not a strategy. It would have been prudent to have allocated those hours to verifying Marvin’s functionality and counteracting any last-minute challenges.

It is probably apparent where this story is going. Despite our heroic last-minute attempts, Marvin struggled in the competition and performed poorly. What was particularly frustrating was the realization that if we had made no changes and simply repeated our previous performance, we would have won the competition.

However, I am grateful for our failure. It enabled me to learn valuable lessons in a low-risk situation, lessons that include:

  •  The value of a simple design. Many of the other robotics teams set out to create an ‘engineering wonder’, focusing primarily on creative innovation instead of consistent, reliable performance.  We, too, eventually fell prey to this motivation. While innovation is a key component of excellence in design, the desire to ‘dazzle’ should have been subordinated to meeting the basic design requirements. We should not have allowed peer pressure from the other teams to motivate us to take on a risky redesign.
  • The value of preparation. For obvious reasons, I had strong doubts that we would be successful in restoring Marvin to operating condition in the few hours before the competition. We should have reserved that time for final adjustments. But I ignored these concerns and instead allowed myself to be falsely assured we could prepare in time. Instead, I should have “pulled the andon”  and rallied the team to prepare more adequately, especially considering I was the leader.
  • The value of networking. The only reason we were able to even compete in the final competition was because of help we received from some of the members of the opposing teams. We had bonded with these members prior to the competition, and had offered our help to them at various points in the design process.These investments paid off when, an hour before the competition, we discovered that we had inadvertently short-circuited our robot’s main controller. Without a back-up controller (another key mistake), our only option was to build an analog motor control. However, we did not have a schematic available to guide us in building one. Two electrical engineers came over to help.  They devoted the last hour before the competition to helping us, their competitors, build the needed circuitry. One of the engineers quickly scribbled a design for us to follow, and with 30 minutes to spare, we successfully built the required motor control. The benefit of having people you can count on when you are in a tough place cannot be underestimated. This lesson has proved invaluable to me in the working world.
  • The value of determination and persistence. Even though we ultimately failed to place in the competition, we learned something lesson about character. Under intense pressure, we did not give in to the overwhelming temptation to give up. There was a sense of pride in how our team united in our determination to make a showing in the competition. We may have failed to win, but we succeeded in demonstrating persistence and team work.

Marvin may now be in pieces, but the lessons the that our failure taught me remain.

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