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Building a Better Bird Feeder with Legos: Systems Engineering in the Real World

During my time at Logic PD we’ve always embraced a Systems Engineering approach to our work, but more and more I see other areas in my life where this approach also comes into play.  For the past two years I have volunteered as a coach for Da Vinci’s Designers, the FIRST Lego League (FLL) team on which my three sons compete.  FLL provides a great opportunity for kids age 9-14 to learn real-world technical skills and core values by competing in a robot game and a problem-solving project.

During the robot game, a Lego Mindstorms robot designed by the team must perform as many missions as possible in a short time span.  The combination of mechanical design, sensors and software results in an electromechanical system similar in complexity to many real-world products.  Similarly, the project portion of the competition requires the team to identify and solve a real-world problem and share their solution with others.

Da Vinci’s Designers’ robot, affectionately called “Big Bertha”

 

In the search for ideas on how to effectively coach a team of people to solve hard problems, I don’t have to look any further than my work at Logic PD.  I have taught Da Vinci’s Designers several of the Systems Engineering concepts that make Logic PD a highly successful product development company and also a great place to work.  These concepts include analysis of alternatives, visual system modeling, stakeholder interviews and rapid prototyping.

Analysis of Alternatives (AoA)

At Logic PD, we rank multiple possible solutions according to weighted criteria to objectively determine the best solution.  In FLL, we set up an AoA to select the best solution to our problem.

Part of our challenge in this year’s FLL competition was to identify and solve a problem related to the interaction between humans and animals.  The team decided to tackle how to keep rodent robber squirrels from breaking into bird feeder banks?”  After researching several possible solutions, they established a set of criteria against which the possible solutions were compared.  I encouraged the team to use a 1-3-9 scale to rank the alternatives where 1 is a negative, 3 is neutral and 9 is a positive.  We often use this scale at Logic PD during an AoA to force us to identify and accentuate areas of true contrast between the potential solutions we develop.

Visual System Modeling

At Logic PD, we have begun using system modeling tools to create drawings and diagrams that formally describe the attributes of a system, such as its structure, behavior, use cases and requirements.  In Lego Mindstorms, the drawing is also the code that runs on the robot.

The Lego Mindstorms programming environment uses a graphical programming language developed for Lego by LabVIEW.  Control of motors, sensors, logic, loops and variables is accomplished by drawing pictures.  While this can be sometimes frustrating for engineers like me who have primarily written text-based code, it’s hard to argue with the results.  Nine-year-old kids who have never programmed before can start creating functional programs within minutes.

Peering a bit under the hood of Lego Mindstorms’ EV3 code, the program file consists of a zipped XML description of the drawn program.  System engineers will recognize the analogy to system modeling languages that are used to both describe and simulate the system.  In the case of Lego Mindstorms, the visual description of the system is interpreted and executed by the EV3 brick.

Example Lego EV3 block that turns the robot to a new angle when prompted by a gyro sensor.

Stakeholder Interviews

Logic PD emphasizes the benefits of capturing a thorough understanding of all users and use cases early in a project.  FLL encourages teams to get out into the community and engage and talk to people who are affected by the problem they are trying to solve.

And while a lot of information is available online, nothing beats actually talking to people who are affected by the problem and would be a part of implementing the solution.  Da Vinci’s designers spoke with naturalists at the Eastman Nature Center, interviewed an employee of Wild Birds Unlimited and talked with a manager at Menards to gain multiple perspectives on the problem and proposed solution.

At Logic PD, two of the most effective research methods are stakeholder interviews and usability testing. The information gathered during stakeholder interviews is compiled by the Industrial Design team into a Journey Map that visually describes the life of a product and the range of interactions the product will have with stakeholders.  Creating a Journey Map early in a project provides the customer and engineering team a clear picture of all the factors that go into making a successful product.  Usability testing is conducted early using product concept imagery and is then repeated as prototypes become available.

Rapid Prototyping

Logic PD has all the skills in-house to get a prototype of a product in your hands – fast.  They even helped Da Vinci’s Designers produce a couple of their bird feeder prototypes.

Da Vinci’s Designers decided to solve the problem of squirrels invading bird feeders by designing an improved squirrel-proof feeder that closes when a squirrel approaches the feeder from the top or the bottom and won’t pour out seed if the squirrel shakes the feeder.  For the regional competition, the team created a prototype by combining parts of an existing bird feeder with a 2-liter soda bottle, some PVC pipe, and of course, duct tape.

My son learned to use Autodesk Inventor and modeled the pieces he wanted to make for their next iterations of the prototype. Logic PD donated time on their Stratasys 3D printer to help the team create his designed components.

Logic PD’s engineers routinely benefit from the ability to create high quality 3D prototypes in a day.  While CAD models provide a preview of what an object will look like, there is no substitute to holding something in your hand and seeing several concept iterations before committing to tooling.

Work, Play, and Systems Engineering

Coaching FIRST Lego League is a highly rewarding experience that I would recommend to any parent with kids interested in engineering.  While the kids are having fun, they are also learning team problem solving skills and Systems Engineering principles that can be applied to a variety of engineering professions in the future.

We use these same principles at Logic PD every day to serve our customers better and solve their real-world product development challenges – we just haven’t been asked to work on a bird feeder yet.

Jarrod Eliason
Engineering Manager and Systems Lead

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