PACHINKO TO FIRST ROBOTICS: Whatever it takes to draw students to STEM
YEARS AGO on my 10th birthday, I got a gift that instantly became a prized possession — a mid-1970s Japanese pachinko machine. In this vertical version of pinball, the goal is to slingshot engraved metal balls into lotus-shaped catchers and cups to earn payouts of (you guessed it) more little balls. Apparently, pachinko parlors in Japan give minor prizes or payouts only offsite when enough balls are collected.
On a related note, Google “Lee Teschler pinball” for an eeworldonline.com teardown video detailing some of the electronics in today’s Western pinballs.
Save for a few switch-actuated win-indicator lights (courtesy of Omron) my pachinko game is entirely mechanical. Gravity is the main driver of both the pin-studded front playing field and the workings on the back of the machine. A Rube Goldberg maze of levers, chutes, balances, and spring-loaded latches ensure that one payout cache is given for each ball launched into a cup, and three caches are dispensed to a tray on the front of the machine if a center column of lotus catchers (the grand slam of pachinkos) is hit. All of this gives innumerable opportunity for ball jams and other malfunctions … and that’s exactly what drove my love for and familiarity with this quirky possession.
You see, anytime I had friends over as a kid, the pachinko machine eventually drew them in for play. These sessions were rigorous, which meant I became something of a quick technician on the contraption — adept at knowing by symptom or sometimes just sound which override, reset, or jam clearing the machine needed for the party to continue.
Of course, young people today have more structured and probably more effective exposure to the world of mechanical devices and engineering as a whole. Out of many programs to interest and educate young people in STEM fields, FIRST Robotics is probably the premier program in the U.S. Most anyone familiar with FIRST (or the affiliate LEGO League for younger students) champions its value. 2018 competitions for high-school students will begin shortly after the Design World Trends issue goes to press; if you’ve never attended a First Robotics Competition (FRC) or First Technology Challenge (FTC) check firstinspires.org to see if there’s one in your area. This year’s FRC theme is Power Up — an arcade-game-inspired challenge that will require three-team alliances to (among other things) use robots they’ve built and programmed to collect power cubes and load them onto plates to earn points.
Some industry folks we surveyed for this Design World Trends issue recognize the value of FIRST Robotics, so offer support to high-school teams near and far with monetary and motion-component donations. Linear-motion manufacturer Bishop-Wisecarver Corp. has supported both FRC and the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) since 2007, partially through donations of its DualVee linear guide track and Carbon Sealed MadeWell wheels. Plastic-component manufacturer igus also supports FIRST Robotics. “Plus we do presentations at universities and offer technical training to engineering majors; offer internships at our Rhode Island facility and give away free samples to students; and have a Young Engineers Support (Y.E.S. program),” said Nicole Lang, iglide product manager at igus. Kevin Gingerich at Bosch Rexroth detailed his own company’s involvement:
“We sponsor FIRST Robotics, FIRST Lego League, and FIRST Tech Challenge teams in Fountain Inn, S.C., Charlotte, and Hoffman Estates, Ill. — and the Bosch Community Fund sponsors 21 FRC teams with additional grants for FLL and FTC in Bosch Communities. Our strategy is a kindergarten-to-career approach to workforce development in communities where Bosch operates … and we’re eager to see our teams compete in this year’s FIRST Power Up challenge.”
The manufacturer also offers internships and apprenticeships at all its locations, and has partnerships with community colleges and high schools near its Greenville, S.C. facility.
In many ways, FIRST gives students a taste of what real engineering design is like. One peripheral FRC service is firstchoicebyandymark.com, an online portal to let students order donated motion components. The site resembles some of the new online component-procurement portals we’re seeing for industrial design-engineering applications … the sudden rise of which we detail in this Design World Trends issue.
Amazingly, my own pachinko game had no catastrophic failures until a few years ago — when a hard-working lever to control the collection and release of ball caches from a windowed win hopper finally cracked into several small pieces.
The elegant little part is made of plastic with a hex nut molded into the upper body. Presumably this is to balance the lever as it pivots on a pin to push a ball deflector in or out as needed.
Rest assured the pachinko is in working order once again, as I put this original part back together with an indiscriminate amount of JB Weld and Gorilla Glue. But my aim is to eventually get the part remanufactured, possibly at a maker lab.
That would be slightly complicated by the fact that the monolithic lever incorporates multiple materials … although we’ve covered the increase in custom overmolding and insert molding from Protolabs and others, so the job would likely be quite easy with the right manufacturer.
So you see how this machine of fun continues to invite my troubleshooting and learning in the process.