One of the things we believe at Dusty is that the benefits of getting early prototypes out in front of customers are well worth the risks of showing off our work-in-progress. Every time we take Mark1 out into the field, we learn a lot about what functionality will be needed in the final product. We have better conversations with our customers about how we will bring this technology to market.
Unfortunately, as with any work-in-progress, not everything goes according to plan. After having just completed a series of successful pilot engagements, we had been confident that our technology would just work. But during one of our field tests earlier this year, we encountered some challenging site conditions that we hadn’t anticipated. Our whole team was disappointed by our product’s performance under those conditions.
When we got back to the lab and analyzed the event, we realized that these field visits were very stressful on our team. Although we were running our product daily in-house, conditions in the field are nothing like the controlled environment of the lab. Those differences created a lot of stress, as our team tried valiantly to make our product perform in an unfamiliar environment.
So we came up with an idea: let’s replicate field conditions in the lab.
Here’s how it goes. Once a week, on Friday mornings, we run a Weekly Print Challenge. We divide up our team into the “field team” and the “home team”. The home team is responsible for setting up the challenge, with a new layout each week. Our summer intern, Sofia, especially relished this role. This layout would contain challenges for the field team, and they wouldn’t find out about them until the morning of the test.
The field team follows the same process they do when they actually go out into the field. All the gear is packed up on Thursday night. Friday morning, the field team rolls it around our bumpy parking lot before bringing it back to our lab. When they return, loud construction noises are playing through our sound system. The field team dons their hard hats, bright yellow vests, and safety gloves. We then start a timer going: from here on out, they’re officially on the clock. They have half an hour to set up and get the robot printing.
The challenges are always a surprise. Sometimes one of the control points would be missing. “Someone spilled blue paint all over your control point,” we’d tell the field team as we taped over the control point with blue tape. Or we’d buy PVC pipe from Home Depot and set it up around the test field. “We weren’t expecting those pipes there!” the field team would complain. “Too bad,” we’d say. “The plumbers came through yesterday and started their work early.”
Construction sites are much noisier than our quiet lab environment. The first time we ran a Print Challenge with construction sounds, one of our engineers complained. “Can you shut off that noise? It’s hard to concentrate!” he asked. “You can’t turn it off -- you’re on a construction site!” we said. The field team started inventing hand signals to communicate with each other over a distance.
As the field team sets up and runs the print, the home team walks over and role-plays curious bystanders. “What’s that gizmo over there?” we ask. “How does this thing work?” The field team learns how to do their job despite lots of interruptions. “What high school are you kids from?”
If anything goes wrong, the field team has to figure out how to fix it using only the tools they’ve brought with them. They’re not allowed to request help from anyone on the home team. This can lead to some creative repairs, and tense moments where the field team has to decide whether they can complete the challenge or if they have to call it and conclude defeat.
After we complete the print job, we set aside a few minutes to do a debrief, just as we do after every field visit. We make note of what went well, what didn’t go well, and suggestions for things to do differently in the future. Some of these items turn into bug reports in our issue tracker, others result in improvements to our checklists or field guide. Overall, we are creating a culture of continuous improvement so that our product and processes continue to get better over time.
We knew the Print Challenges were paying dividends the first time we walked on to a job site after a few weeks of following this process. Everyone pulled on their PPE, but it didn’t feel foreign anymore. The construction noises faded into the background. “It sounds just like home,” one of our engineers said. And the print job went off flawlessly.
Do you have an idea for the home team to use in our Print Challenge? Let us know in the comments. We’d love to get CAD samples of layouts that we could add to future Challenges. Interested in joining us? Dusty is hiring. Check out our careers page for details.