VEX V5 Workcell: Industrial Robotic Arm Model for STEM Education

Abstract

Industrial robotics are used in nearly all manufacturing industries and employ thousands of workers. Yet for its widespread use across the globe, introducing industrial robotics in an educational setting is difficult to accomplish and limited in practice. This paper outlines the barriers to introducing industrial robotics in an educational setting, and presents the solution using a robotic arm called the VEX V5 Workcell. The VEX V5 Workcell was developed to improve the accessibility of industrial robotics to secondary and technical students. The accessibility issues in introducing industrial robotics in an educational setting are a combination of size restrictions, safety concerns, high cost, and limited programming experience. The hardware and software created by VEX Robotics provide students with the opportunity to develop technical and problem solving skills by building and programming a simulated manufacturing workcell with a five-axis robot.

Keywords:

teaching industrial robotics; STEM; Python; C++, block-based coding; VEX Robotics; robotic arm; educational robotics

I. Introduction

The use of robotics in education has become an interdisciplinary, hands-on, authentic learning experience for students of all ages.12 Engaging with robotics in education can spark younger students' interest in science as well as give them the experience and medium to learn important skills such as logical thinking, sequencing, and problem solving. As students progress in their educational career with robotics, they can build on the foundational skills of problem solving and logical thinking to study more complex engineering and computer science concepts that bring abstract physics and mathematical concepts to life.12

“Building robots is a popular project choice for the implementation of problem-based learning (PBL) in classrooms. The reason why it is such a popular choice can be explained by the multidisciplinary nature of the topic: robotics requires many different scientific, technical and technological skills, such as physics, electronics, mathematics and programming. It is an ideal subject because so many different courses can be linked to it. Additionally, robots themselves capture the imagination of children and teenagers, providing inspiration and motivation”.13

With technology continuously evolving and programming becoming a desirable skill, educational institutions are wanting to prepare their students for the workforce by introducing them to industrial robotics and manufacturing. Industrial robots and robotic arms are programmable machines that are designed to perform a specific task or function.1

“Robotic systems are generally used to perform unsafe, dangerous and even repetitive operator tasks. They have many different functions, such as material handling, assembly, welding, loading and unloading of a machine or tool, and features such as: painting, spraying, etc. Most robots are configured for operation by teaching technique and repetition”.1

Research shows that students have positive attitudes and experiences by using robots in the classroom.16 However, despite the positive student attitudes, there are barriers that restrict the use of industrial robotics in an educational setting: a combination of size restrictions, safety concerns, high cost, and limited programming experience. This paper will discuss how the VEX V5 Workcell is a solution to introducing industrial robotics in an educational setting.

II. New and Affordable Robotic Models (hardware):

As technology advances, more and more students are becoming interested in robotics as a career. Robotics can spark student interest in the science and mathematical fields, as well as give students the opportunity to practice problem solving and logical thinking.12 The skills developed from working with educational robotics such as problem solving and logical thinking can also be applied, and are foundational, in the career of industrial robotics and manufacturing. To meet the need and demand of specialists in the robotics field that have acquired coding, problem solving, and logical thinking skills, educational instructions are wanting to introduce industrial robotics in their classrooms.17 However, there are limitations to bringing industrial robots into an educational setting to prepare these students to be successful in a manufacturing career. It is costly to not only purchase, but also costly to maintain a working robotic arm. This cost can limit the number of robots that the students can interact with and consequently, limit the amount of student independent hands-on engagement.11 Industrial size robotic arms also require a great amount of space, and there is always a safety risk when working with industrial robots. Inexperienced students could accidentally harm themselves, the equipment, or others.11 Because of these factors, educational institutions are turning to smaller, safer, and more cost effective industrial robot models.

“While the handling of large robots requires constant supervision and has to be done in dedicated robotic cells, many universities are now opting to purchase additional desktop-size robots that allow students to work independently. As these machines are programmed the same way as the larger robots the results can be immediately applied to the large machines for full scale applications”.2

The VEX V5 Workcell is a smaller, safer, and more cost effective industrial robot model, that is small enough to be placed on a classroom desk and with a recommended three students to one robot ratio, allows students the opportunity for hands-on engagement with the robot. The V5 Workcell is safer by being a smaller size, as well as having the ability to program a bumper switch that functions as an emergency stop if needed.

The V5 Workcell also allows students to engage in a building experience that otherwise would not be possible. Students who are engaged with professional industrial sized robotic arms gain valuable knowledge and skills programming them, but may not understand how they move and operate because they were not involved in the building process. Being involved in the building process not only gives students the opportunity to make a stronger connection between the hardware and software, but also allows students to gain more foundational knowledge of how the robot physically works. This opportunity can give students the knowledge and building experience they need in order to troubleshoot the hardware more effectively as well as problem solve.13 Incorporating the physical building of robots into industrial robotic education also gives students the opportunity to bring abstract concepts and equations of physics, engineering, and mathematics to life. Practicing these STEM concepts in context also allows students to see how they are applicable in industry.

Most other smaller and more cost effective industrial robot models come pre-assembled and are often only built for one function. An advantage of the V5 Workcell hardware is that students are not limited to one robot build. Students build the V5 Workcell out of parts from the VEX Robotics V5 System, which has numerous different builds including the basic function of the robot arm (shown in Figure 1), changing the EOAT (end-of-arm-tooling), and adding multiple conveyors and sensors (shown in Figure 2). This gives students experience in not just building the robot arm itself, but the entirety of a small sized manufacturing workcell model. This allows the students to engage in a building process that highlights mathematical and engineering concepts that students would not be able to experience without building. This also allows students to understand how the V5 Workcell operates on the physical level, which transfers to programming as well. This makes the V5 Workcell a pedagogical tool that not only introduces students to industrial robotics and programming concepts, but also introduces them to building, engineering, and mathematical concepts such as the Cartesian coordinate system and operating a robot in 3D space.

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Figure 1: The Lab 1 Build (the robotic arm)

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Figure 2: The Lab 11 Build (the robotic arm as well as the conveyors and sensors)

The different builds are provided in build instructions that guide the student through step-by-step building (shown in Figure 3). This makes building the V5 Workcell accessible for students who may not have any experience building in general, building with metal, or using tools.

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Figure 3: A step from the Lab 4 Build Instructions

The VEX V5 Workcell provides educational institutions with a smaller, safer, and more cost effective industrial robot model option that is not only versatile in its building capabilities, but provides students with a more independent, hands-on learning experience compared to professional industrial size robotic arms.

III. Teaching Programming (software):

With technology advancing at exponential rates, many manual labor jobs in industrial manufacturing are now being supplemented with automation.4 This can complement labor, and even in some cases can create more demand for labor, but also requires workers to have a strong knowledge of programming in order to operate, repair, and maintain the automation.4 Programming is a skill that can take years for a person to become proficient, and most programming languages used in industry are complex and designed to be used by professional engineers.3 This means that the programs necessary to have the robot perform even the simplest tasks require hiring a programming specialist.3

“For example, manually programming a robotic arc welding system for the manufacture of a large vehicle hull takes more than eight months, while the cycle time of the welding process itself is only sixteen hours. In this case, the programming time is approximately 360 times the execution time”.9

This level of programming expertise limits access for students and educators wanting to learn about the programming fundamentals of industrial robotics, but have little to no programming experience.

“Robot programming is time consuming, complex, error-prone, and requires expertise both of the task and the platform. Within industrial robotics, there are numerous vendor-specific programming languages and tools, which require certain proficiency. However, to increase the level of automation in industry, as well as to extend the use of robots in other domains, such as service robotics and disaster management, it has to be possible for non-experts to instruct the robots”.10

Learning to program as a novice at any age is challenging.8 Learning how to understand project flow on top of learning syntax can not only be overwhelming, but discouraging and even outright frightening.5 In order for students and educators to gain experience with industrial robotics, the complexity of coding these robots needs to be reduced so that novice programmers can take part. This can be done by simplifying the programming language from traditional text-based languages. Simplifying a programming language has been successful in introducing and teaching young children how to program in different areas, including education.3 Because of this success, a simplified programming language can be used to teach individuals the basics of programming industrial robots, and would allow them to build the foundational skills that they can later use to be successful in industry.3

The VEX V5 Workcell allows students to program an industrial robotic arm model using VEXcode V5, a block-based language powered by Scratch blocks.18 (scratch.mit.edu) The student is able to program with VEXcode V5, a simplified programming language. Students can build a project to manipulate the Workcell successfully and also understand the purpose and flow of the project on a deeper level. Studies have shown that novices with no prior programming experience can successfully write block-based programs to accomplish basic industrial robotics tasks.3

Studies have also shown that students report that the nature of a block-based programming language, such as VEXcode V5, is easy because of the natural language description of blocks, the drag-and drop method for interacting with the blocks, and the ease of reading the project.6 VEXcode V5 also addresses points of concern to a block-based programming language compared to the more conventional text-based approach. Some of the identified drawbacks are a perceived lack of authenticity and being less powerful.6 VEXcode V5 addresses both the perceived lack of authenticity and seeming less powerful by incorporating a tool known as the ‘code viewer.’ The code viewer allows a student to create a blocks project, and then view the same project in text form in either C++ or Python. This conversion allows students to grow beyond the constraint of a block-based language and also provides them with the scaffolding tools they need to be successful to bridge the gap in syntax from blocks to text. VEXcode V5 uses similar naming conventions for blocks and commands, to make the transition from blocks to text easier.

A study done by Weintrop and Wilensky7 to compare block-based and text-based programming in High School Computer Science classrooms found that students using the block-based language showed greater gains in their learning and a higher level of interest in future computing courses. Students using the text-based language viewed their programming experience as more similar to what programmers do in industry and more effective in improving their programming skills. VEXcode V5 gives novice programmers the best of both worlds by allowing them to first build a strong foundation of programming concepts that they can then use when transitioning to C++ or Python, both text-based languages supported in VEXcode V5.

VEXcode V5 is an accessible and free block-based programming language for an industrial robot model to be used in educational settings, which makes programming robots more accessible to students and educators who otherwise would not be able to use them. Manufacturing work environments are consistently changing with technology, and block-based programming languages like VEXcode V5 may be able to better provide students who aspire to be future manufacturing workers the skills and foundational programming knowledge they need to be successful in manufacturing and industrial jobs.3

IV. Big Ideas

One of the biggest advantages of the V5 Workcell is that students are given the opportunity to learn and focus on larger concepts and basic principles that are foundational to not only programming, but also engineering and the professional field of industrial robotics. Focusing on a few larger concepts that can be applied in different settings and situations gives students the opportunity to gain a more in-depth understanding and deeper learning experience of those skills and topics. Halpern and Hackel suggest that, “an emphasis on in-depth understanding of basic principles often constitutes a better instructional design than more encyclopedic coverage of a broad range of topics”.14

Students will investigate different concepts such as:

  • Building with metal and electronics
  • The Cartesian coordinate system
  • How a robotic arm moves in 3D space
  • Code reuse
  • Variables
  • 2D Lists
  • Sensor feedback for automation
  • Conveyor systems, and many more.

Students will gain foundational knowledge of these concepts that can be transferred and applied later in a wide range of fields such as mathematics, programming, engineering, and manufacturing. While gaining an introduction to these concepts, students are actively able to problem solve, collaborate, be creative, and build resiliency. All of which are important skills in any environment and tie into today’s 21st century skills.

“Knowledge has become vital in the 21st-century and people need to acquire such skills to enter the workforce called 21st-century skills. In general, 21st-century skills include collaboration, communication, digital literacy, citizenship, problem solving, critical thinking, creativity and productivity. These skills are labelled 21st-century skills to indicate that they are more related to the current economic and social developments than with those of the past century characterized as an industrial mode of production”.15


V. Conclusions

The purpose of this paper is to present the advantages of the VEX V5 Workcell in an educational setting to introduce industrial robotics. In doing so, this paper shows that the VEX V5 Workcell provides an all-encompassing solution to introduce students to industrial robotics in an educational setting that is cost-effective, lowers the programming barrier of entry, and focuses on big ideas that help students develop important skills.


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