Interview With a Leading Company in Robotics Hardware, Software, Curriculum & Competition

Seems like we hear of a new STEM product every day.

Numerous companies are working hard to contribute through robotics hardware, software or competitions. In order to explore the trends in STEM and Robotics education, we recently interviewed Andy Lee - President Innovation First International HK Ltd. See transcript below.


What’s the best way to define Innovation First?

Innovation. We work really hard to design and supply innovative solutions for our customers.

Innovation First has three divisions. In EdTech hardware, we have VEX Robotics. VEX Robotics is a leading provider of educational and competitive robotics products to schools, universities and robotics teams around the world. VEX has three distinct levels, there is the introductory VEX IQ, the intermediate level VEX EDR and our VEX Pro line of robotic components.

Students also know our popular consumer toy brand HEXBUG. Which are award-winning fun micro robotic creatures that mimic the movement of real insects! Students are learning, sparking their interest in electronics while having fun.  

Then we have Rack Solutions which design and manufacture precision computer server racks, cabinets, shelves and mounting products. We solve custom data center installation design challenges. And if our current mounting products won't solve the installation issue, we have the ability to design a solution from scratch.

Although these 3 businesses seem quite different, the one thing that ties them all together is offering innovative products and experiences by leveraging our engineering and problem solving capabilities.

How’s the world responding to an education robotics company like VEX Robotics?

The world currently faces an unprecedented need for new innovators, thinkers, and leaders. It’s our goal to create tools that spark curiosity of STEM fields in children while they are inherently creative and collaborative critical thinkers. There has been immense interest and support by parents, educators and school boards to develop and empower the future problem solvers of tomorrow.  

Government bodies, such as NASA, are looking to further develop their country’s technological competitiveness. Companies are looking for the next generation workforce who are able to cooperate with multinational teams on global projects. We help them activate the youth to begin their journey into solving engineering challenges and developing their critical thinking skills.

How did this start? Tell us about your team, who do you have supporting you?

Innovation First was founded by two engineers; Tony Norman and Bob Mimlitch. They met while mentoring a local high school robotics team in Texas, USA. It was during this time that they developed their thoughts on the “right way to do things” during the problem-solving process.

Since inception in 1996, VEX Robotics and Innovation First has grown immensely and we now have over 300 staff in offices around the world along with interns who are willing to explore the STEM sector. We have sponsorship from tech companies such as Dell EMC, Google, Texas Instruments, Autodesk. And we have support from Educators such as Robomatter which is a spin-off of Carnegie Mellon Robotics Academy. Robomatter focuses on curriculum, software development and public awareness to bring technology and engineering to the masses. Lastly, we have partnerships with The Northrup Grumman Foundation and Project Lead The Way’s philantrophy programs to address the STEM education challenge.


Why is introducing students to STEM so important? How early should Robotics and STEM be introduced in schools?  

There are a lot of solutions out there in the marketplace, but what sets aside us from others is that our curriculum continuum and robotics hardware reaches down all the way to students as young as seven or eight years old and spans up all the way through high school and university. There’s a lot of research that says that by the time students are in third or fourth grade (ages 8-10) they’ve already determined whether they think they are good at science, technology, engineering and math, so being able to reach these students before they make this predetermination is important. When students realize they have the power to build a robot from scratch and get it to move and perform tasks, that is a very rewarding experience that you cannot get from burying your head in a book, and one that they would not otherwise have without robotics.

What Is the Future of Robotics and STEM Education? What’s the link between STEM education and future jobs?

The future is bright! Our educational robotics systems, programming software, and research-driven curriculum are designed to challenge, motivate, and inspire students with hands-on learning applications focused around real-world dilemmas. The students who come out of a robotics STEM program are job ready. They have the problem solving, analytical and communication skills to tackle the challenge.

What are some of the recent achievements? Also share your expansion plans for the coming years?

VEX is used in the world’s largest and fastest-growing educational robotics competition, providing the perfect opportunity for educators and students to apply learning in an exhilarating environment both in the classroom and beyond. We are proud that our VEX Robotics Competition, has been recognized as the world’s Largest Robot Competition by Guinness World Records most recently in May 2018. Over 30,000 people were involved in a record breaking 1,075 teams converging in Louisville, KY, USA for a week-long celebration of STEM, diversity, and robotics.    On top of that we have about 1,000,000 students reached worldwide; through VEX Robotics, that are engaging with our tools, competition and our curriculum.

Also, we recently celebrated 20 seasons of supporting FIRST as a supplier. FIRST is well known for their FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC). And we just launched product to support their First Tech Challenge (FTC) division.

You have recently launched V5, how do you expect this solution to compete in the education robotics hardware market?

A product like V5 is unprecedented in our industry as not only is it backwards compatible with our hardware and legacy sensors, but it takes a quantum leap in technology.

For instance, the core of every VEX EDR robot lies within the programmable V5 Robot Brain. Utilizing 21 Smart Ports, you can connect a variety of smart devices, including smart motors, sensors, and the V5 Robot Radio. These ports can detect devices “on-the-fly” as they are plugged in, meaning they can handle motors and sensors interchangeably. Users can run and configure programs, diagnose problems, and display important feedback directly on the V5 Robot Brain’s 4.25” full color touch-screen.

The V5 Wireless Controller puts precision control in the driver’s hands by utilizing two analog joysticks along with 12 buttons, all in a familiar form factor. Featuring an integrated LCD screen, V5 Wireless Controller and V5 Robot Brain can connect with any smartphone, tablet, or computer over a Bluetooth® link. Students can use the “Competition Practice” mode to pair with other robots and run timed matches.

The V5 Smart Motor is a newly designed, more powerful motor, with a precise Integrated Motor Encoder designed in a compact and powerful package. Every motor can locally run control loops to simplify programming precise movements, and uses embedded intelligence to ensure consistent power output to all motors that doesn't vary depending on the battery charge. This means a robot will “behave” the same with a full or low battery. The V5 Smart Motor has tested to be twice as powerful as previous VEX motors. They also contain built-in LEDs, making it easier to identify a motor by highlighting it on the robot brain. No more following wires through a robot!

Also, the Vision Sensor is an enhanced version of the Pixy Camera already loved by roboticists and offers full machine vision processing. The Vision Sensor can detect individual colors, as well as multi-colored objects and patterns. It can also track up to seven individual colors at once! By placing colored tags on objects, users can teach their robot to recognize and react to its environment.

We expect V5 to be the new standard in secondary school educational robotics.


What is the biggest need/challenge/void in your firm in spite of the scale you have been able to achieve?

There is an identity crisis with the definition of STEM. There are some that want to focus on the computer science and coding aspect. Meanwhile, others want to focus on creativity and arts. The biggest challenge has been to help each country define and coordinate efforts to solve their STEM needs.

How different is education market in Hong Kong in comparison to other developed or developing parts of the world?

Hong Kong is a very expensive place to live. Housing prices and rents are some of the highest in the world! Thus, it is a very competitive market.   There are approximately 500 primary and 500 secondary public schools in Hong Kong. The big controversy in Hong Kong with these schools and the public education system is that there is intense pressure on children to keep up their grades and perform well with the demands of continuous assessment.   In order to get into a good school, students need to score well on standardized tests. If they fail, this dictates their education path and may limit their future school choices. Students are loaded up with lots of homework and extra-study. This has been to the detriment of their health, sleep and happiness. The traditional Hong Kong education system is focused on rote learning and rewards those who are good at taking tests and punishes those who are not. The difference from Hong Kong to other markets is that there are many private international schools and after-school tutoring centers which can plan and work more independently. They can also charge a lot of money for their services and thus have more resources if you can afford it. Many of them have recognized the opportunity to focus on project based learning and they are focused on building student’s creative and critical thinking skills with STEM type programs (Robotics, Computer Science, Engineering, etc.). The Hong Kong Education Bureau is getting on board with trying to implement more STEM programs in local schools, but they are a big ship and it takes time to change course.

Who would you call your competitors? And how are you different?

There are numerous educational robotics kits and products out there. Some great, others not so much. Seems like there is a new STEM product every day. We have been supplying robotics components and working with educators for the last 19 years. We have a sense of how to coordinate and leverage our strengths in robotics hardware, software, curriculum and competition. Some competitors are more directly comparable to just one or two of the 4 categories mentioned above. But VEX Robotics is unique in the fact that we can start with a primary school student and guide them along a path that includes introductory, intermediate and professional level robotics kits and components. Hopefully it will lead them to a fruitful career and beyond!

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