April 2008

Automation leaps with simulation tools

Mechatronics refers to not only the products and technologies that rely on the integration of mechanics, electronics, and controls components but also the system of product development.

First, see a product. Look at the flow diagram of a mechatronics product.

Say the mechatronic product is an anti-lock braking system. The mechanical system would be the wheel braking mechanism (rotors and calipers), brake pedal, and the associated hydraulics that cause the brakes to slow down the turning wheels of the car.

Also in the mechanical box are the sensors that, in the case of ABS, detect the speed of rotation of the wheels, the brake pedal pressure, and the position of the calipers as they squeeze the rotors to stop the wheels' turning, and other intelligence.

The information from the mechanics box moves via the electronics box to the control box. Here the anti-lock, anti-skid-the-tires algorithm says things are progressing smoothly, and there is no need for further action on this sectors part.

Or …

The algorithm sees that pressure on the brake pedal is quite high, which indicates there is a stopping-the-car crisis afoot. The software (algorithm), knowing its job is to make sure the wheels of the car continue to rotate but at the lowest speed possible without locking up the wheels, overrides the pressure form the driver's foot, allowing the wheels to continue turning.

The control box does this by signaling back to the mechanical box mitigating the extreme hydraulic pressure that the driver is exerting. It supersedes the panicked driver and allows the wheels to continue turning at the lowest speed possible without stopping the turning of the wheels altogether.

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Mechatronics development tool

Now see mechatronics as the development tool beyond the product itself. In this rendering of the automation concept, mechatronics precludes the building of multiple prototypes of a physical product.
Trial-and-error gives way to computer simulation of physical being.

Siemens (Festo, National Instruments, Yasakawa, and others) discusses product development and product lifecycle management using mechatronics as a tool in that development and management.

Mechanical, electrical, and software engineers have distinctly different design processes, organizations, and technology.

In the past, the very different product elements created by these groups integrated through a series of physical prototypes, a costly and time-consuming process of trial-and-error.

By contrast, a systems-level approach to mechatronics product development saves much time and expense by not having to build and test multiple physical prototypes.

Through simulation, one can move from product design to testing and modification right to production of the product itself. Manufacturers are reporting 25% to 60% cuts in time and cost of product development.

Mechatronics has become increasingly prevalent for the simple reason that developing new software is often much less expensive than providing the same feature in a mechanical form.

Products will continue to evolve from simple mechanical systems to complex networks containing distributed computer nodes designed to deliver added features or value.