Come Together

New Mechatronics Tools Make It Easier for Engineers to Collaborate on Model-Based, Motion-Enabled Designs

By Jim Montague

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October 2009"Mechatronics" probably isn't the right word. Everyone seems to have a different concept of what it is, and so each has a different definition for it—usually based on their experiences and created to fulfill their own needs. Still, the desire to merge engineering disciplines, collaborate using model-based designs and add motion control software and real-world data to simulate and solve machine building problems earlier are all extremely useful goals, no matter what label is stuck on them.

Steve Bergholt, control system devlopment manager at Triangle Package Machinery in Chicago, says mechatronics is supposed to combine mechanics and electronics. A lovely sentiment. However, convincing engineers in an organization to actually practice it can be a very tall order.

"Because of how they were trained in the past, electrical and controls engineers don't do gears, pulleys and other mechanical devices. It's the mechanical engineers who worry about beams, stresses, bend radiuses and cam functions. And they, in turn, don't worry about voltages, amperages and controls. That's what the electrical and controls engineers worry about," says Bergholt. "Now, it's becoming more important for engineers to know about these other disciplines because machines and production lines are more complex and integrated as they take on more varied tasks and have to get them done faster."

For example, servo drives push controls more to the electronics side, explains Bergholt. "Previously, we'd have five different line shafts driven through linkages," he says. "Now, we can put in five servos, but we need to know more ahead of time about what they're going to do and which size motors they'll need to make the machine or its system work properly. That means the electrical and mechanical guys need to work together more closely. Mechatronics is needed to help us optimize performance benefits by knowing earlier what can be done on both the mechanical and electrical sides."

To foster the more collaborative, less sequential environment that mechatronics needs, Bergholt adds that Triangle took its mechanical engineers out of their own room, took its electrical engineers out of their own room and mixed them all together. "Now, they all sit next to each other, and they can lean over and talk and work together more before any prototypes are built," says Bergholt.  

Because their technical backgrounds and even the language they speak is often alien to each other, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, controls engineers and software and IT engineers traditionally designed and built the same machine or project in sequence. Each engineering discipline separately added its contributions and requirements to a project at different times and in isolation from the others, and then "threw it over the wall" for the others to work on.

This drawn-out serial process is how machines and production lines traditionally were designed and built. However, this old procedure is increasingly less tolerable as builders strive to deliver machines to market faster, which also means they can't afford to build and rebuild costly prototypes.

Fortunately, a variety of software-based design and modeling tools also have grown up over the years to make it easier for engineers to share their designs with each other, check how designs will perform virtually, and wait to build physical prototypes to evaluate functions that can't be modeled and tested any other way. However, the ability to use new tools requires a mental shift, too.

For instance, Dr. Tommy Pool, electrical engineering manager at Kliklok Woodman, Decatur, Ga., believes everything his firm does as a packaging machine builder is mechatronics but adds he usually thinks of it as more than just electro-mechanics. "We don't build a totally mechanical machine anymore," explains Pool. "Technological advances are moving us away from the days when a machine might have had just one big motor and a line shaft. With servos, we're not as limited to straight gearing or camming. We can tailor the profiles of a motor to the size and shape of the package we're producing. And, we build machines that give our customers shorter changover times, which allow them to produce only the product they need for an order and then move on to another product. Changing over is no longer a big deal that would have required a shift or so of downtime. We try to use mechatronics to help our customers produce a better-quality product more quickly and more easily than before. I think this fits with lean business principles and has the potential to help our customers be more efficient."

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