Mechatronics: Think Inside the Box

New, Better Practices to Engineer Machining Centers

By Peter Loetzner

My mechatronics discipline always has given me a unique perspective on machine tool design, building and use in the manufacturing world. My father gave me some good advice back in my school days: Study other disciplines in the university. Although I was an electrical engineering student, I took the time to study hydraulics, pneumatics and mechanical component theory, in addition to the emerging field of the time, electronics. My subsequent advanced degree was in industrial automation, which closed the loop on my education in the cross-disciplinary studies.

When I worked in the technology transfer arena for a Tier 1 automotive vendor, I always was impressed by the ways individuals saw how things fit together. Watching them have that moment of revelation — when the lightbulb goes on and you know they get it — was exciting. It still is.

Our machine tool sales derive most heavily from the production of automotive components, and it is the automotive market that gave the world the platform-engineering concept. The idea of people from different departments sharing ideas and developing a synergy always struck me as a good one, and it's an idea I've always tried to convey to our team as we look for new and better ways to engineer our machining centers. We like to think inside the box, as we say in mechatronics. There's a lot happening in there.

On a recent project for a major off-highway equipment builder, the need arose for highly integrated automation. This was an excellent example of mechatronics in action. The machines needed to be sequenced to produce successive component buildups for a power transmission system, and the integration of the mechanical, electrical and CNC software analysis factors onboard the machine was critical to the project's success. Since the workpieces were handled by perhaps the ultimate testimony to mechatronics (namely, the industrial robot, where the term got its start back in 1969), it was imperative that we have all the thermal expansion coordinated throughout the line for proper materials handling. This brought the special skill sets of the mechatronics engineers from our side and the customer's to the forefront of the project's development strategy.

In another case, we had to supply extensive vibration and torque analysis for a customer that machines very large, extremely heavy workpieces. Having engineers who could assess the motors, drives and control hardware on the machine, as well as properly interpret the data from the machine kinematics, was extremely useful in satisfying the customer's requirements.

By its strict definition, mechatronics also involves computer hardware, software and system design engineering. Every machine builder continuously seeks out the newest and brightest talents in these areas. Those builders also should be committed to training their current team in all the areas necessary to give them that 30,000 ft view of any project. I truly believe, by doing this, machine tools and highly automated machining centers are better engineered, more easily built, and used to their greatest benefit by the customer in the field.

A further benefit to the mechatronics philosophy in action is a commitment to service. Every builder should have a highly skilled team of mechatronics engineers that works directly with customers to guarantee the machines built will achieve optimum functionality in operation. This process has led, in conjunction with advanced computer and imaging technology plus embedded process control technology, to the emergence of virtual production, in which a machining center can be imaged, test run and validated for production rates, all in a virtual environment.

That's an evolution of mechatronics I would not have envisioned in my school days, to be sure, but it is most exciting to participate in that process today.