Design engineers from diverse backgrounds generally agree mechatronics ably covers the deep expansion of electro-mechanical engineering into software and electronic areas. What’s more, mechatronics embraces tighter integration between the myriad considerations in a component -- control, instrumentation, sensors, actuators, software and usually, a mechanical component itself. Design News editor-in-chief John Dodge tried to find mechatronics common ground among four engineers with diverse backgrounds. They include Todd Shearer, an application support engineer from Galil Motion Control Inc., Brian Muirhead, chief engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Razvan Panaitescu, Ph.D and consulting system engineer with Siemens Energy and Automation, and Prof. David Alciatore, Ph.D with the Colorado State University’s (CSU) Dept. of Mechanical Engineering. Here’s what they said.
John Dodge: What is mechatronics?
Alciatore (CSU): It means different things to different people. Here’s a definition from a text book. “It’s a rapidly developing interdisciplinary field of engineeringdealing with the design of products whose function relies on the integration of electrical and mechanical components coordinated by a control architecture.”
Panaitescu (Siemens): Mechatronics is an advanced level of service that we offer to customers. At Siemens, we are focusing on better integration of our equipment into our customer’s mechanical dynamics. Therefore, we have to analyze the system as a whole. For us, it is a holistic approach to what mechanical and electrical systems mean.
Muirhead (JPL): It is a combination of high performance digital electronics and mechanical engineering often showing up in motors, actuators, controls and gears.
Shearer (Galil): It is a description of a discipline that is 30% software, 30% electrical and 40% mechanical or some mix therein.
Is it just a new and fancy name for electro-mechanical engineering?
Alciatore (CSU): Some people think that and the name has been around for a long time. What’s different is that more and more, software is key. Even simple devices have software. What makes mechatronics different is that you have to be versed in many more areas even if it’s one project team in a large company or working in small company and you’re the only engineer. You have to be comfortable with the mechanical design, microcontrollers and how to program the interface and electronics.
Panaitescu (Siemens):Mechatronics support started probably 20 years ago out of necessity at Siemens headquarters in Germany. Customers were always trying to find out what prevents their machine from obtaining accuracy. We were always asked to come and troubleshoot these machines. After repeated investigation, we found out whenever you try to integrate, you can’t look at it from only one perspective. We take the mechanical drawing and model the dynamics. On top of this model, we put our model of the control and try to run the system virtually so we can anticipate how the system will perform. Design changes may be performed in the model and not afterward so lower costs are incurred. Mechatronics is what we all do.
Muirhead (JPL): It certainly is a fancier name. The discipline has evolved particularly around robotic applications. There is an expansion of disciplines as the electronics have gotten more sophisticated.
Shearer (Galil): I’ve been in the Galil applications department for 10 years. Coming in as mechanical engineer, you need to learn a little about the other disciplines. Over time, I had to learn about software to support our software customers and a lot electrical engineering. [That’s Mechatronics].
How do you apply mechatronics best practices in your organization?
Alciatore (CSU): For a complicated mechatronics project, best practices would be lots of modeling, analysis and simulation as soon as possible in the design process. I’ve taught a mechatronics course for 15 years and it literally changes every year. We do not have a dedicated mechatronics program, but we’re exposing [students] to it a lot more. Now we’re teaching them how to program an interface in a microcontroller. Those things did not exist in the educational world five years ago and still don’t in many universities.
Panaitescu (Siemens): It all started when electrical and mechanical engineers were fighting over whose fault it was when the machine didn’t work. The provider of the automation system was always found to be guilty, i.e. Siemens. We started to build a knowledge base by looking at these problems so the solution would be integrated back into the products. Our mechatronics department is now made up of almost 40 persons. We can provide the services to the customer in the design and production phases. We are involved with customers who use automation equipment for producing machine tools and production machines. We are also experts in avoiding chattering in machine tools and solving printing problems.
Muirhead (JPL): Our applications are relatively unique and I’m not sure there are best practices everyone accepts. The next Mars [space rover] will have on as many as 300 mechanical actuators from driving wheels to operating the scientific systems. The demands are around high performance, minimum mass, backup and reliability. The technical rules academics teach the kids are basically the same, but it comes down is the quality of the component and workmanship. We work in a very severe environment. On the surface of Mars, you’re looking at minus 132 degrees centigrade. That not an environment most gearboxes are capable of operating in. One of the things we are pushing is integration of the electrical components right into the motor itself. Rather than having the motor some distance away with a lot of cabling, we’d like to try just get the power with additional control built right into it. That’s pretty tough when you’re looking at such a harsh environment. It’s such a severe environment with tight mass restraints and also a difficult dynamic environment. We end up having to use exotic packaging.
Shearer (Galil): First and foremost, we’re an engineering company so we approach all problems as an engineering problem. The application engineers being more of the mechatronics discipline will approach the OEM app and try to cover all the bases, making sure all the software, electronics and mechanical are covered. As we get deeper into the project and some type of customization is required or we need more help with the electronic circuits, we can call in the R&D team to help out. Our main product is the motion controller.
Is there a mechatronics skills gap and how does this impact hiring at your organization?
Alciatore (CSU): It depends on the size of company. For a small company, they hire people that educated in diverse mechatronics areas. A small company does not have teams of electro- mechanical engineers. They need a jack of all trades trained in mechatronics. They may not be experts in all areas, but they can build a device, write software, do some modeling and predict how a device will respond.
Panaitescu (Siemens): There may be a gap, but mechatronics is partially experience and partially understanding physics.
Muirhead (JPL): I’m not close to the front lines where the new guys are coming in. I work with the more seasoned guys who struggle with their [skillsets]. I know there’s a good crop of young engineers coming out, but I don’t know if they are being trained in the synthesis between digital and mechanical hardware.
Shearer (Galil): I am big believer in the general engineering where you can cover all the disciplines or have some experience with them. A lot of the OEMs I visit are very much the jack of all trades, but I’m not sure if a single one took a mechatroncis course in college. When I started with Galil, I took an evening course in programming. As applicationengineers, we have six hours a day on the phone, but for a couple hours a day, we have time to focus more some ofthe disciplines that we don’t have experience in. As a mechanical engineer, I do not need to read up on statics and dynamics, but I do need to learn more about electronics and software engineering. The key for an application engineer is to solve engineering problems regardless of whether it’s electronic, mechanical or software. In a lot of the interviewing we do, we’re looking for their problem solving capability -- how they are able to dissect a problem and come up with a solution.
What are good examples of products designed with mechatronics principals in mind?
Alciatore (CSU): The classic example is the Segway Human Transporter. It really involves all the elements -- actuators, electronics, sensors, accelerometers, gyros, sophisticated circuitry and architecture, control algorithms, great user interfaces and a graphical display. Those are all the components in a mechatronics systems that we stress in education. Another example is Apple’s iPod. It doesn’t have many moving parts because they use flash memory instead of a hard drive. Digital cameras are a good example. They have electronics, lots of sensors, actuators, a user interface, flash memory and everything is packaged in a small space.