To meet the demands of high-precision applications, engineers are turning more and more to mechatronics solutions, says Robert Novotnak, manager of Aerotech’s Advanced Automation Division. His firm supplies complete motion systems for machines ranging from a 5-axis laser cutting station to a high-performance stent cutter for the medical field. In an interview with Design News, Robert Novotnak discusses some of the essential building blocks of mechatronics.
Design News: Why all the emphasis these days on mechatronics?
Novotnak: As we start pushing the envelope on applications, every aspect of the machine must be taken into account: the mechanics, the cabling, how the amplifiers interface to motion systems, how the software is integrated. So there is a far greater blending of technologies. At the same time, we have seen the move from analog to digital systems. Ten years ago, we had analog amplifiers. Everything was done with op amps, resisters and capacitors. Today, all of our amplifiers are digital. As a result, we have much greater control over what is going on inside a motion system. So we can really tweak things. Nowadays, too, advanced control algorithms and techniques that used to be the found only in university labs are now making their way into commercial controllers and motion systems. And the big reason, again, is that people are pushing the performance level. Look at the semiconductor marketplace with its continually shrinking feature sizes, or flat panel displays with their increasingly higher pixel content. To meet these performance needs, engineers must have a greater understanding of all the aspects that go into these high-precision applications.
So you are seeing a blurring of technical specialties?
Novotnak: Yes. You may start with a mechanical structure in your system, but you must understand how that mechanical product works and how it interfaces with the control electronics. And you need to understand the system’s frequency response. Here at Aerotech, we design mechanical components and electronics, and we also write software. But our engineering groups aren’t segmented so that the mechanical engineers only do the mechanics, or the drive electronics people only do drives or the software engineers only write software. They are all cross-trained, and they all must understand the end application that will incorporate the motion system we’re providing and how all of the components interact in that application. So our engineers clearly are not designing in a vacuum. That doesn’t mean that I want the software engineer to design mechanics, but he or she must understand the overall machine and how it will be used by the customer. The software engineer needs to have some understanding of the mechanical structure. Likewise, the mechanical engineer must understand the controls process.
Where else are we seeing more focus on mechatronics?
Novotnak: It certainly is a topic that comes up often in discussions and papers coming out of the American Society of Precision Engineering. That group is entirely devoted to precision machines, ranging from very high-end machine tools to semiconductor manufacturing to data storage and much more.
Where do Aerotech’s products fit within mechatronics?
Novotnak: Aerotech manufactures all the elements of motion systems, from the motors to drives to controllers, including software. We also make a variety of mechanical components, such as linear, rotary and lift stages. Therefore, our motion system solutions, in which we combine all these elements into highly versatile and accurate motion subsystems, can be considered mechatronic systems in the truest sense of the term.
Can you cite an example of an important new product that showcases this mechatronics approach?
Novotnak: Aerotech’s VascuLathe® is a very good example of a complete motion subsystem that was designed for mechatronic applications. The VascuLathe combines high-quality mechanics, motors, drives, and controllers into a complete subsystem that is not only more accurate and reliable than previous stent machining solutions, but is also more economical due to higher throughput and its smaller footprint. The VascuLathe uses Aerotech’s rotary and linear stages, driven by our digital Ndrive amplifiers. Our software-only Automation 3200 platform controls the system. We think that the end-product, in terms of performance, is more than the sum of its constituent components.
What are some of the advantages that this system offers over previous approaches?
Novotnak: VascuLathe provides up to five times the throughput of competitive stent manufacturing solutions. Combine this with the accuracy to produce finer stent geometries and a compact, low-height machine footprint.
What special software tools do engineers typically rely on in integrating your technology into their applications?
Novotnak: We’ve found that the greatest facilitator in using Aerotech products in a customer’s mechatronic application is the ability to download 3D renderings in whatever native CAD format the customer is using. Nothing is quite as helpful as taking a 3D CAD file and actually incorporating this in a customer’s proposed design.
How can your engineer customers best use your technology in a mechatronics solution?
Novotnak: If a customer is going to integrate one of our products, there are several application tips that can ease the process. These include:
Accurately define your performance parameters, such as speed and accuracy. This should include both the performance desired for component, as well as the performance of your final mechatronic design.
Keep in mind the environment in which the final design will operate, and choose components, cables, connectors, cabinets and covers appropriate to the environment.
Always include an actual 3D model of each component in the final design so that clearance issues do not delay your project.
What are some of the application support resources that you offer?
Novotnak: There’s quite a variety. For example, our application engineers give onsite demos, as well as design help and onsite startup assistance. Engineers can also participate in interactive tutorial webcasts via Webex on our software products, including both the Automation 3200 and Soloist.
This interview was conducted and edited for length by Design News Contributing Editor Lawrence D. Maloney.