Few sectors can rival the power and reach of the automotive industry in exploring the latest ideas in mechatronics.
Even in the U.S., where traditional rustbelt automotive centers have languished, the Southeast has blossomed, with several new plants opened by automakers and their suppliers. Research activity is also growing. A prime example is South Carolina’s Clemson University, now building its International Center for Automotive Research. The school’s $25 million Carroll A. Campbell Jr. Graduate Engineering Center, opening this summer, will share a sprawling 250-acre complex with research facilities of auto-related enterprises, such as BMW, Timken, Michelin and the Society of Automotive Engineers.
A major goal of this new education facility is to produce systems engineers who can serve as project leaders and managers for both the auto companies and their suppliers, says Professor Thomas Kurfess, director of the Campbell Graduate Engineering Center and BMW chair in manufacturing. In an interview with Design News, Kurfess discusses the auto industry’s role in driving mechatronics advances.
How valuable is the automobile as a laboratory for mechatronics?
Kurfess: With each passing year, there are more and more electronic and electromechanical components and systems in the car – from simple solenoids and motors to embedded microprocessors that control braking, steering and under-the-hood operations. And then there is the whole network of sensors and electronically-controlled actuators that embraces virtually every system in the car. So there is a tremendous amount of mechatronics, which calls for the integration of electronics, mechanics, software and controls.
How important is it to incorporate a mechatronics design approach?
Kurfess: Certainly, there are instances where you can meet a design challenge purely from an electronics, mechanical or software perspective. But it adds to your design toolbox if you can approach a problem with an integrated solution. For example, when you are designing an electrical system in a car or truck, you need to keep in mind the mechanical challenge of designing it to withstand shock and vibration as well.
Are engineers today prepared to design from a mechatronics standpoint?
Kurfess: Successful engineers understand that you cannot limit yourself to being a mechanical, electronics or software specialist. While you don’t need to be an expert in all these areas, you do need to have some understanding of other engineering disciplines and how they come together in a design. That is what we are all about at the Campbell Graduate School of Engineering at Clemson. We focus on systems integration and how these various subsets of engineering interact with one another. When I teach courses in systems engineering, I still see people struggling at the interfaces of these engineering specialties. Often what I do to overcome this is to have the mechanical engineers do electrical engineering projects, and have the electrical engineers tackle some of the mechanical problems.
What are the chief goals of Clemson’s International Center for Automotive Research?
Kurfess: Our goals are really two-fold. We want this facility to be a world-class center for automotive research, as well as a graduate educational center for engineers who will become technical and management leaders at the auto companies and their suppliers. There’s been a tremendous growth in the Southeast in production and research facilities for the automotive field, but one of the biggest worries is whether we will have enough qualified engineers to staff these facilities.
How would you characterize your research agenda?
Kurfess: There is a wide range of projects (see examples below), but, once again, an overall theme that runs through most of them is this element of systems integration. The four pillars that our research stands on are: systems integration, manufacturing, product design and electronics systems. The projects we work on come from both the automotive OEMs and their tier one and tier two suppliers.
Can you give an example of how systems integration comes into play in this research?
Kurfess: Take the area of lighter-weight structures. To a lot of people, that challenge immediately calls to mind greater use of lighter-weight materials in cars, such as plastics and composites. But a lot of our corporate research partners are even more interested in new grades of high-strength steel, which would allow them to reduce weight. Perhaps even more important, particularly from a mechatronics standpoint, is the greater functional integration of components and systems. For example, some of the higher-end autos have more than 90 microprocessors controlling various functions. Our partners want to look at how to merge more functionality onto those processors. They want to see one component doing the job of two or three. Another point to think about in this system integration challenge is how changes to one system affects another. For example, many people are excited about tires that will run while flat. That would allow you to eliminate the spare tire, which would save weight and create more cargo space in your trunk. However, it turns out that the spare tire absorbs a lot of energy in rear-impact collisions and makes your car more crash-worthy.
What are some other mechatronics issues that will affect tomorrow’s cars?
Kurfess: We will see continued progress in integrating sensors and more sophisticated controls for faster reaction time and better handling. For example, if sensors tell you that you will need to brake very soon, you can have systems that will power up your brakes ahead of time so that you eliminate the lag time that occurs when you hit the brake pedal.
Under the hood, we will be better able to monitor emissions, octane input, temperature and other factors and then tune the engine for better performance on the fly. There are a lot of advanced engine control algorithms that could be implemented, especially with increased microcontroller performance. We may get to the point where drivers can select their desired engine performance, based on the driving they plan to do, such as optimizing fuel efficiency on a long trip.
How about strides being made in your area of focus – manufacturing?
Kurfess: A major goal is designing assembly lines that are flexible enough to handle entirely different models. Take BMW’s plant in South Carolina. On the same line, they can produce both their big sports activity vehicle, the X5, and the Z4, their small two-seater convertible. Another consideration is the integration of robots. For example, BMW uses robots to place the front windshield in the frame of the X5, an application that involves extremely tight tolerances. This is a very big mechatronics challenge, incorporating sophisticated motion control, machine vision and measurement tools.
So you see the auto as a continuing proving ground for mechatronics concepts?
Kurfess: It’s a great laboratory for mechatronics, and it is an enormous industry with far-reaching impact. People talk about big markets being those with tens of billions in sales each year. Automotive is a $1.5 trillion market worldwide. Because of those big numbers and because so much is at stake, automotive companies will continue to be very careful about testing new concepts. Still, a lot of mechatronics innovation is taking place, both in the vehicles and in the manufacturing processes to build them.
A Hotbed for Mechatronics Research
Clemson University not only stresses the importance of systems engineering for graduate students, but it also involves students in research projects that signal the future direction of automotive technology.
Among the major mechatronics-oriented projects now being pursued by engineering faculty and graduate students at Clemson’s International Center for Automotive Research are:
More efficient engines. Researchers in the computational fluid dynamics lab are working to predict and control intricate fluid flows in everything from the interiors of engines to the exteriors of speeding cars. Using super computers, engineers are developing aerodynamic models that may help eliminate time-consuming prototype testing.
Military vehicles. Relying on computer modeling tools, engineers are helping the U.S. Army develop 21st-century tanks and other military vehicles. These simulation tools are needed to make tomorrow’s hybrid and alternative-fuel vehicles cheaper, lighter, faster, more stable and more fuel-efficient.
For more information, visit http://www.clemson.edu/autoresearch/research/index.htm.