Companies are beginning to make progress toward bringing engineering disciplines together for mechatronics design, says Ray Hein of Agile Software in an interview with Design News. Still, he points out, OEMs need to do more to bring software development closer to mechanical and electrical design.
Design News: What progress is the OEM making in implementing mechatronics?
Hein: Mechatronics, by definition, is the synergistic blend of mechanical, electrical, software and controls technology, but a lot of people we talk to today are still a bit confused about how to implement it. You find companies that are doing embedded firmware, embedded software and end-user systems. Then you have those who are really doing full-blown mechatronics, such as disk-drive companies and manufacturers of anti-lock brake systems and robotics. A good example is one of our customers, Intuitive Surgical, which has a robot system that does heart stent surgery.
What signs do you see that this blending of technologies is taking place?
Hein: It is very similar to the situation we once had with design engineers and manufacturing engineers. At one time, engineers threw their designs over the wall, hoping that manufacturing could build them. Fortunately, that problem has been reduced substantially over the last few years. Now, we are starting to see the same kind of progress, for example, within the design profession of getting mechanical and electrical engineers to work closer together on products. And they are beginning to also pull in software engineers, who have tended to be more difficult to control.
Which industries are leading the way in developing mechatronics’ solutions?
Hein: Military and aerospace, some sectors of industrial automation, and, as mentioned earlier, robotics. If you look at software development, we also are seeing very fast growth in the consumer electronics and telecommunications industry in getting their software processes tied more closely to mechanical and electrical.
In a recent presentation, you cited a 2006 Aberdeen benchmark study showing that best-in-class companies are the ones with the most products that integrate mechatronics —
Hein: Yes. That study found that leading companies had 40 percent of their products with mechatronics’ technology, versus just 25 percent for laggard companies. That study also showed that companies that embraced configurable software as a tool enjoyed higher margins and were able to introduce more products and more varied products.
How can companies accelerate the implementation of mechatronics?
Hein: Again, what we are seeing from more of our customers is the need to bring software developers closer to the mechanical and electrical engineers responsible for designing the physical product. These companies are also now looking at how they can bring their engineering processes closer together, rather than running independently. The last piece, which is where Agile software comes in, is centralizing the data into a common product record, if you will. This includes the software elements, which often were not included in the past.
What’s the key benefit that PLM software brings to mechatronics?
Hein: PLM brings with it an integrated change management process. This includes tracking software development, which has a more rapid lifecycle than does any other part of the product. So having a common change management system is key, including keeping current with the latest software issues and bugs. This type of integration of data is essential when you are trying to analyze problems during development. Say you have a disk drive that is overheating. Is it the firmware that is not spinning the disk fast enough to cool it down? Or is there a latent mechanical issue? PLM is a very good nexus point for bringing the various engineering disciplines together, which is an essential part of mechatronics.
What must individual engineers do to begin approaching projects from a mechatronics perspective?
Hein: Mechatronics is really an old term that is being rebranded. Quite a few universities, such as RPI, University of Texas, University of Wisconsin and Toronto’s Waterloo, now have mechatronics programs that produce engineers who are more comfortable with blending technologies in their design work. As a graduate, you aren’t just a mechanical engineer or an electrical engineer, and you have also learned a lot about software, physical control systems, and modeling tools. In industry today, there is a big need for more engineers who have this broader knowledge.
This interview was conducted and edited for length by Design News Contributing Editor Lawrence D. Maloney.