There is a yawning disconnect between how well vendors think their products work with other products and what users say about the same concept. While some experts admit mechatronics’ design is much easier than it used to be, there are still questions about the ease with which data can be consolidated, converted and integrated along the chain that runs between design, modeling and simulation.
In her report last year on mechatronics’ system design, Aberdeen Group Research Analyst Michelle Boucher wrote about the business challenges facing manufacturers, such as shorter product development schedules, increased customization and reduced development budgets. But even more pressing, perhaps, were the challenges of mechatronics’ development itself: “Coordinating the disparate engineering disciplines on a single design presents a set of demanding challenges for manufacturers to overcome” (see chart, page M20). How well companies deal with the design challenges affect their ability to address the business challenges.
Why do you think mechatronics’ development is such a hot topic these days?
Products are growing in complexity. One of the ways that companies are differentiating their products is by embedding more intelligence in them. Obviously, mechatronics has been around a long time, but it’s becoming more important to companies that are competing globally.
What types of challenges are mechatronics’ designers encountering these days?
That’s an interesting question, because it’s related to what we determined in our studies as the number one design challenge — overcoming communication barriers and a lack of cross-functional knowledge. That was cited by half of the engineers we surveyed. You have engineers in specific disciplines with specific tool sets that they know very well, but those tools don’t work together. Number five on the list, cited by 28 percent of the engineers surveyed, was the difficulty implementing an integrated product development solution for all disciplines involved in mechatronic product development. The big challenge is identifying problems early enough in the product cycle to fix them.
What about getting information from the format of one package into another?
There are definitely capability problems when it comes to dealing with formats. It’s complicated by the fact that engineers are familiar with a particular tool set that was developed with a certain design application in mind. But it doesn’t incorporate mechatronics or accommodate other formats.
Are there any industry standards being put in place?
I haven’t seen any industry standards and we haven’t explored whether one is likely. (The) MathWorks and National Instruments are the two companies I see most commonly mentioned when it comes to providing interfaces.
Are there companies that are making collaboration easier?
Yes, some people are taking advantage of integration between MCAD and ECAD tools. Some of it is coming from the CAD vendors’ visualization tools, which are capable of reading both MCAD and ECAD data. In our next study (scheduled to be published later this month), we’re identifying best practices that leading companies are adopting.
Where will we see the most innovation in mechatronics’ development?
That’s in the technology that companies are putting in place to simulate an entire integrated system. That area of the industry will grow and continue to be more powerful. When you design with mechanical CAD tools, you want to make sure the fit is right. With electrical tools, you’re worried more about the logic working properly. Software is also about logic, making sure the program will do what you want. But they’re inherently very different, so the process that brings those three together and makes them function as a system has to be very powerful and that’s where simulation comes in.
Companies are turning to simulation tools to validate whether the product is going to work. The other thing that we found they were doing was using system engineering tools to map out what the system would look like up front, using block diagrams, and then they would embed requirements to serve as guidelines. For the software component, they’ll embed software implementation details and then automatically generate the code based on the logic that they defined.
The ability to manage these interfaces will be a characteristic of best-in-class companies. We see vendors trying to help companies manage this requirement — making sure that the product works as intended and providing tools to overcome barriers of knowledge.
Mechatronics’ Design Challenges
|Difficulty finding and hiring experienced system engineers/lack of cross-functional knowledge
|Early identification of system-level problems
|Ensuring all design requirements are met in the final system
|Difficulty predicting/modeling system product behavior until physical prototypes exist
|Difficulty implementing an integrated product development solution for all disciplines involved in mechatronic product development
|Inability to understand the impact a design change will have across disciplines