Increasingly, engineering educators see the value of teaching
college students the multidisciplinary skills of mechatronics design.
Many, however, are intimidated by the time and expense of creating new
courses and laboratory experiments that help students grasp the
essentials of this synergistic engineering approach.
Quanser, a Toronto
firm specializing in systems for control design, is targeting that
audience with modular hardware and software packages that help
professors take the mystery out of mechatronics and control theory.
"Students don't say much when they see our equipment for the first time," says Quanser Chief Technology Officer Jacob Apkarian.
"They start talking when they feel it," adds the former professor who
founded the company in 1990 after discovering many schools lacked the
tools to translate control into tangible concepts students could grasp.
Accent on Controls
Quanser's products focus especially on the control engineering
aspect of mechatronics design. The company's turnkey control labs, for
example, typically include software, control boards and power
amplifiers, which provide the basis for more than 50 Quanser-designed
experiments. These exercises range from basic servo units to highly
complex systems that can be created by adding more modules. Software
choices include National Instrument's LabVIEW, The MathWorks' Simulink and the company's own WinCon simulation package.
The key goal in these experiments is rapid design. Students can
quickly understand the system, connect it together, drag and drop
blocks in the software and tune the controller's parameters. Meanwhile,
professors and lab instructors work with pre-written curriculum from
Quanser and receive solution manuals, technical support and sample
controllers created in either LabVIEW or Simulink software packages.
Support for Maple sheets from Maplesoft for solving more complex dynamics & kinematics problems are also available.
The Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) is one of a growing number of schools worldwide that have contracted for Quanser's turnkey control labs. "We use MATLAB
and Simulink extensively. As a result, incorporating the Quanser
solution was a perfect fit to enhance our lab. And the experience in
setting up the turnkey system has been extremely simple and
straightforward," says Electrical Engineering Professor Hadi Sadat.
At Turkey's University of Selcuk,
Assistant Professor Mete Kalyoncu has much the same reaction:
"Everything is ready to research and teach. We don't struggle to
combine the components for experimental devices we need."
Professor Dennis Bernstein of the University of Michigan's Aero-space Engineering Dept.
also notes, "Quanser excels at developing research and educational
systems that illuminate control concepts, advance learning and - most
importantly - facilitate greater understanding and insight into control
An Aid to Researchers
Besides educators, researchers rely on Quanser control solutions for
implementing and evaluating feedback strategies, such as PID, LQG, H
infinity, fuzzy, neural nets, adaptive and nonlinear controllers. Many
of the company's newer products are designed for researchers in such
burgeoning fields such as robotically assisted surgery. In late
September, Quanser announced its participation in a new research
partnership devoted to robotic surgery. Featuring Quanser's haptic
control technology, the new research venture brings together Canadian Surgical Technology, Advanced Robotics (C-STAR) and the Ontario Centres of Excellence.
In the past, a major drawback in robot-assisted surgery was that the
surgeon lost the all-important sense of touch. Quanser's haptic
technology resolves this problem by using complex mathematical computer
models to convey realistic sensory feelings back to the surgeon. "The
need for medical robotic technology
is growing exponentially and haptic-enhanced robotic surgical systems
will become staples of the hospitals and operating rooms of the
future," says Dr. Rajni Patel, director of Engineering at C-STAR.
Quanser CTO Apkarian says the company's haptic interface products
are an example of higher-end mechatronics design. "By setting clear
performance goals and systematically examining every component in the
concept stage, we created a fantastically lightweight robot," he says.
"The design eliminates undesirable factors such as friction, backlash
and jitter, allowing for an incredible level of high-fidelity
This haptic interface equipment is already in several laboratories and research centers around the world, including McMaster University in Hamilton.
"Quanser's haptic interface technology and its WinCon real-time control
solution have been instrumental in our research progress by providing a
remarkably efficient platform for experimental evaluation of research
results," says McMaster researcher Shahin Sirouspour.
"It is equally impressive to see that the same technology is being used
in our undergraduate laboratories for medical robotics and controls
Others are using Quanser control solutions in customized applications. For example, Quanser is working with Manfredi Maggiore at the University of Toronto
on a high-precision device, based on magnetic levitation, which can
position an object placed on a moving platform in three degrees of
freedom with high accuracy. "Magnetic levitation is an excellent technology because there is no contact, so there is no wear of components," says Maggiore.
Apkarian sees such applications as adding more fuel to the company's
core business, products for teaching and research. The likely result?
Even more growth for a company that has already doubled in size in the
last four years.