The term "mechatronics" originally referred to systems combining mechanical, electronic, control, and software systems. Today the term is used to describe a much broader range of systems. The "mecha-" is stretched to encompass domains other than mechanics, and the "-tronics" includes software, control systems, and far more than electronics.
The challenge of integrating different technologies to create a useful, reliable, and exciting device is irresistible to engineers. But it is not a trivial task, especially when you consider that the number and complexity of the integrated systems is climbing. A phone is no longer just a phone -- it can include a camera, keyboard, accelerometer, and much more. Engineers tasked with designing such a system must be prepared with a comprehensive set of requirements and the tenacity to iron out all of the problems that will occur when integrating such diverse systems.
More and more, simulation is being used to detect and eliminate integration issues. Simulation has been used on individual components and subsystems for quite some time, but the real value becomes apparent when you can integrate those individual systems virtually. The tremendous cost savings of finding problems before you commit to hardware are well-known. What's more important, however, is being able to optimize system performance. That's something you can only achieve in simulation when you can combine those different domains with the controllers in a single simulation environment.
Consider a hybrid electric vehicle as an example. Some architectures contain a battery, generator, motor, engine, and a transmission all working together. Though it is possible to simulate each component in isolation, to optimize fuel economy the performance of entire vehicle has to be evaluated. Only then can you truly expect to minimize the amount of fuel used during the drive cycles over which the vehicle will be tested.
The most successful engineering organizations don't wait until components are selected before they start using simulations. According to the Aberdeen Group, best-in-class organizations are 5.3 times more likely to use simulation to validate system-level behavior. Their design process begins with modeling and simulation, and those virtual tests are used to shape the requirements for the system. Increasing or decreasing the sizes of motors, generators, engines, and other components is more cost effective in simulation than using hardware prototypes, and can take the design team down paths that otherwise may have been left unexplored.
Many automotive suppliers have developed internal libraries to facilitate modeling, simulation, and multidomain optimization. In these instances, a core group of engineers develops libraries of models that span electrical, mechanical and thermal systems to be shared with other teams. Those teams take the components they need, combine them with models of the systems they are designing, and simulate the entire system. By varying the parameter values or using optimization algorithms, those groups can see if the system is meeting design goals. The results of those simulations are fed into the requirements process so that components can be optimally sized.
Expanding Mechatronics' Tent
The breadth of what is considered a mechatronic system is rapidly expanding as new technologies, are