After almost three and a half years of collaboration, SolidWorks and National Instruments are poised to release a virtual prototyping tool geared for mechatronics applications that seamlessly integrates SolidWorks 3-D CAD software and the NI LabVIEW graphical system design environment.
The LabVIEW 2009 NI SoftMotion Module and capabilities in the forthcoming SolidWorks 2010 release allow mechanical and control engineers to work in tandem on mechatronics designs by optimizing, validating and visualizing the real-world performance of machines and motion systems without having to build costly prototypes. This cross-collaboration between disciplines is important because every decision has a ripple effect in a mechatronics design. For example, if a team decides to change the material and, therefore the weight of a mechanical component, there are ramifications on motor sizing or even the type of motor required to sufficiently operate the machine. Traditionally, the two engineering disciplines worked separately on their respective systems, and only became aware of design flaws or potential problem areas late in the design process when time and money was already devoted to building and testing a physical prototype.
"Improving team communication and collaboration between mechanical engineers, electrical engineers and control engineers is crucial," says Christian Fritz, mechatronics and motion control manager at National Instruments (NI). "Tools that offer seamless integration and help them share data throughout all phases of the development cycle will enable vivid collaboration and exchange of information."
Creating seamless integration between the two tools shortens the iterative design process and enables control engineers to begin working on control applications as soon as the CAD model has been created. By leveraging the new integration capabilities, existing SolidWorks CAD models can be connected to LabVIEW, which automatically links the motor actuators and position sensors defined in the model. Using the functions delivered in NI SoftMotion for SolidWorks, engineers can then develop sophisticated motion control applications and use the virtual prototype to visualize realistic machine behavior, analyze cycle time performance and perform accurate force/torque requirements analysis. As a result, engineering teams can optimize designs prior to building a physical prototype, identify design issues that potentially cross mechanical and electrical boundaries and properly size motors and mechanical parts.
"At the end of the day, this makes a serial process parallel," says Fielder Hess, vice president of product management for SolidWorks. "It's getting rid of the `throw it over the wall' mentality and allows the disciplines to communicate earlier."
Streamlining the iterative nature of mechanical and motion control design has the potential for huge time savings benefits, according to Kent Wedeking, LabVIEW/mechanical engineer for Fastek International Ltd., which offers test and measurement services for control systems. Currently, Wedeking says his team creates their motion control code in LabVIEW, builds their prototype in SolidWorks and puts them together in a lab and hope that it all works. Debugging the system is done strictly with physical components. "If something goes wrong - a motor doesn't shut off or there's interference, we find that out when pieces actually start banging into each other," he says. "If we get to the point where we're redesigning parts, we have to have things re-machined, which adds time and cost and makes it more difficult to meet deadlines."
To create the integration, NI and SolidWorks invested time and R&D dollars in ensuring that control engineers can create their custom motion control applications using the LabVIEW graphical programming paradigm they already know, Fritz says. In addition, mechanical engineers don't have to leave the familiar SolidWorks' environment to make a 3-D model simulation ready to test out the control system.
Fritz says the request for the seamless integration came directly from customers and while there is no exclusive arrangement, NI currently has no plans to develop similar capabilities for other 3-D CAD systems.