Some people may not want to read a prognostication article about 2009 simply because they don't want to know what other bad things might happen. It's been that kind of a season.
I, however, am optimistic. I have believed and continue to believe that we are in what I call the Model A phase of technology, and we are still just scratching the surface of the efficiencies that technology can bring to industry. That's no truer in any industry than it is in mechatronics.
Here are my predictions for what we'll see in 2009.
The Battle for Efficiency Heats Up. The challenge of combining the mathematics of mechanics and the code of electronics will continue, inspiring engineers to find new ways to build products more efficiently. It all comes down to competitive advantage. The designers that can create intelligent systems faster - that is, in parallel or in collaboration - will win the time-to-market battle.
Software Becomes More Integrated. The companies that create mechatronic design tools already understand the need to deliver development capabilities that address the aforementioned need for efficiency. That's why we will continue to see increasing integration between modules and packages, even those from different companies. Siemens, PTC, and Dassault all made strides in 2008 to integrate MCAD and ECAD tools. Another key integration step: linking simulation and design tools.
Acquisitions Continue. 2008 was a great year for acquisitions: PTC bought Synapsis for environmental compliance; Autodesk beefed up its CAE capabilities with Algor; Dassault added simulation capabilities with Engineous; IBM bought iLog to broaden its PLM capabilities and SolidWorks acquired Priware for its CircuitWorks tool.
This trend will continue, because in order to offer better integrated tools more quickly, companies will need to acquire technology rather than develop it themselves. The downturn in the economy will force financially challenged vendors to sell off their jewels. The integration of acquired tools into existing product lines is always a challenge, and some companies don't do it well, but the potential is always there for better customer benefits.
Collaborate or Die. More integrated tools require more integrated collaboration among mechatronics engineers. Collaboration tools alone will not solve the problem of mechanical engineers not understanding the challenges of electrical engineers and vice versa. As David Cole, chairman for the Center for Automotive Research, said in the Mechatronics 2.0 Expo keynote, there are many gaps to be filled and engineers need to break down the barriers between them as a means toward improving innovation. "It's no longer 'me, myself and I,' it's 'the team and collaboration'," he said.
Think Green. I'll admit that this is more of a wish than a prediction, now that the cost of oil has dropped so precipitously. But with the aforementioned integrated design tools, the potential is there to create far more environmentally sensitive machinery. As Brian MacCleery, Senior Product Manager for industrial and embedded design at National Instruments, told me earlier this year, "A very high percentage of motors are not just slightly oversized - they're significantly oversized." The result: products that are heavier and slower than they need to be, and which use more energy that they could have if they were designed properly. Savvy companies will work to build greater energy efficiency into their products.
Partnerships Proliferate. Because mechatronics is still in some ways a fledgling arena, we'll see even more partnerships in 2009 among corporations, governments, and academic institutions than we did in 2008. The latter include
? Deere & Company's $1 million contribution to the University of Illinois for a new technology innovation center, targeting advanced mechatronic systems, sensors, electronics, and control systems;
? the U.S. Department of Labor's $1.75 million grant to Utah Valley State College for mechatronics education;
? the state of Alabama's $15 million contribution toward a state-of-the-art robotics training and education center at Calhoun Community College in Decatur, Alabama; robotic industry leaders such as Omoron, Mitsubishi, ABB Robotics, Rockwell, and Fanuc, have already agreed to contribute $40M in equipment for the training center.
Robots March Forward. Robotics will continue to advance toward developing robots that are smarter and faster. As Rich Litt, president of the Robotic Industries Association, noted recently, "Robotics, coupled with intelligent vision hardware and software, is increasingly being applied for automated inspection, especially in Europe. Such systems replace discrete I/O, such as proximity switches, photocells and lasers. In many cases, this approach can tremendously simplify the system, which leads to lower cost, higher reliability and much greater flexibility." At the same time, robots will continue to make inroads in the medical space, as we saw with the advances of the Da Vinci surgical robot and the development of bionic arms at Johns Hopkins University.
MEMS Expand Their Reach. MEMS have already made inroads in medical, automotive, and gaming devices, but I'm seeing new applications expand their capabilities in 2009, including projection devices, defense applications, manufacturing, location-based services, and even astronomy.
As far as we've come in mechatronics in 2008, there's still more potential for progress in 2009. Just as mechatronics is a multidisciplinary field, it's also making progress across multiple disciplines of people, process, and technology.