While today’s multi-discipline mechatronic systems significantly outperform legacy systems, they are also much more complex by nature, requiring close cooperation between multiple design disciplines in order to have a chance of meeting schedule requirements and first-pass success. Mechatronic system designs must fluently integrate analog and digital hardware — along with the software that controls it — presenting daunting challenges for design teams, and requiring design processes to evolve to accommodate.

What is Mechatronic Design?

Figure 1. Major elements of mechatronic design.
The growing trend toward mechatronic system design is driven by the same things that drive all technological advances: the demand for higher performance and lower costs. The word itself is a portmanteau of “Mechanics” and “Electronics.” As Figure 1 shows, mechatronic design includes a combination of (1) mechanical design elements (e.g., plant, actuators, thermal characteristics, hydraulics/fluids, and magnetics); (2) analog, digital, and mixed-signal electronics; (3) control systems; and (4) embedded software. The intersections in Figure 1 — (a) electromechanical sensors and actuators; (b) control circuits; and (c) digital microcontrollers — reveal the most common areas for interdisciplinary cooperation among mechanical, electrical, and software engineers.

Best Mechatronic Design Practices

Boston-based technology think tank, Aberdeen Group Inc., provided pivotal insight into the importance of incorporating the right design process and tools for mechatronic system design. In a seminal study, Aberdeen researchers used five key product development performance criteria to distinguish “Best in Class” companies, as related to mechatronic design. The results were fairly revealing (see table), and should be of significant interest within the extended design community. In the study, Best in Class companies proved to be twice as likely as “Laggards ” (worst in class companies) to achieve Revenue targets, twice as likely to hit Product Cost (manufacturing) targets, three times as likely to hit Product Launch Dates, twice as likely to attain Quality objectives, and twice as likely to control their Development Costs (R&D).1

The fact that the Best in Class companies performed better isn’t as noteworthy as the degree to which they performed better. Two to three times better on every variable invites the question, “How were they able to achieve these far superior results?” Aberdeen’s research revealed that Best in Class companies were:

  • 2.8 times more likely than Laggards to carefully communicate design changes across disciplines.
  • 3.2 times more likely than Laggards to allocate design requirements to specific systems, subsystems, and components.
  • 7.2 times more likely than Laggards to digitally validate system behavior with the simulation of integrated mechanical, electrical, and software components.

The remainder of this article will explore these “best in class” practices in further detail.

Communicating and Allocating Design Requirements

A mechanical engineer may be interested in dampening vibration by adding a stiffener. This, of course, would add mass and as a result, may impact how fast the control system ramps up motor speed, thus impacting size requirements on the motor as well as power requirements. The benefits of immediate, formal documentation of this design change enables concurrent, cross-discipline design.

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