Mechatronics: PLM, Mechatronics

Product lifecycle management enables the mechatronic design philosophy.


Mechatronics is a design philosophy that emphasizes multidisciplinary, model-based communication, collaboration and integration from the start. Sustainability has further challenged mechatronics to transform itself into a closed-loop, cradle-to-cradle design approach. Product lifecycle management (PLM) is a process of managing the entire engineering lifecycle of a product, along with the software tools to synchronize information. Just as in mechatronics, this lifecycle is now viewed as one that stretches from conception, through design and manufacture, to service, disposal and recycling. Just as a key element in mechatronics is human-centered design, PLM is becoming more human-centered, in addition to being information-centered.

Recently, I was invited to talk about Mechatronics and Innovation at the Product Lifecycle Management 2010 Conference in Detroit. PLM is certainly not new, having been introduced 25 years ago, but it was my first real exposure to the world of PLM and major companies from many industries were there. With the need to manage increasingly complex designs, along with the imperatives for energy-efficient, sustainable and environmentally responsible design, PLM is clearly a subject of great interest worldwide.

So how are Mechatronics and PLM related? Does PLM take over when the Mechatronics effort ends or are they becoming integrated so that both are enhanced? To better understand the world of PLM today and in the future, I spent considerable time with John Bayless, the director of strategy and program management for Mercury Marine and the practice director for Mercury Marine PLM Services, a product lifecycle management consulting business within Mercury Marine. Bayless is an Annapolis graduate who served as a U.S. Navy fighter pilot. He holds an MBA from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

In Bayless’ view, the link between a mechatronics approach and PLM is the need for collaboration during the product development process. A mechatronics approach calls for a cross-functional team to come together in a way that encourages specialists to make mutual design adjustments such that the final design is optimized. Execution of a mechatronics approach creates a need for PLM.

Part of the mechatronics need for PLM stems from the difficulty specialists, often in disparate locations, have coming together with the latest design information early and often enough to collaborate. A PLM system makes collaboration easier by connecting engineers and cross-functional team members (such as manufacturing, procurement, marketing, etc.) almost in real time. For example, by creating one database which serves as the “single source of truth,” PLM reduces re-work caused by confusion over erstwhile data from multiple databases. When used to the fullest, PLM saves time—time put to better use creating innovations for new products.

From my discussion with Bayless, I learned the scope of PLM implementation varies by company. For example, some Mercury PLM Services clients are considering their first investment in PLM and are looking for reliable information. Other clients use PLM only to store CAD data but are interested in deploying the tools in more value-added ways across the enterprise. Mercury PLM Services provides best practices which bring PLM benefits to the full organization, not just one discipline, which makes it ideal for mechatronics.

Communication, collaboration and integration are the key attributes of the mechatronics design process that lead to innovation. PLM—managing all the information from the start of the design process to the eventual disassembling and recycling of the product—can facilitate that process. But the mechatronic design process must first be defined for the organization and widely embraced. Ownership of the process, not just a consensus, by each individual is essential to reap the full benefits of PLM.

Kevin C. Craig, Ph.D., Robert C. Greenheck Chair in Engineering Design and Professor of Mechanical Engineering, College of Engineering, Marquette University.

This appeared in December editions of Plant Engineering and Control Engineering, in cooperation with Design

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