Mechatronics simplifies machine design

Mechatronics reduces inefficiency, errors, and unnecessary expense by breaking down traditional engineering silos.

By Doug Burns, Lenze Americas September 28, 2015

Mechatronics is the interdisciplinary collaboration of power, electronics, and mechanical systems, including embedded software and hardware—or, more simply stated, the convergence of engineering disciplines. Mechatronic engineering improves component integration, yielding smaller machines that perform better and cost less to build and support (see Figure 1). Developing a mechatronic team demands top-down strategies and a synergistic view of engineering design tools, drive systems, and control design.

Before a mechatronics approach is in place, many machine builders often begin at the point of sale. A traditional engineering approach taps electrical, mechanical, and software engineers, each contributing a specific skill set. A mechanical engineer may rework an existing machine design then forward it to the electrical engineer, who then designs a control panel based on standard technology. Then a software engineer is tasked with executing the project.

Delays can occur when problems arise between the machine concept, component selection, mechanical design, electrical design, program methodology, or even the end user’s intended purpose for the machine. Out of time, the software engineer might be expected to patch together a mechanical hardware concept with an imperfect electrical hardware concept, without even fully understanding why they don’t work together.

Breaking away from traditional engineering

Mechatronics reduces inefficiency, errors, and unnecessary expense by breaking down traditional engineering silos. By using a mechatronics approach from the onset of a project, electrical, mechanical, and software engineers can address the actual product a customer wants to handle. They discuss the operations, or motions, required to form and handle the product, then make recommendations on how best to perform the operations. Precisely designed components—motors, drives, and gearboxes—can be viewed as standardized modular units fulfilling requirement for speed, torque, motion sequence, dynamics, and positioning accuracy (see Figure 2). The engineers tap proven modular components and software, knowing precise specifications about what each can do.

After developing design recommendations, the team collaborates to identify the implications of its suggestions on how the machine will ultimately perform. More often than not, the simplicity of modular solutions results in better, stable product handling and a safer, more efficient machine. Modules are selected and controls determined based on the features a customer needs. Code required to combine mechanical and electrical specifications is described according to machine functions—mechatronic modules, rather than programming language. The human-machine interface (HMI) is developed using familiar terms, such as product dimensions and machine speed.

Through the collaborative machine building process, the entire team gains valuable insight into all three engineering disciplines. With each successive project, the team is better equipped to assess feasibility relative to the other disciplines and, in many cases, take it to the next level by developing new machine control capabilities to expand customer offerings and support new business opportunities. Canned and tested modular components offer high reliability and combine engineering requirements, resulting in smaller machine footprint. The process can yield innovative new methods to accomplish machine tasks. For example, a servo-driven belt might replace a metal cam for a loading arm. Or, a variable frequency drive on a knee mechanism might replace hydraulics for high-speed, high-power applications. And, the machines are easier to support because fully integrated modules don’t require separate software. 

Building a productive engineering team

Businesses that are under constant pressure to design and deliver machines don’t always make time for engineers to collaborate or innovate. The mechatronics approach requires top-down leadership to schedule time to make R&D a priority. A simple, yet effective, entry ramp can be the rework of an old design taking a cross-discipline approach.

Engineers must also stay abreast of current technologies. There is a near-constant stream of mechatronic innovation, some of which can vastly improve the machine design process and product. For example, some vendors now offer software that combines panel layout with drive sizing and cam design. Motor-mounted drives can eliminate electrical cabinets, which have a direct impact on the mechanical design of a machine.

It pays to set specific goals when defining the scope of a mechatronics project. In some cases, goals may be communicated to—and from—customers as well. Achievement of benchmarks, such as a percentage in parts reduction, reliability, or energy efficiency, should be rewarded, so the mechatronic team realizes the importance of continuous improvement via collaboration.

Cross training also plays a role in cultivating synergy. There must be a plan in place to provide detailed project information to each engineer on the team. A mechanical engineer who understands the potential of a control system will be more likely to simplify mechanical solutions. An electrical engineer who understands the five simple machines of physics will be more open to applying an open-loop system or a smaller controller. A software engineer who understands the three sides of control can synchronize the motion of a machine to guarantee the safe movement of products.

Using proven modular technology

Machines today are produced with shorter lead times and are designed to operate at considerably higher speeds than in the past. In the great race to meet production deadlines and budgets, innovation must never be an afterthought. Like mechatronics, innovation results from blending known elements to create something new. For example, consider the universal smartphone, which combines phone, camera, music player, lighting, and touchscreen. By blending the tools based on CPU technology, smartphones become so much more. The same holds true for machine controls. A single touch panel can combine HMI, logic, and motion. Servos can be replaced with IP65 closed-loop induction motor modules for cost savings and better inertia matching. Mechatronics engineers quickly recognize the short leap to tool-less changeover and data collection.

Industry standards have vastly improved machine programming consistency, so users have better and more flexible equipment and software choices. Open standards and tools have been instrumental in mitigating system integration issues, including inconsistencies in mode control and error reactions commonly associated with proprietary programs. Application templates and ready-made standard software modules support machine builders in efficiently creating modular control software. Consider that about 80% or more of new machine tasks reflect some variation of past machine tasks. Design technologies exist to quickly and reliably handle many engineering requirements for standardized machine modules.

Use of modular code programming relies on a control system and modular hardware, but the impact in terms of reducing machine design resources is phenomenal. Software can be generated much more quickly using code developed for previous generations of machines in the form of ready-made technology modules, which can be modified to meet new requirements. An application template provides necessary basic structures while allowing users to create their own machine modules. Software modules created using application templates can then be put together like bricks with minimal effort, creating complete systems that are customizable and reusable. Preconfigured, reusable software modules for positioning, registration, cam profiling, multi-conveyor coordination, and other synchronized motion control tasks—including modules for feeding, unwinding, sealing, cross-sealing, and discharge applications—offer machine builders greater freedom and time to focus on developing and refining other value-added features of a new machine. 

If not now, when?

When the goal is to build and deliver machines on time, efficiently, and within budget with the features a customer desires, mechatronics offers the most flexible and cost-effective path using modular components—with the balance of electrical and mechanical functions articulated in software. Increased demand for automation in broader applications has spurred development of smarter, more efficient drives, controls, and software tools (see Figure 3). Automation products with embedded mechatronic functionality reduce engineering expenses while taking up less real estate and offering more dynamic machine performance. The mechatronics design phase not only helps to ensure right-sized components, but typically results in fewer parts, which also translates to space and cost savings.

As more OEMs get on board with mechatronics, it becomes imperative that they manage the process and recognize trends in mechatronics to stay ahead of the technology curve. By developing a portfolio of mechanical, electrical, and software modules, it becomes easier to quickly assemble configurable machines to meet customer requests. Perhaps there’s an adjacent industry that could use machines similar to those one’s company builds—driving potential for lucrative new sales. But, how does one know if the machine concept would work? There’s never been a better time to find out—and a mechatronic engineering team can make it happen. 

– Doug Burns is the director of business development for Lenze Americas at the company’s Glendale Heights, Ill., assembly and logistics facility. He has more than 30 years of experience in the industrial automation industry and has held positions in sales, business development, and management. He oversees the implementation and execution of strategies to help expand opportunities in the automotive, consumer goods/packaging, and material handling industries. In addition, he manages the identification and development of key target accounts and helps grow OEM sales and support capabilities.

This article appears in the Applied Automation supplement for Control Engineering and Plant Engineering

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