The code in the machine

Don't be surprised if a friend who gives you a ride in his new Ford Fusion or Mercury Milan suddenly begins talking to his car. He might say something like, "Call Maria, cell," or "Playlist, dance mix." And the vehicle will respond by dialing Maria's number in his cell phone, or streaming the song tracks in his iPod through onboard speakers.

By Kenneth Wong, contributing editor August 1, 2008

Don’t be surprised if a friend who gives you a ride in his new Ford Fusion or Mercury Milan suddenly begins talking to his car. He might say something like, “Call Maria, cell,” or “Playlist, dance mix.” And the vehicle will respond by dialing Maria’s number in his cell phone, or streaming the song tracks in his iPod through onboard speakers.

Your friend’s impromptu chat with Maria is made possible by Ford SYNC, available in select Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury models. The technology, which makes the car responsive to verbal commands, was developed by Ford in collaboration with Microsoft , and involves quite a bit of chatter inaudible to human ears.

Behind the scene, the vehicle’s software-driven electromechanical components and your friend’s portable digital devices are communicating with one another—sometimes physically through hardwires; other times wirelessly through Bluetooth .

SYNC is the offshoot of mechatronics—i.e., “the synergistic combination of precision mechanical engineering, electronic control, and systems thinking in the design of products and manufacturing processes,” as described in The Science of Intelligent Machines , The International Federation of Automatic Control, 1991. The same discipline is responsible for many of the advanced features in the modern automobile: multimedia players, adaptive cruise control, and auto-park, to name but a few. Industry watchers anticipate the trend will lead to supply chain efficiencies and even better customer service, but also some IT-related headaches along the way.

A new digital trinity

With the ability to integrate circuit board and wire layouts from AutoCAD Electrical, Autodesk’s midrange mechanical CAD software Autodesk Inventor could serve as the centerpiece for some manufacturers’ mechatronics initiatives.

The latest addition to the automotive architecture is an intangible component, a string of software code running throughout the vehicle’s electromechanical infrastructure. According to Patrick Milligan, who manages in-vehicle software development at Ford Motor Co. , “The move is to go from the self-contained mechanical systems—like a standard antilock brake—to an adaptive cruise-control system where the brake module is interacting with the power-train module and other components to speed up or slow down based on nearby traffic. The proliferation of software is what had been driving these distributed, dynamic features.”

In many ways, the production and testing of the Ford Fusion—or any other models from the mechatronics-driven generation—is an exercise in software fusion.

“The level of complexity in managing software data is nothing like what we’ve experienced in the mechanical domain,” says Milligan. “The only way to effectively deal with this is to have a robust digital environment where you can keep track of the mechanical [CAD] data, the vehicle variances, and the associated requirements; and to model and test them not only at the individual component level, but in an integrated fashion.”

Ford designs its vehicles primarily in Dassault Systemes ‘ CATIA. For electrical systems and wiring, the company uses Mentor Graphics ‘ Capital Harness System, which provides data bridges to exchange geometry with CATIA. Ford uses Siemens PLM Software ‘s Teamcenter as its data-management backbone.

Says Jim Phelan, director of media relations for Siemens PLM, “The ability to manage each mechatronic component individually—as opposed to tracking an entire electronic control unit [ECU] as a single item—has given Ford significant cost and time savings.”

Envisioning more

Ideally, a mechatronics simulation, as Ford’s Milligan envisions it, would involve “bringing in the CAD data, the electrical data, and the software pieces that drive these components into an integrated environment, and then doing a dynamic drive.”

Such a comprehensive mechatronics environment is akin to the fully functional computer-aided engineering environments employed by some leading aerospace manufacturers to validate their airframe designs.

PTC, provider of Pro/ENGINEER software, recently added the MCAD-ECAD Collaboration Extension to its software.

“That means evaluating torque, pitch, yaw, roll stability, noise, vibration, harshness, and other physical responses while simulating a drive,” Milligan explains. In the automotive industry, such a system remains a vision. “I’m not aware of anyone who can do this in automotive,” says Milligan.

Ed Martin, industry manager for Autodesk , concurs. “There’s no particular company out there that can give you an end-to-end mechatronics solution. Everyone has some pieces of it.”

From Autodesk, Martin adds, “Inventor serves as the foundation. You use it for 3D mechanical design, simulation, analysis, and integration with ECAD [circuit board layout] designs in IDF files [common format for circuit work]. The software integrates with both IDF files and system wiring data from AutoCAD Electrical. You can use AutoCAD Electrical to integrate the ECAD components in the larger assembly—for wiring, routing, and connections, for example. Then ProductStream is available for data management. It can manage an extended BOM [bill of material], so you can incorporate the BOM from AutoCAD Electrical to the assembly BOM, then associate relevant software code and calibration files with it.”

Recognizing the importance of closer collaboration between mechanical engineers and their electrical counterparts, CAD vendor PTC began facilitating design data exchange between the two groups with the introduction of a MCAD-ECAD Collaboration Extension in its Pro/ENGINEER software.

Similarly, SolidWorks , a midrange CAD software provider, recently acquired Priware, whose flagship product CircuitWorks allows SolidWorks users to integrate ECAD files into SolidWorks 3D models and 2D drawings.

SolidWorks expects the acquisition will make its CAD product “an indispensable platform for developing highly complex mechatronics systems, which combine electrical, mechanical, and information processing components found in consumer electronics and robotics.”

In a recent online survey, Manufacturing Business Technology discovered that, across the board, 20 percent of product recalls were prompted by “improperly coordinated mechanical and electrical design,” and 11 percent by “improperly coordinated hardware and software design.”

The same survey also revealed that even though 37 percent of respondents profess to be working in “a formal system design process that detects early integration problems across disciplines,” more than half still reported problems integrating disciplines—suggesting the need for enhanced interdisciplinary communication.

Simplified supply chains, happier customers

In mechatronics pursuit, the added complexity in software management may be offset by streamlined supply chain management and better maintenance operations. Says Joe Barkai, a practice director for Framingham, Mass.-based Manufacturing Insights , “The cost for component production will get lower because it’s mostly in software. You don’t need to build and maintain complex factories to produce iron-based parts.”

With the acquisition its Gold Partner Priware, SolidWorks brings CircuitWorks for SolidWorks into its portfolio. The technology merge is expected to let SolidWorks users incorporate electrical components into SolidWorks assemblies.

As Autodesk’s Martin points out, “With mechatronics, you can use software configuration to give different personalities to a car without creating different electromechanical setups.” As an example, he cites the generic engine computer. “The supplier ships the automaker a blank-slate computer,” he says. “Once the automaker has determined the engine type, transmission type, and other options, they encode the computer controller with the correct calibrations. With this method, they no longer need to maintain different controllers in their inventory for different vehicle types.”

The onboard software can give the cars not only personalities but also diagnoses. “Now you’re able to identify when the machine is not operating as it should,” says Martin, “so you’re able to provide diagnostic clues and error codes to your service personnel.”

In fact, the introduction of software has made automotive troubleshooting so straightforward that anyone with a code scanner/reader can determine the precise nature of a failure. By plugging the device into the diagnostic outlet and consulting a code reference (available online for free), you can determine that, for a Ford model, P1051 stands for “brake/switch signal missing or improper,” P1309 for “misfire detection monitor not enabled,” and so on.

Says Martin, “Manufacturers with a comprehensive mechatronics strategy can potentially sell product upgrades as software modules or software-hardware modules,” which is a better proposition than asking the customer to trade in the existing product for an entirely new one.

IBM’s logic

Now that Microsoft, the PC titan, has staked a claim in mechatronics with its participation in the development of Ford’s SYNC, another computing giant, IBM , is about to enter the fray. In April, Big Blue acquired Telelogic, with a portfolio that includes Rhapsody For Automotive.

Telelogic touts Rhapsody as a “Model-Driven Development Environment” for “designing Telematics, Infotainment, Powertrain, Chasis, Comfort and Body Electronic Control Units [ECU].”

Says Mark Lefebvre, IBM’s product life-cycle management executive, “Our [automotive] customers have silos within their organizations responsible for the design, testing, and development of various subsystems—entertainment console, phone, navigation, GPS. They also have the software required to run them, and the software used to develop the products. Telelogic provides the tools to take all their functional requirements and model them and test them long before they develop the physical prototypes. So it allows them to integrate, very early on, the mechanical, electrical, and software components.”

Future shock

In Mechatronics Product Life-Cycle Management , a publication from Manufacturing Insights, Barkai predicted, “By 2010, the number of software-embedded control units will represent 35 percent to 40 percent of the value of the average car. As much as 90 percent of future innovation in vehicle systems will be in electronics and embedded software.”

Boston-based analyst firm Aberdeen Group cites “difficulty in finding and hiring experienced system engineers” or “lack of cross-functional knowledge” among the top challenges for companies pursuing mechatronics visions. In preparation for this, some automakers are stepping up their recruitment efforts. In Beyond the Big Leave: The Future of U.S. Automotive Human Resources , a report compiled by The Center for Automotive Research, and featuring participation from Chrysler, Ford, GM, and others, the authors cite a domestic firm that indicates its “growth in hires of mechanical engineers will be stable through 2010 and beyond… However, the company will mostly hire MechEs [mechatronics engineers] straight out of schools.”

Sun Microsystems , whose Top Level Architecture JAVA platform is the computational engine behind BMW ‘s iDrive control system, describes the modern luxury vehicles as “networks on wheels.” In that case, the intra-vehicular communication among the vehicle’s subsystems might be treated as an IT challenge.

Author Information

Kenneth Wong is a freelance writer who has covered digital video, computer game, and CAD industries. He explores innovative usage of technology and its implications. E-mail him at .