Simulation widens mechatronics

Mechatronic design has come into its own over the past decade. Today, mechatronics means more than integrating the best of mechanical and electronic design worlds, because control and software engineers—and other project team members—also participate. In particular, software has had a profound effect on making mechatronics successful.

11/01/2007


Mechatronic design has come into its own over the past decade. Today, mechatronics means more than integrating the best of mechanical and electronic design worlds, because control and software engineers—and other project team members—also participate. In particular, software has had a profound effect on making mechatronics successful. Ability to simulate physical systems, thereby eliminating time and cost burdens of fabricating hardware prototypes, is the key benefit. Instead, virtual prototyping is used to streamline the parallel design path all the way to product deployment. Software further serves to unite the multi-disciplinary design team.

Early adaptors of mechatronics were aerospace and automotive companies, where in-house engineering expertise could handle the complexities of simulation software then available. That proprietary, custom software was developed either in-house or modified from third-party sources.

Advances in software and emergence of industrial PCs as a viable delivery platform for simulation prompted other major automation system suppliers to adopt mechatronics design. As software tools become easier to use and more affordable, the news is that design simulation is filtering down to many smaller companies that comprise the heart of industrial automation. Indication of this movement was seen in presentations and products at the National Manufacturing Week (NMW) shows in Chicago (Rosemont, IL) in late September 2007.

Linking design tools

“Mechatronics has to connect CAD to controls,” noted Nipun Mathur, product manager for motion control and mechatronics at National Instruments (NI). “In this way, the control engineer can enter the project right from the start—to test out the system and controls in software.” To obtain the needed linkage of design tools for virtual prototyping, Mathur mentioned collaboration between NI and CAD-software developer SolidWorks. It involves integrating NI’s LabView graphical programming language with 3D CAD models developed in SolidWorks design tools. NI defines virtual machine prototype as a 3D CAD model able to interact with simulated machine controllers to visualize/test machine dynamics and logical operations.

“When linked with simulation, mechatronics allows further assessment of virtual prototypes and refining of designs before actual parts are created. Simulation is no longer a custom software development,” Mathur added.

A related development presented at NMW by The MathWorks was model-based design for control system simulation. Model-based design is a system-level simulation method that can integrate multiple engineering domains working on a project and analyze and test mechatronic system behavior. “It allows system requirements to be seen in action and evaluated to verify if the model works correctly,” said Tony Lennon, The MathWorks’ marketing manager for industrial automation and machinery.

Using model-based design (MBD), an engineer develops an embedded control system; algorithms link the requirements to design specs. Then, MBD refines the control strategy via continual model testing and simulation in software and, when appropriate, automatically generates embedded code for rapid prototyping and also for production, Lennon explained. “Models from our core software products, Matlab and Simulink, form the basis of mathematical system-level descriptions and act as executable specifications,” he said. In the latest implementations, MBD algorithms perform in real time with hardware-in-the-loop (HIL) simulation that includes sensors and actuators in the model for realism.

Neither mechatronics nor simulation software is totally new technology, yet their renewed combination promises faster, simpler automation system development. Also watch for more cost-efficient mechatronic designs reaching wider industries and products.



ONLINE extra
Mechatronics info: MechatronicsZone.com redesigned


Author Information
Frank J. Bartos, P.E., a Control Engineering consulting editor, can be reached at braunbart@sbcglobal.net .




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