Your best bet in Mechatronics: Use PLM for multidisciplinary design collaboration

More kinds of products today are based on mechatronics—i.e., designs that blend mechanical, electronics, and embedded software components. But putting mechatronics systems into product designs isn’t done without overcoming some large barriers. By necessity, companies are implementing product life-cycle management (PLM) solutions to overcome the challenges.


A wide range of today’s mechanical products use software-driven electronics to make them work. Creating software is generally cheaper than building hardware, and electronics can be used to pack greater levels of intelligent features into products. Dubbed “computers on wheels,” cars use electronic circuitry for a wide range of safety features, diagnostics, engine control and other functionality. Likewise, aircraft, defense systems, machine tools, home appliances, toys and an expanding variety of other products are based on mechatronics: designs that blend mechanical, electronics, and embedded software components.
Effectively incorporating mechatronics systems into product designs isn’t done without overcoming some formidable barriers, however. Mechanical Computer-Aided Design (MCAD), Electronic Design Automation (EDA), and Computer-Aided Software Engineering (CASE) tools typically operate as separate systems that do not support reasonable exchange of data between each other. Moreover, at most companies the different disciplines work independently, for the most part functioning in isolation from one another and passing project information from one group to another in serial fashion. In many cases, mechanical engineering completes work and then forwards tasks to electronic/electrical design engineering, which then forwards tasks to software engineering. Disciplines work in silos with their own individual design processes and non-integrated information system tools. As a result, engineers downstream in development have little opportunity to provide valuable input early in the cycle, and design deficiencies often are not uncovered until late in the process when changes are costly and time-consuming.
By necessity, companies increasingly are implementing product life-cycle management (PLM) to address these issues, enabling multidisciplinary design team members to work in parallel and more collaboratively in a virtual “big room” where information is more readily exchanged, work is completed more efficiently, problems are circumvented early, product design is optimized, development time is shortened, and innovation is encouraged.
PLM provides these benefits through specific work processes that accommodate the nuances and intricacies of the different design fields in a single coherent program. Through such an approach, MCAD, EDA and CASE tools are integrated into a common design environment where people in the different disciplines can easily check-out and check-in appropriate design components from the enterprise PLM application. PLM provides these cross-functional teams with a common repository that serves as a “single source of the truth”– one place to store all of the design data, to maintain integrated configuration control, and to use as a basis for iterating back and forth in the design process.
By providing a product information backbone, PLM supports close collaboration in mechatronics development by giving all team members real-time access to reliable, up-to-date information. PLM maintains individual views of the data for mechanical, electrical, and software engineers while managing a global, integrated view of customer requirements and issues so that portfolio tracking, project and program management become integrated across all disciplines. Moreover, in industries where stringent design protocols must be followed, PLM workflow engines support the execution of the required steps across all design disciplines, providing an audit trail and guaranteeing that reliable and timely new product builds will be executed. Such capabilities are especially valuable to supply chain managers who need to ensure that all intellectual property of the product is available in time for planning, engineering, and procurement processes.
Enabled by PLM in this manner, companies can more effectively organize and manage the integrated, collaborative teams needed to develop the mechatronics designs that are becoming critical to the success of a growing number of manufacturers. In the coming years, the most successful companies will be those that address this increasingly critical aspect of product development, as a differentiator against slower-moving competitors that may not yet fully understand the shifting dynamics of product design.
Ed Miller is president of CIMdata Inc . (1-734-668-9922), an independent worldwide firm providing strategic consulting to maximize an enterprise’s ability to design and deliver innovative products and services through the application of PLM strategies. CIMdata works with both industrial organizations and suppliers of PLM-related technologies and services. The company also conducts research, provides subscription services, produces several commercial publications, and offers industry education throughout North America, Europe, and the Asia Pacific region.

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