Mechatronics: Rethinking the machine means rethinking engineering

Plant engineers are always on the front lines in a two-front war between technology change and legacy equipment. With every equipment purchase they consider, they know they’re buying their next legacy system. So when suppliers start talking about how mechatronics could transform factory automation, plant engineers have every reason to be skeptical.

By Dave Ballard, SEW-EURODRIVE November 15, 2007

Plant engineers are always on the front lines in a two-front war between technology change and legacy equipment. With every equipment purchase they consider, they know they’re buying their next legacy system. So when suppliers start talking about how mechatronics could transform factory automation, plant engineers have every reason to be skeptical.

What is mechatronics, and why should plant engineers care? The most common definition of mechatronics is the synergy between electronic and mechanical technologies. From an engineering perspective, it’s a merging of what until now have been distinct disciplines whose products have lived in very different worlds.

Go into any factory and you’ll find the electronics in a control cabinet, protected from the heat, dirt and vibrations of the manufacturing process, while the mechanical components toil out on the factory floor. Although connected by electrical cables, they remain worlds apart.

Breaking down barriers

The biggest challenge in automating any manufacturing process has always been getting all the components — and all the people — to work together. The promise of mechatronics is that it will help break down the barriers between these worlds to improve the usefulness of machines. The goal is to create machines that work more efficiently, use less energy, perform more reliably and are simpler for plant engineers to maintain.

By being knowledgeable about many different disciplines — from computers and control systems to electrical and mechanical principles — an engineer trained in mechatronic principles is better able to take a system-wide view of a machine and understand how all of its components must function within that system to deliver the desired performance.

While the idea of mechatronics may not be new, technology developments such as smaller, more powerful microchips, new approaches to communication networks and new materials are enabling us to translate our ideas into new products that deliver increased functionality and use fewer resources.

Mechatronics doesn’t mean simply bolting together a drive, a motor, sensors, software and controls from a number of different suppliers. The result is often a mismatched set of components that function inefficiently despite a great deal of engineering effort spent trying to get them to work together. Mechatronics means designing every component for the way it needs to function within a system.

To understand how mechatronics could revolutionize machines, look at the state of automation today. For much of the past three decades, the action has been centered in the control panel and the world of electrical engineering. From PLCs to HMIs to sensors, electrical engineers have focused on building more intelligence and greater functionality into their control systems.

The technologies used in mechanical devices, on the other hand, have remained comparatively static. But that is about to change, thanks to mechatronics. As control systems have become more complex in order to handle more complex automated systems, the cost to engineer these top-heavy systems has become prohibitive for both OEMs and their customers.

What better way to simplify a system than to take the intelligence out of the control cabinet and build it into the mechanical devices that actually perform the work? By transforming what have traditionally been thought of as ‘dumb’ mechanical devices, such as motors and gear reducers, into mechatronic systems with integrated computer chips, communication systems and software, engineers are able to create intelligent devices that self-monitor and run activities without human assistance.

It’s already happening in automobiles, for example, where small microcontrollers monitor and control many different functions without the driver having to take any action. Anti-lock braking mechanisms are an example of mechatronic designs that are giving new life to mechanical devices.

These new machines may look the same as before, because the intelligence is concealed from the user, but they’re actually intelligently functioning decentralized devices. The user gains the benefits of this intelligence in improved performance or increased functionality, but doesn’t have to be an engineer or programmer to use it.

For example, innovative companies are developing new products that integrate power transmission, motion control and communication into a single unit. Because electronic components are being taken out of their comfort zone, they could be exposed to vibrations, higher temperatures and humidity, every component is being redesigned — from microchips to heat sinks to housings — to ensure reliable, long-term performance. By creating a pre-integrated system which functions within the enclosed environment of a housing, the new designs will require less maintenance and thrive even in washdown environments.

Mechatronics benefits

Pre-integrated systems increase the benefits of mechatronic engineering. As new machinery comes into plants over the next few years, plant engineers will see:

  • More compact footprints and smaller control panels

  • Components that perform multiple functions. For example, motor feedback devices are being eliminated because software can now calculate what previously needed to be sensed

  • Fewer components — and fewer potential points of failure

  • Enclosed systems that require less maintenance and release fewer contaminants such as oil into the surrounding environment

  • Less wiring, making installation faster and less labor intensive

  • Faster commissioning and startup

  • Easier integration with legacy systems

  • Simpler interface with operators

  • Machines that work more efficiently, reducing energy usage

  • Easier access to information for planning and resource allocation for manufacturing

  • Self-monitoring for diagnostics and reporting, enabling plant engineers to shift more of their attention to predictive maintenance and enabling faster response to emergencies.

    • Equally important, these new mechatronic systems will provide a flexible technology platform that can be updated easily with software to increase functionality without dramatically changing the user interface. Because automation suppliers will be able to improve the performance or functionality of their products more easily, equipment owners will have faster access to the new capabilities they want most, such as improved worker safety, wireless monitoring of operations, lower energy consumption or easier connectivity to plant information networks.

      Mechatronics represents an evolution in our understanding of how machine systems should work and an opportunity to help plant engineers overcome many of the barriers they have long faced in achieving more productive and reliable manufacturing operations.

      Author Information
      Dave Ballard has been corporate manager of Engineering for SEW-EURODRIVE in the U.S. since 1991. He joined SEW in 1984 as an applications engineer. Ballard is an officer and member of the board of directors of the American Gear Manufacturers Association.